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Podcast | 23 Minutes

Meet the Headmaster of the World's Largest Classical School (part 2)

Marlin Detweiler Written by Marlin Detweiler
Meet the Headmaster of the World's Largest Classical School (part 2)

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What makes an online classical Christian school a more unique - and possibly even more desirable - experience than the brick-and-mortar alternative? How do you connect your child to learning in a way that excites them to continue doing it?

Today we welcome back Veritas Scholars Academy Headmaster, Dr. Bob Cannon, to answer these questions and more. You also will get an inside peek at the workings of the world’s largest online Christian school - from keeping and improving the faculty to a taste of international culture.

Episode Transcription

Note: This transcription may vary from the words used in the original episode.

Marlin Detweiler:

Hello again. This is Marlin Detweiler with our new episode of Veritas Vox, the voice of Classical Christian Education. We're recording a session today. We have as a guest Dr. Bob Cannon. You may recall we did an earlier session with Bob.

Bob is on staff at Veritas, and the first session really dealt with how his background led him to Veritas and his path of coming here. This session will focus a whole lot more on what Bob does at Veritas. Many of you listening will know much of that, but I suspect there'll be something new in this for everybody. Bob, welcome.

Bob Cannon:

Thank you, Marlin. Great to be here. Yeah.

Marlin Detweiler:

So tell us about your position at Veritas.

Bob Cannon:

Well, there's there's a lot to tell. I'm sure the top line, the simplest way to put it is I'm vice president of educational services and I function as the headmaster of our online school, Veritas Scholars Academy. My position began about eight years ago, in fact, May 1, which is just around the corner, will be my year anniversary here.

I remember the first time I sat at my desk in the office and it doesn't seem like it was eight years ago, I'll tell you that.

Marlin Detweiler:

For people that are watching this after it's been recorded, May 2014.

Bob Cannon:

That's right. May 1 of 2014. That's exactly right. And it's been a wonderful eight years of watching our school grow, watching the terrific work that we do. I think it's the obligation of any headmaster to say that we're doing terrific work. But I genuinely believe that. And the people that we work with are pretty fantastic as well. It's been a real pleasure.

Marlin Detweiler:

That's wonderful. When you say the people that you work with, I assume that some of that is staff and some of that is the Veritas family, is the people that bring their students to participate in the school.

Bob Cannon:

That's right. Yeah. It's a very strong school community internally. I'll say that our administration staff and faculty are a very capable group of individuals who, in my observation, have worked extremely well together. I've been in a number of different environments, both educational and nonprofit, even leaning into business in some way. And this is a vibrant and healthy community of people who are steering in the right direction.

Of course, with our mission at the center, I've also, as you mentioned, worked with many, many families over these eight years. And it's been an absolute delight. The families of Veritas are committed to Christian education. They are committed to classical education as well. In fact, I've learned from families about classical education because you'll remember from our last conversation that I wasn't a full-tilt classical educator when I first joined Veritas.

So I've learned from many colleagues here, including yourself, but I've also learned from families who at some point in their educational journeys, stumbled upon classical education. Of course, first asked the question, what is this? And then when they learned what it was and saw the results, the impact that classical education has on their students, they were sold. And I found that they also were an encouragement to me as I was continuing in my journey of learning what classical means.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah, excellent. Well, having been in the position for eight years and seeing that the world has moved very quickly over that time period, in many respects, what has changed for you? What has changed for the school as things have developed during that time period?

Bob Cannon:

Yeah, there Marlin. There are a lot of things that have in fact changed, so I'll address that first. But then I want to come back to what I consider to be the most crucial point and the topic of change, we have always wanted to have some of the very best educators in our classrooms and a part of having the best educators is not to simply hire the right people and then sit back and relax.

I think of Jim Collins and his writing in Built to Last and he wrote another book called Good to Great. And I always even to this day, perceive that the work that we're doing, I always start with the assumption that it's pretty good and then ask the question, how can we be great? And when I think about our faculty, we have about 150 teachers from all over the world.

