Personal Odyssey: Becoming a Teacher and Reformer in the 1950s and 1960s*

I was the third son of Russian immigrants. I saw that my brothers who had to work during the Great Depression to provide family income and then serve the country in World War II lacked the chances that I had simply because I was born in the 1930s and they were born in the 1920s. Because sheer chance made me the youngest, I did not serve in World War II; because I had polio as a child, I could not serve in the Korean War. So I finished college in Pittsburgh and became a teacher in the mid-1950s, landing a job on Cleveland’s Eastside where as a young white teacher I taught history to mostly black students.

I was a politically and intellectually naïve 21 year-old teacher pushing my unvarnished passion for teaching history onto urban students bored with traditional lectures. At Glenville High School, I invented new lessons and materials in what was then called Negro history. My success in engaging many (but not all) students in studying the past emboldened me to think that sharp, energetic teachers (yes, like me) creating and using can’t-miss history lessons could solve the problem of disengaged black youth.

It was also at Glenville that I encountered someone who engaged me intellectually. Oliver Deex, Glenville’s principal, a voracious reader and charming conversationalist, introduced me to books and magazines I had never seen: Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others.

Deex often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. In his office after school, we would talk about what I read. I have no idea why he took an interest in the intellectual development of a gangly, fresh-faced, ambitious novice, but his insistent questioning of my beliefs and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching.

After seven years at Glenville and going part-time for a doctorate in American history at Case-Western Reserve–I had already written chapters for a dissertation on black leadership in Cleveland–I had two offers, one to teach at a Connecticut college and another to stay in public schools. I was at a fork in my career and had to choose.

I took a one-year job in 1963 as a master teacher in history in a federally funded project located at Cardozo high school in Washington, D.C. to train returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in all-black schools.  It was a big risk to move my family for only a year to D.C. but I was eager (and ambitious) to join like-minded educators drawn to Washington in the Kennedy years.

Federal policymakers in those Kennedy-Johnson years had framed the problem of low-performing urban students dropping out of school as having too few skilled and knowledgeable teachers who could create engaging lessons. The pilot Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching was a teacher-driven, school-based, neighborhood-oriented solution to the problem of low-performing students.

Master teachers in academic subjects trained returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach while drawing from neighborhood resources. Once trained, the reform theory went, these ex-Peace Corps volunteers would become crackerjack teachers who could hook listless students through  creative lessons drawing from their knowledge of ghetto neighborhoods and personal relationships with students and their families.

As luck would have it, the Project got funded each year and I continued to teach at Cardozo High School, eventually directing the program. Coping with uncertain funding opened my eyes about how politically and bureaucratically complicated it is to engage students, involve parents and residents in improving their schools, and negotiating the district office. The complicated intersection between school, students, community, and organizational bureaucracies became concrete as we spent time with families and in neighborhood centers near Cardozo.

It took four long years for me and other advocates to convince the D.C. superintendent and school board that recruiting and training Peace Corps returnees benefited a district that had to scramble every year to staff all of its classrooms. The superintendent finally agreed to take over the program in 1967 re-naming it the Urban Teacher Corps and expanding it from recruiting and training 50 new teachers a year to over a hundred annually.[i]

After this exhilarating but exhausting experience at Cardozo. I returned to teaching in another D.C. high school. I wrote a book about the Cardozo experiences (To Make a Difference: Teaching in the Inner City, 1970), and created with co-author Phil Roden a series of U.S. History paperbacks for urban students (The Promise of America, 1971). After two years of teaching, the D.C. deputy superintendent invited me to head a new department aimed at revitalizing the entire District’s teaching corps. I was now a certified reformer.


*Part of a forthcoming volume of intellectual biographies of historians of education.

[i] In 1966, the U.S. Congress had authorized the National Teachers Corps, based on the model we created at Cardozo High School. I served on the Advisory Board for the National Teacher Corps.  In 1971, after four years of recruiting and training teachers in this school-based program, a new superintendent abolished the program. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan ended federal funding for the Teacher Corps.

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4 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

4 responses to “Personal Odyssey: Becoming a Teacher and Reformer in the 1950s and 1960s*

  1. Two things stand out here. One is the disruption caused by new superintendents who can do as they please because school boards are largely clueless about education curriculum and practice. On my local level, I see curriculums change without thoughtful discussion. The prior superintendent had no use for alternative ed programs for high school kids because they didn’t meet her need to create a high school in the image of those in well-off towns.

    The second is the disinterest that Republicans have in effective methods of change. Unless it includes criticism of organized labor and a lessening of its power, they aren’t interested.

  2. Actually, I want to add that another thing that stands out is your long commitment to that program. I see my profession (social work) as similar in terms of what is needed to learn new techniques and then implement them. I suspect that programs such as the one you ran in DC would help teachers improve in every subject and in every part of the country.

  3. Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    I was lucky to be a sort of new teacher in Arlington when Dr. Cuban was there.
    He was a remarkable leader. What I remember most is that he had an open door policy that allowed teachers to make an appointment and come to talk with him. That was refreshing, and different. And he truly listened.

    He also paved the way for me to use the kind of technology I use in the classroom. He was more interested in content, and the educational community and the students. I went from Hida Taba to the use of computers in a limited way, similar to the TPAK kind of thinking and understanding.

    I happen to be Black which can be a problem in some school systems, but Dr. Cuban treated everyone as a real person. That was new to many of us who started out in a system that was … well separate. It did not remain that way with Dr. Cuban’s leadership.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  4. Pingback: The Teacher Wars: A Review | educationrealist

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