Dr. James Persinger believes in preventative counseling, service, technology, and Harley Davidsons. Most of all, however, he believes in perseverance and the awesome power of a mentor.
All those character traits helped Persinger to be named the 2015 Roe R. Cross Distinguished Professor, the highest honor Emporia State University can bestow on one of its faculty.
Persinger grew up attending a Catholic school until reaching ninth grade. His father operated his own exterminating business and his mother was a stay-at-home parent, and by the time Persinger reached high school, the burden of tuition proved to be too much and he transferred to a public school.
He recalled being challenged academically at the Catholic school, but once in the public system found that expectations for him were low. Persinger finally learned that he was in what he called an “old-fashioned tracking system, typically based on your socioeconomic status (SES).”
A report by the National Education Association, published online (http://www.nea.org/tools/16899.htm) states that the tracking system practice may seem harmless at the elementary level.
“But in secondary schools, the stratification becomes more obvious as students assume their places in the tracking system. In many instances, these students are given labels that stay with them as they move from grade to grade. For those on the lower tracks, a steady diet of lower expectations leads to a low level of motivation toward school. Consequently, in high school, the groups formerly known as Bluebirds and Redbirds have evolved into tracks: College Preparatory and Vocational.”
That system nearly crushed Persinger.
You see, as a junior in high school, Persinger had visited with a school counselor, who sized him up — evaluated his background with the fact that nobody in his family had ever attended college, and the only people he had ever known that did graduate from college were his teachers — and saw a young man doomed to end his education after his senior year. Or, the counselor said, maybe even sooner.
“When I asked about college and specifically how I could sign up for college-prep English,” recalled Persinger, “she shut me down. I still remember quite well what she said.
“‘Your father is an exterminator, you aren’t going to college.’”
And she wasn’t done. She continued to make remarks about Persinger’s siblings being poor students and that he would “be lucky to complete high school.”
The counselor filled out Persinger’s class schedule, enrolling him in weightlifting rather the college prep class he had requested. A few days later, when students swarmed into the gym to officially enroll in classes, however, Persinger followed his heart and enrolled in college-prep English rather than weightlifting.
Though many would call it being resourceful, Persinger called it being “resentful” and repercussions were to follow.
“My counselor called me into the office a few weeks later, and was livid,” he said. “She berated me, saying, ‘I have a young woman who is going to college, and you think you’re going to take her place in class? What is wrong with you?’”
So Persinger seemed doomed to lifting weights rather than writing essays. And it left him sorrowful. Enough so that a teacher saw him one morning and asked him what was bothering him.
After explaining his situation, the teacher told him he was one of the brightest students she had the privilege of working with and took him to the front office to meet a different counselor.
This counselor handed Persinger an Emporia State University catalog.
He went on to be the first in his family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s in Psychology/Sociology and a master’s in Experimental Psychology from Emporia State. Persinger then moved on to earn a master’s/Ed.S. in School Psychology from the University of Kansas.
After completing each of those degrees, Persinger sent the counselor who doubted he was college material, an invitation to his graduation. At that point he had surpassed her level of education, but wasn’t done. Persinger went on to earn a Ph.D. in School Psychology/Counseling from KU.
He decided against resentfully sending the counselor another invitation.
“I instead wrote a letter to the teacher who had guided me, thanking her for changing my life,” he said.
When Persinger arrived at Emporia State, he had no idea what he wanted to study in college, so he basically found himself wanting to study everything.
“It was like an all-you-can-eat buffet for your brain, and I was hooked, as I’d never been challenged before.” he said.
He loved physics, chemistry, art appreciation class — he visited an art museum for the first time in his life — composition class … everything!
“I was good at it all, but switched majors from business (which he had selected with the intent of taking over his family business as his father intended) to education, then I was stumped.”
So Persinger took a battery of interest and career inventory tests at Emporia State. And they all pointed to the field of psychology.
“I dove into the major and was hooked.”