Most are domestic, but a good number of them, an increasing number of them are also international. I'm always wondering how can they be even better at what they do? It was a number of years ago, maybe now five or even six years ago that we enhanced our observation and evaluation process with our faculty. And I don't think that there are many.

In fact, I don't know of any other school systems who could tell you with a straight face that they observe their faculty in a formal way six, seven, even eight times annually to give feedback and to say, this is what you're doing really well and this is what we'd like to see you do better and our approach to that kind of evaluation and observation process is to say to faculty, We're not looking for the mistakes that you're making.

We're looking for where you can improve your already good. But now how can you be great? That's one of the principal things that comes to mind when you say what has changed over the years. And I think that that's an area in which we want to continue to advance change in the way that we go about what we're doing.

But I said I wanted to come back to a central point. What's really important, I think, in a classical Christian environment and what's important to me is that we not lose sight of as many educators, as many educational systems have done over the years to not lose sight of the fundamentals. Building a strong foundation, and for even looking historically at what has made education what it ought to be and seeing how can we replicate what others in the past have done really well so that we can do those things really well today?

Public education, even some private education has gotten away from some of those fundamentals. And I think that as educators, we have this tendency to grasp at new ideas and just assuming that the new ideas are going to be better than the old ones, and that's just not always the case. I know that you two appreciate this. Yeah.

Marlin Detweiler:

It's an interesting thing when you're looking for improvement. Sometimes you forget if you're not careful what is working exceptionally that ought to be held on to and preserved, if you will. That's that's really, really good point. So this is unpacking that a little bit further. You have overseen considerable growth. I don't know how many students or families we served when you started, but today with 150 teachers and a robust administrative staff, we have more than 10,000 students taking classes with us.

And we have always wanted to be not just an influential organization, influential influencing students to influence their world, but also one with high touch and very personal relationships being built and personal connections. Are you able off the top of your head to talk about how we have been able to maintain that and the things that we do to continue to feel and to be an organization that remains personable even at a more on a larger scale.

Bob Cannon:

Yeah, that's a really great point and I'm glad that you're asking the question because you know that I'm a relator at heart. I value deeply personal relationships and that translates into education very well. If you were to ask any of our teachers whether or not the personal relationships that they build with our students and families is crucial in how effectively our students learn.

Every one of them would say, absolutely, it is crucial. So how do we maintain that personal touch? We have grown. I remember when I started eight years ago, Marlin, that we had I think it was about 65 teachers on our faculty. And now going into this next school year, it'll be more like 165. So we have grown quite a bit.

That is some indicator of how many students and families were serving. So the question of how we maintain that personal touch, the first thing that comes to mind is that our class sizes have not changed. We still have a maximum number of students, 20, to be precise. And so when our teachers are working with students in educating them in the various subjects that we work with, that number hasn't changed.

And so our teachers have not had to, for example, answer the question of how do you remain as personal with 40 students as you do with 20? We've not allowed that to happen. We've simply brought more teachers into our fold and even administratively, we've grown in some ways, we've leveraged some technology as well. So that families know that we're thinking about them and that we care about them, that we're not just interacting with their students in the classroom, but even beyond the classroom.

It's important for us to maintain those kinds of relationships. When thinking about our full-time students, we also have quadruple, if not more than quadruple, the number of academic advisors who are working with our full-time families. It's one example of a way in a.

Marlin Detweiler:

Group all over. When you started.

Bob Cannon:

Yes, exactly.

Marlin Detweiler:

When you started, yeah.

Bob Cannon:

That's exactly right. Yeah. Yeah. Today we have a dozen academic advisors, whereas I think when I started we only had three. Okay, we've had more three. So again, the math works. Yeah, that's right. And so that's an example of how we've made an adjustment to remain as personable today as we would have been then. And there is more to be said on that.

But I'll leave you with this. I started by saying that I'm a relator by nature and to become big when an organization gets big or much bigger, that should be a principal concern. Unless you're willing to depart from being as personable. I don't believe we are. I'm personally not. I want for our families to feel the same kind of touch today that they would have eight years ago.

