Principals Helping Teachers Grow: A Task That Too Often Goes Unnoticed

Although I have never served as a principal, I have been a student under three elementary and secondary school principals and worked for six high school principals as a teacher. As a district superintendent, I supervised and evaluated nearly 35 elementary and secondary school principals for seven years. From below and above, then, I have seen principals up close and personal.

I have written in this blog about the core roles  that principals must perform (see here, here, and here). In this post, I describe my experiences with one of those six principals I worked—I was going to write “under”–but decided that a better word for my experience with Oliver Deex is “with.” Those years with Deex helped shape me intellectually, grounded me in practical classroom experience, and gave me a perspective on school reform.

First, some personal background.

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 East side.

Meeting with Oliver Deex, Glenville High School’s new principal at a local deli a few days before school opened in 1956, was a new experience for me. I had never met with a principal one-on-one since I was a student in high school and the reasons then had nothing to do with my teaching responsibilities.

Talking with Deex, I was startled to find out that the school was over 95 percent black—the word then was Negro—and that he, too, was a tad nervous moving into his first high school principalship after leading a nearby junior high school. He told me  about segregated schools in Cleveland, the differences between the expanding black ghetto on the East side and the pristine white ghetto on the West side with the Cuyahoga River separating the two. He began my education in Cleveland’s residential segregation and the city’s numerous ethnic and racial ghettos.

Although I had grown up in Pittsburgh’s black ghetto, my memories of being one of a handful of white children in the neighborhood  elementary school were unpleasant and not calculated to instill sensitivity. Moreover, in 1955, I saw the popular film Blackboard Jungle, featuring Glenn Ford as an idealistic high school teacher—yes, I identified with Ford—and Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier as cunning adolescents smoking in bathrooms and becoming lethal toward teachers such as Ford. The film shook me up as did the music: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” played loud and often throughout the film.

Haltingly, I asked him questions about how many classes I would be teaching—five, he said. How large the classes were—between 25-30, he said. Then, he asked questions of me since he knew nothing about his new hire which is why he invited me to the deli. I told him about my background and eagerness to teach history. From that initial conversation with Deex, a working relationship evolved  between  a principal in his late-50s  and 21 year-old novice teacher.

In the first few years, I was a politically and intellectually naïve teacher pushing my unvarnished passion for teaching history onto urban students bored with traditional lectures and seatwork. At Glenville High School, I designed new lessons and materials in what was then called Negro history (see here). 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. My principal supported my efforts in getting me a ditto machine, paper, and speaking to downtown district officials about what I was doing.

A former stock broker who after the crash of 1929 turned to education to support his family, got his degrees, taught, and then entered school-site administration, Oliver Deex was a voracious reader,  charming conversationalist, and skeptical of district office policies aimed at school improvement. I was a college graduate but had never seen Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others magazines. Why he took this interest in me, I have, until this very day, no idea. But he did.

His insistent questioning of my beliefs and ideas and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching. Our monthly or so get-togethers to discuss books and articles left me with a great hunger for ideas and intellectual growth the rest of my life. And not only me.

Deex often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing more and more 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. This group of teachers and one counselor stayed together as an informal group for the entire time I taught at Glenville and even morphed into a social group around making investments bringing in spouses to the mix of teachers.

Oliver Deex took an intellectual interest in me and supported me in my efforts to get a masters in history, apply for a one-year fellowship at Yale, and scrounged funds from the budget and downtown officials to advance what I was doing in my classes.

Today, Deex would be called a “mentor.” He supported, prodded, and encouraged a young teacher to grasp ideas and apply them to life and teaching. It was not part of his job description and surely went unnoticed by his superiors. But it had enormous influence on my life and career.


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15 responses to “Principals Helping Teachers Grow: A Task That Too Often Goes Unnoticed

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    • larrycuban

      Thanks again for re-blogging my post on principals, David.

      • It made me reflect on my own career. It identified the one missing element from a my career, that one person that took me under their wing and said “let do this together”. It is an important part of any career.

  3. Gary Ravani

    It’s at least semi-amusing that you attack the conventional wisdom of the “Golden Age,” of education. That time in the misty past, often “50 years ago!” when “diplomas really meant something” and “all” students read at “grade level.” Not to mention all students were well mannered and school violence was unknown. Then you brought up “Blackboard Jungle.” Whoops. There goes another myth.

  4. Thanks, Larry! Of course it requires that principals be experienced adults… And I emphasize both experience and adult. Which may be unusual in these times. And it requires principals, like good teachers and parents, to hope that they won’t be needed soon, and that when it comes to the classroom they may have as much to learn as teach. And principals who respect their own experienced staff who thus take on the central “burden” of professional development. Like some parents and some teachers, principals are understandably often threatened by the independence and knowledgeably of the teachers who work with them (not for them).

  5. I think the role of a Principal (headmaster…mistress or head teacher in the UK) has been negatively influenced in recent decades, by policy makers and strategists especially, who have taken material from the business world and naively transplanted it into educational contexts.

    Recently I had reason to look at the online teaching resources in the UK’s National College for Teaching and Leadership, the central community and route for any teacher wanting to become a head. “Most read” was a resource on “leadership essentials” and the very first point I found when I launched this resource was, “Be more of a salesperson.”

    As someone who has had real sales roles, in real businesses, I found this simply staggering. A bit more rooting around and it became clear much of the advice throughout the entire resource, had been culled from Harvard Business school material.

  6. Emily

    Growing up, my father was a high school principal; I have always admired the way he fought for the teachers in the district—I know, without a doubt, that his efforts impacted the quality of my education. Even if the teacher didn’t get exactly what he or she was requesting, it was never without knowing that the administrator had done everything in his power to try and make it happen. I have worked for years in the sales world, but have watched friends of mine start their careers in the current education system. My friends who have stayed in Michigan have spent almost a decade working in different classrooms, being laid off every summer, not knowing if or where they’ll be teaching again in the fall. I appreciate you sharing your story of the first years in your career—I feel like teachers today are being given an almost impossible task and it’s important to recognize the people who support and fight for them. I can name a few people in my life who have helped to shape my career and I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. Do you ever wonder where you would be without a mentor like Oliver Deex?

    • larrycuban

      I do wonder, Emily, where I would be without the help of people like Oliver Deex. I believe many of us (not sure I can say “most”) have such people in our lives as we grow up and mature. We are fortunate and doing the same for others coming up is one way of paying back what others have given us. I know it sounds like a cliche but it surely is true for me. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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