And of course, Persinger offered, his battles with the tracking system and low expectations he faced in high school, became the “key experience that shaped who I am as a professor and mentor.”
“We all have so much potential in us, but we all need others to help show us the way,” Persinger added. “All of us at one time or another really need guidance to find our path. I’ve always wondered how my life would have turned out if that teacher hadn’t spent just 10 minutes showing she cared and gave me advice. We all need somebody to mentor us, and as mentors, we should expect great things from those we work with. They will usually rise to the occasion. And when they don’t, we have to appreciate that they are doing the best they can.”
Persinger also became passionate about prevention services for youth.
“When I initially trained as a school psychologist,” he noted, “we had to wait for a child to be a ‘full blown casualty’ before we could act in schools, such as placing them into special services.
“Teachers would come to me with a concern about a second-grade child who was a non-reader, and after taking some data, I would often have to tell them that the child needed to fail another year before we could offer help. Fortunately, we started using resources in a better way and now, for academics, we not only can, but must, offer help to keep children on track with their peers.”
Persinger is pleased that tremendous gains have been made in prevention science and believes this is the future of mental health services.
“We only used to go to the dentist when our teeth were unhealthy,” he said. “We still think of psychologists that way, when instead we should utilize them to maintain and improve our well-being. “
As for his students at Emporia State, Persinger emphasizes service as a key aspect of their professionalism.
“So from the time they join my program, they attend student orientation functions together, serve as volunteers for our state school psychology organization (KASP), and attend Kansas State Department of Education legal trainings together. This helps nurture in them the community spirit needed to be an effective practitioner. I also believe it accounts for the reason that a majority of those who serve on the KASP board, putting in dozens of hours a year in volunteer work to advocate for our profession and structure professional development for practitioners in the state, are Emporia State trained school psychologists.”
When these students leave his program at Emporia State, Persinger hopes their main take-away is, “First, to be compassionate toward others, including themselves. Those who learn that lesson will be effective in anything they do.
“Next, to appreciate that how they feel about a problem situation is irrelevant to solving it. They should take the correct data and then make a decision, test the hypotheses and revise treatment as needed.”
His students respond to his methods and typically sing high praises, with comments on Rate My Professor like:
- “Really cares about his students.”
- “Great trainer of psychologists, take his course if you can.”
- “As good as they get.”
- “Very good professor.”
In a university survey for the spring, summer, and fall 2014 semesters, Persinger received an average rating of 4.55 on a 5-point scale, the highest in the department.
Persinger also is on the cutting-edge of technology in teaching and in “flipping” classrooms.
A flipped classroom uses blended learning techniques that reverse the traditional educational classroom experience, by delivering instructional content that is typically online, to students outside of the classroom. Students watch online lectures and presentations, collaborate with classmates in online discussions, and carry out research at home. Class time is then devoted to exercises, projects, and discussions.
This method emphasizes individual inquiry and collaborative efforts with professors functioning as coaches or advisors during class sessions.
Ashley Enz, a former student of Persinger’s and now a special education consultant and school psychologist for the Blue Valley school district, wrote in her Roe R. Cross nomination letter that Persinger has created multiple new online and hybrid courses.
“This has allowed many students access to program requirements that might not have previously been possible, she said.”
Persinger uses Skype to visit school psychology interns across the country, including locations such as western Kansas, Colorado, Minnesota, and India.
Oh, and then there is the Harley Davidson.
“Outside of my professional activities, I live for motorcycles,” said Persinger. “I haven’t owned a car in several years, but I own a magnificent Harley Davidson. I currently log about 12,000 miles a year, usually long-distance tours across the country.”
Persinger’s idea of a favorite vacation, he has noted in his personal web page, “is a three-day ride through the Ozarks at breakneck speeds, scraping floorboards along the way, or a week hitting every scenic drive in New Mexico or Colorado.”
Note: This is not a continuously updated biographical sketch