Marlin Detweiler:

And I, I hope we'll get some feedback from our listeners, but I think we do that. I certainly would love to get a confirmation of that, but I'm convinced that we are. You're right in saying that. Good. Well, where do you see your role in five years? Obviously, there have been additional considerations from an administrative standpoint.

In the past two years, we've worked on and I have now implemented a department head structure which provides a nice layer for communication and for unity and voice that was needed as we added classes and teachers and sections and that sort of thing. Where do you see things going over a five year time period from here?

Bob Cannon:

Yeah, just off the top. In addition to department heads in the past four years, we've hired a dean of academics and a dean of students. Those are administrative layers, if you will, administrative people who help to maintain the quality of education, as well as the quality of what's happening in the way of student engagement and interaction, some of the parent engagement and interaction that we seek.

So those two roles have been pretty central in maintaining the attention on those things that are important to us as we've grown. Department heads, as you mentioned, are also helping us to do that. Our department heads, if I had to put it in a word, it's about communication. Anybody who's listening to this, who has worked for any organization can say that communication is always something that needs to be improved.

It's just thematic. It's this universal phenomenon that if we could solve all of our communication problems, we'd be at the pinnacle of our performance. It seems. And looking forward in the next five years, I'll suggest that what we're likely looking at is to have a secondary principal and a grammar school principal who are able to continue to oversee the administrative responsibilities as we continue to grow.

As far as my role is concerned, candidly, there's no end in sight and I love the work of what we're doing with our students. This work of classical Christian education is so crucial not just for our students and their families, but I see it as having an impact on our culture. That's our mission.

We're wanting to impact culture. I love to envision our students stepping onto college and university campuses. Not every single one of them will go to college and university, and we think that's okay because we're preparing our students for life and that's that's bigger than higher education. But I do love to envision our students stepping onto collegiate campuses and having conversations with others who weren't raised up with a classical Christian education or understanding and having this remarkable credibility where others are going to want to listen to what they have to say because they've had such a wonderful and broad exposure to all that we give our students.

And because of that exposure, they're able to stand tall, humbly, but with a certain boldness that the Lord would have them have when they have these conversations with others who don't see things the way that we do, and that kind of impact really kind of lights me up. I love to think of our students being that well equipped to do the work.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah, that's really good that that answers the question of where you see the school going. Where do you see yourself going in that same time period? I know you love the work and it's my sense as I think of things from an employer's standpoint that what you want to do is find people and elevate them to their ideal spot and then help them develop within that spot to continue to be gratified from the work, but not elevate them beyond that spot and at a very senior position with extraordinary responsibility.

My sense is that you are in the perfect place for how God has gifted you. But how do you see things developing for you over a five year or so time period?

Bob Cannon:

Yeah, it's a really good question. And I hope that my answer satisfies.

I find my greatest satisfaction in work in knowing that I've contributed to the people around me and helping them to do what they do as best as they can possibly do it. So whether it's working with our teachers or administrative personnel or thinking laterally to other vice presidents in the organization, even thinking vertically to working with you and Laurie, my desire is to contribute well.

And that, dare I say, I hope. I hope. And I think the Lord is pleased with my not saying, well, where could I go? It's funny, Marlin, I was talking with a friend just the other. It was a couple of nights ago and he expressed to me, Bob, I really don't have this desire, as many people do, to climb the corporate ladder.

He's in a corporate space. And he's certainly capable he's able to climb the ladder. But it's not what he wants to do. And it's not because he lacks ambition. It's because he's pleased with where he is. He sees himself making a contribution and he wants to be a well-rounded individual who's able to give the attention to his family and to others around him.

And I feel a little bit of that myself. I don't have any ladders in sight. I don't need to climb a ladder. But I do want very much at the end of every day and let's say at the end of this year and even five years from now, to look over my shoulder and to recognize and it's okay if some of it's hidden, in fact.

But I want to be able to see over my shoulder that I've had an impact on the people around me now. And ultimately and I know how much you appreciate this. There is a day coming when each of us is going to want to hear, well done, good and faithful servant.

