Respect for Teaching: One Person’s Tale

Amid current disrespect for teaching I recall an incident that occurred to me 40 years ago when I worked in the Washington, D.C. schools. Sure, four decades ago is ancient history so readers will have to judge whether the attitudes displayed in the incident are contemporary or merely a curiosity. I wrote the following piece for a Washington paper in 1971.

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“I have taught off and on for nearly fifteen years. When not teaching, I have been an administrator…. I directed an experimental teaching project called the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching 1963-1967. [Afterwards] I taught half-time while writing a book. The following year, in the hope of working with others who shared my interest in [reform], I returned to administration as the Director of Staff Development in the D.C. schools. That lasted two years since the budget and program [were] gutted … by the D.C. Council….  At that point [1970] I decided to return to the classroom rather than occupy a desk [downtown].

It was an uncommon decision I discovered. To understand why, you have to appreciate the nagging guilt that haunts administrators about leaving the classroom. Talk to most central office administrators … and you will inevitably hear how important it is ‘to stay in touch with kids. That’s where the action is. How I miss it.’  When I would ask why not return to the classroom, I would hear: ‘I would like to, but, you know, the money, and well, I like to make decisions, and well, I needed a change.’

Shortly after I was appointed director of staff development, I suggested at an [administrative] meeting that [their] perceptions … and sense of urgency might be considerably sharpened if [they] would teach one or two weeks and then return to [their] desks. The idea was beaten down. I began to see that administration was as much an escape from the … classroom as it was a search for status, authority, and dollars….

[Yet]  administrators deeply believe that the classroom is the backbone of education. Thus, when an administrator decides to teach, one would expect some encouragement from colleagues, perhaps a bit of support, and an easy transition. How naive I was. Disbelief, punishment, and shame dogged each step of my return to teaching….

When my colleagues found out [that I would be returning to the classroom], a wall of silence appeared. Except for some close associates, the response–when people chose to talk to me–was disbelief. They seemed to suggest by smile, smirk, or wink that I must be waiting for a good offer….For the most part, I was ignored.

In hallways when passing someone, eyes turned away…. Within two months, a series of actions, unmalicious in intent, initiated and executed in a most efficient bureaucratic manner occurred that created within me a sense of shame and failure.

The first shock came [over] salary. To teach meant taking a one-third wage cut… The Board of Examiners* informed me that my four years of administrative experience meant nothing in dollars and cents. Of my ten years of teaching, only seven met the standards set by D.C….

Next … I received a notice that said I was “demoted without prejudice.” The phrase is semantically correct. I am now on a lower rung of the school ladder and being there was my choice. [But} demoted sounded like grade school, like being pushed back to a lower group because you are dumb and misbehaving. The phrase is from the language of failure.

Then the Board of Examiners informed me a week before [I returned to the classroom] that I could not receive a regular … contract because I had never taken a college course in teaching at the secondary school level. With almost 15 years of classroom experience in three different cities, with five years experience in preparing teachers to work in [D.C.] schools, with a book and numerous articles on teacher education–I am told that unless I take a course on Teaching in the Secondary School within two years I will not be able to teach in D.C. After a pay cut, a demotion, and then a threat, I felt like I had committed a crime. What had I done wrong?

The unintentional but very destructive way a school system punishes administrators and teachers from moving freely back and forth between classroom and central office reveals [that] the stated value is: teaching is cherished; the real value is that teaching is [tough work] and unimportant; anyone with sense will get the hell out of it and the quicker, the better….”

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Pundits, know-nothings, and politicians on the make may praise and bash teachers in the same paragraph yet often overlooked is the disrespect for teaching that too often hides in organizational rules.

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*The Board of Examiners no longer exists. Those functions have been assumed by the Office of Educator Licensure in the Office of the State Superintendent, District of Columbia

4 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching

4 responses to “Respect for Teaching: One Person’s Tale

  1. Bob Calder

    It’s seriously time to talk to someone that does decision analysis about working on changing our culture of passive aggressive, non-confrontational, cooperative mistake-making. Maybe Cass Sunstein could move over to the Dept of Ed and examine the possibility that behavioral changes might contribute an effect previously unnoticed.

  2. Louise kowitch

    Being on sabbatical this year has given me new found respect for how hard it is to teach five classes a day, do 1-2 duties, attend PPT’s, faculty meetings, plan, grade and answer emails in one 24 hour cycle.Thank you Larry, for reiterating the presumably obvious. If only the public better understood how we set ourselves up for failure by expecting the impossible – from both kids and educators.

  3. Bob Calder

    After reading Louise’s post, I was reminded of a person I know recounting an official criticism. He and his staff were evaluated as part of their job and found wanting since they had not done certain things thought important enough to measure and evaluate. He took responsibility for it and responded appropriately to the criticism saying that it would not happen again. But upon leaving the meeting, he told his staff he was extremely proud of them as they had done everything humanly possible. He was also proud they had chosen what NOT to do carefully so that it would not impair critical operations.

    You might expect this group’s performance took a hit. But just a few weeks later, after fulfilling its terms, the group got higher marks than anyone they knew for performance. It’s a strange story of careful navigation. (It isn’t a school and it just happened.)

    But, this is part of our (ed’s) culture of cooperation and decision-making as well. To say that it is sick may not be utterly true. But it is probably true that in part, the conservative reform movement is motivated by seeing it on display. To say it’s human nature is unfortunate since it doesn’t exist everywhere. Places it doesn’t happen can cope with rapid changes in the environment profitably. (Tom Friedman reference. Nyaaa, pop culture! Paul Ormerod isn’t pop culture and he says it too.)

  4. Thank you for sharing this story, which of course is relevant today. The culture of “us and them” and trying to scare people into performing would be undermined if there was the open door you describe between teaching and central administration.

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