Former Lawrence Latin teacher receives national award on heels of district’s elimination of the program

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Journal-World

Former Lawrence school district Latin teacher Zachary Puckett is pictured on the University of Kansas campus on Dec. 31, 2022. The Society for Classical Studies recently announced Puckett as a recipient of its 2022 Award for Excellence in Teaching of the Classics at the K-12 Level.

A former Latin teacher in the Lawrence school district has been nationally recognized for his teaching and mentorship just months after the district eliminated its Latin program as part of budget cuts.

The Society for Classical Studies recently announced former Lawrence school district Latin teacher Zachary Puckett as a recipient of its 2022 Award for Excellence in Teaching of the Classics at the K-12 Level. Puckett, who taught in the district until the end of the fall semester, said that receiving the award following the elimination of the district’s Latin program was bittersweet.

“It was definitely ironic and bittersweet to get that award,” Puckett said. “But I thought it was kind of a nice capstone also to the end of my tenure as a Latin teacher … Definitely it showed one final bit of evidence that I had done well at what I did.”

District administrators informed Puckett, who was the district’s only Latin teacher, in April that they would be eliminating the Latin program beginning this school year as part of $6.4 million in budget cuts. Puckett taught six classes across both Lawrence high schools, and students, teachers and individuals in higher education spoke out against the elimination of the program and praised Puckett’s dedication to teaching Latin and to his students. That dedication was also highlighted in Puckett’s recent honor.

The Society for Classical Studies is the principal membership organization in North America for the study of ancient Greek and Roman languages, literatures, history, and material culture, and provides awards for excellence in teaching at the college and K-12 levels, according to its website. Puckett was one of two teachers selected to receive the K-12 award for excellence in teaching of the classics for 2022. The society’s award announcement speaks to the sense of community that Puckett fostered through his teaching and other involvement, and the lasting impact it has had for his students.

“His students’ letters were very persuasive in painting a picture of his classroom environment and commitment to the discipline, and the many ways he creates enthusiasm and re-ignites interest in the ancient world among his students,” the society’s announcement states. “Puckett’s successful teaching reflects a willingness to try a variety of methods to reach his students and keep the learning needs of his students at the forefront.”

photo by: contributed

Latin teacher Zachary Puckett is pictured with Free State and Lawrence High Latin students who helped him run the Kansas Junior Classical League Convention on April 22, 2022, at Free State High School.

The society states a significant percentage of Puckett’s students advance to the next level of Latin study, and student engagement goes beyond the classroom to involvement in outside reading groups, workshops, and colloquia. The society also commended Puckett for his contributions beyond the classroom, including his involvement with a regional Latin Colloquium hosted by the University of Kansas, his service on a scholarship committee to support future Latin teachers, and hosting student teachers in his classroom.

“All these aspects make it clear that Puckett keeps in touch with the wider field and exchanges ideas with other professionals for the benefit of his students,” the announcement states.

Similar to comments former students shared with the Journal-World when the decision to cut the Latin program was made, the announcement also highlighted Puckett’s “compassionate mentoring,” including his commitment to an inclusive and supportive classroom environment “where everyone is welcome to learn Latin.” Three of Puckett’s former students wrote supportive letters, stating that they are now pursuing classics in college due to his teaching, but, more importantly, due to his consistent support and mentoring, according to the announcement.

“(Puckett) helped set me on my current path, and I know he has done the same for countless others,” one student wrote. “I can think of no teacher more deserving of this award.”

Puckett, who is himself an alumnus of Lawrence schools and taught in the district for 11 years, said seeing the comments from his students made him appreciate his students and look back on his time teaching Latin even more fondly. He said he hadn’t fully realized the positive impact of some of his actions, and it was nice to see.

“I just teach Latin and just kind of be myself, and to see that I have such a positive effect in that way, I didn’t realize I was doing that to (that) extent,” he said.

Though the elimination of the Latin program was part of the budget cuts approved by the school board ahead of the current school year, the Latin program was not one of the programs singled out by the board in its budget reduction package. Instead, it was a decision made by district and building administrators as they implemented unspecified staff reductions approved by the board. Many of the students and teachers who opposed the cut said Latin provides a foundation for understanding English grammar and the Romance languages, as well as legal, medical and other terminology that are foundational to various career paths.

Like other teachers whose positions were eliminated as part of the budget cuts, Puckett was offered to transfer to an open position in the district. Puckett said he accepted a transfer to a position teaching English at Lawrence High School, but said “it just wasn’t (him)” and he decided to look for jobs elsewhere. He said in mid-December he began a position at KU as a financial aid adviser, helping students navigate grants, scholarships and loans for college. However, that doesn’t mean Latin is out of his life. Puckett said he continues weekly meetings with friends to read Latin, and though he is no longer employed by the Lawrence school district, he plans to continue to provide assistance and mentoring to high school students who are studying Latin in independent study courses as they prepare to take Advanced Placement Latin exams.

“A couple of those kids are still planning to take the AP Latin exam in May, and so I will still answer questions for them and help them prepare as best I can,” Puckett said. “I just won’t be in the school system anymore for that.”

Puckett said the Society for Classical Studies will host an awards ceremony in New Orleans in early January, which he plans to attend virtually to accept his award.

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