Marlin Detweiler:

You said, I know that because I'm older than you and closer.

Bob Cannon:

I say that because I've heard you say that.

I know that that's a not-so-secret ambition of yours. And I think that every Christian should feel that way. Yeah.

Marlin Detweiler:

One thing that has become and a non-job description item for you really in the last year, year and a half is for me to grab you by the shoulder and ask you to join me in occasional meetings with people where I know the circumstances are going to be complex and maybe even difficult. And the reason I've done that is because I have come to value so much your pastoral and relational abilities to make sure that the messages are being communicated, that I need to communicate, but also that the relational elements are maintained as well, that there is a love in the process of providing correction if necessary, or disclosure of a difficult item or whatever it might be. But you've been an invaluable partner with me in doing that. Maybe you can speak to how those gifts have benefited you as the headmaster also.

Bob Cannon:

Yeah, I can't say thank you enough for the observations and I'm humbled by them. To be very candid, it has less to do with me and more to do with my asking the Lord to step into my heart and mind and to do His work through me because I recognize Louie Giglio, if you're familiar with him, provides people with a wonderful view of how big the universe is and then even looks microscopically at how small the components that make up this universe are.

And in one of his presentations, he says, I'm not sharing this with you to make you feel small. I'm sharing this with you to tell you that you are small. So, and, and I recognize that I'm small. We're all very small. Just last night, I was driving home with one of my sons and we were talking about the size of one of the suns.

It's often called Beta Beetlejuice. I don't know that that's actually the way the astronomers would pronounce it, but we call it Beetlejuice and it's this massive sun in the universe. And we got to talking about just how small we are. And it's good to know just how small we are. And at the same time, there's this other side of the coin, which is that we're very significant because we're made in the image and likeness of our creator God.

And that's just remarkable. We can stew on that for the rest of the day. And not get anywhere with it, you know, when interacting with other people, I think it's important for us too. I mentioned Jim Collins a few moments ago. He and his research, even secular research, as he was looking at leaders of of some well-known organizations, he discovered that there were certain characteristics that defined those who were the kind of guys who went from good to great and one of the characteristics that he put a finger on, which came as a surprise to him and his research team, was humility.

The best leaders have a sense of humility about them. That's not a self-deprecating kind of effect. It's recognizing who we are in truth, it's recognizing our position in this world and not puffing ourselves up to be more than who we are in this world. When finding ourselves in difficult situations with people where there's bound to be contention, there's bound to be high emotion and stress and all sorts of other feelings.

It's really critical for us to maintain a sense of humility. I also love certain principles that are found in the scriptures. There's one of my favorite proverbs says that a gentle answer turns away wrath. I have found in many scenarios that when someone is angry if the response that's given is a humble, soft or gentle answer, it's pretty remarkable the impact that that has on someone's emotions.

When we feel like we're threatening one another, we have a tendency it's just a natural reaction that we exercise is to put on our armor and to go to battle. Yeah. Now I'll never tell somebody to not put on the armor of God. We should certainly do that. The helmet and the breastplate and so forth. Of course. But even in that armor, all of it is defensive, except for the sword of the Spirit.

That's the only offensive weapon mentioned. So when getting into those kinds of scenarios, if you approach those scenarios with an expectation that you're going to come out swinging, it's probably not going to go well for one or the other party. But if you step into those scenarios with a sense of humility and the love of Christ, which all of us have because of him, then those conversations tend to go a whole lot better.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah, that's great. Changing the subject a bit, I and you occasionally hear that an online school like the school that you run their trust scholars academy is really a great option for those that don't have a school around them, a bricks and mortar school that they can attend. Well, how does that strike you? What thoughts does that give you in response?

Bob Cannon:

Well, that's a true statement, but it's also a great option for those who do have a bricks and mortar school around them. One of the most wonderful characteristics of this school. And my observation is that not only do we not have just a 30 mile radius around us to draw teachers from, we have the whole world at our disposal.

I mentioned earlier that we have international teachers. Our faculty are in Hanoi, Vietnam, they're in Wales, they're in Madrid, Spain or Madrid for you Spanish speakers, they're in Germany. They're in different parts of Canada. We've had teachers over in the Middle East, and of course, we have teachers from just about every state in the union here domestically.

So our teaching faculty come from all over the place. Our students also come from everywhere around the world. They're there from every continent, last I looked. and this is your material. I've heard you say this. I'm not taking credit for it today. But you have, I remember the day years ago when you said, imagine getting into a classroom where you have a student who's from the UK and another student from America.

And there's a conversation in an omnibus classroom about Benedict Arnold and to one student he's a hero. And to another student, he's a traitor. Imagine that. The dynamic of that conversation and what a fantastic place to be having those conversations led by an expert teacher. I don't know if the teachers from the UK or the United States, I hope that has no impact.

But led by someone who can facilitate that conversation and those kinds of conversations happen all the time. And no school has an exchange program where routinely you've got students from three or four or five different countries in the same space offering up their vantage point from a global perspective on what X, Y or Z might mean. So do we love our physical, classical, Christian school and other Christian school comrades?

Of course, we do. But I could make a pretty strong argument that what we've got here is unique because of the global exposure or the global access that we and our students have.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah. As I look at education, you know, we have prided ourselves in creating what we hope and expect is the best in class for classical Christian education from a curriculum standpoint. But there is no getting around the fact that the teacher is the most important part of education. And all I have to do to remember that is to think about the teachers that I remember from my educational experience.

And those that I remember are the ones that I think of as the great, great ones. And most impact on me. I don't remember the curriculum very well and I don't remember a lot of other things, but I remember the great teachers and you know.

Bob Cannon:

I've had that same experience. I also remember those who had the greatest impact on my life.

Marlin Detweiler:

And the ability to choose from a world a set is something that no bricks and mortar school can do. So the most important part of education is the part for which we have no limitations imposed by a bricks and mortar environment.

Bob Cannon:

That's right. That's right. And it goes without saying that we've been really blessed here with a faculty where sometimes say, I just I have to smile and shake my head and say, Lord, you've done it again. You've led another wonderful educator into our realm here. And I can't say enough about them.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah, we're really out of time. But I have one more question and maybe we'll just turn this into a single item. Can you offer one good, chunky piece of advice for parents that you've observed as you've interacted with tens of thousands of kids?

Bob Cannon:

Yeah, interesting that you should use the word observe. I'm going to use that in what I, I offer to our parents who may be listening here. Observe your children. Observe them really well. Pay attention to what lights a fire for them the most the most important aspect of a child's education, in my view, what we should all be pursuing as educators and even from an organizational level, is that we want for our children, our students, to love learning.

And if they don't love learning, that's not to say that it won't be hard. There's a reward to be found in working hard. There's no doubt about that. But we also want for students to you know, we often talk about one another as adults that we should wake up in the morning and look forward to getting to the work that we have to do.

We want our children to feel that same way that when they get up in the morning or even when a Friday rolls around and they know they're not going to be in class again until Monday, that imagine a world in which our students say, I just cannot wait for the weekends to be over because I want to get back to class. And I know that some of our students do.

Marlin Detweiler:

Could be fun to hear that from time to time. Absolutely.

Bob Cannon:

It sure is. It sure is. When they feel that way, that lights us up. We want students to feel that way. So back to the point, parents, pay attention to your children. Regard what they love to do. Give them time to do those things that they love. But even as I think about our own children, Carrie and I, we have watched our children from the time they're very small and we've been able to kind of not exactly pinpoint, but we've been able to target this is what we think that child is interested in and that child is interested in and so forth.

And as much as you're able to do that, then when your child is being educated in math and in science and in Latin and history and all these subjects, you have that in the back of your mind and you can actually talk with your children about how learning all of these things is going to contribute ultimately to their being successful in that area that they love and that's great.

Marlin Detweiler:

We thank you for joining us again in this second session with you and our listeners thank you for being a part of this at our in our podcast here. We will plan to see you all next time.