By the fifth year of my teaching in Cleveland’s Glenville High School in the early 1960s, I had learned one of the most important lessons a teacher can learn in an urban high school. I carried the precept with me to Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in Washington, D.C., and any teaching I have done ever since, including Los Altos and Menlo-Atherton high schools in northern California and, yes, Stanford University. That lesson was not in the curriculum of the undergraduate teacher education program I had taken. Nor can that lesson be easily learned in the two-year stint that Teach for America novices serve.
OK, what is that lesson? Never ask permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards.
With mindful experience in classrooms, teachers learn that they are gatekeepers to what enters and exits their rooms. While there is so much that teachers have no control over in teaching such as the students they have, the room within they teach, the schedule they follow through the school day, events occurring inside and outside the school, and school organization–they do have a margin of precious autonomy once they shut the classroom door. As gatekeepers to the classroom, teachers learn in fits and starts, by trial and error, that they determine what and how content gets taught. They learn to convey attitudes and values about life and learning within the confines of that 900 square feet classroom. Yes, that freedom is constrained. Nonetheless, that autonomy can make teaching influential in the lives of children and youth, jump-start learning for both teacher and students, and fashion the art of performance in classrooms.
And in learning how to teach and work with colleagues in my schools over the years and extract a small measure of freedom outside of my classroom, my hard-earned organizational lesson came into play.
As I taught history to five classes a day in the initial years at Glenville High School, it became clear to me that I needed more than what the school and district could supply me with–reams of paper, machines that would make copies of readings for my students, and access to people who could help me reach my students in ways that I could not. I began to locate paper, machines, and people, sweet-talked my way into gathering them by bending school and district rules. A case in point, I found reams of paper unused in another department’s store room at the end of the school year and appropriated them for my Fall classes. After school began, the principal called me into his office and showed me telephone messages and memos he had received from district officials demanding an explanation for my “unprofessional behavior.”
My relationship with the principal was a warm, supportive one in which he judged me as a hard-working teacher who was part of a cadre in the urban school that helped students graduate and enter college. So he faced a dilemma in having to do something stern without alienating an entrepreneurial teacher, given all of the district complaints about my “unprofessional behavior.” I, too, faced a dilemma. In a scarcity economy which is what urban schools are insofar as supplies and resources, teachers had to be enterprising beyond dipping into their wallets to buy things for their classes. I scrounged, begged, and borrowed to the hilt with colleagues but it wasn’t enough. And yet I didn’t want to stop because what I was doing with my classes seemed to be paying off in increased attendance and motivation. Yet my boss was upset. I had to mollify him and the district officials pestering him to do something to stop my apparent “unprofessional behavior.” So after much thinking about how schools worked and what I had learned about authority structures in schools and districts, I asked the principal to forgive my indiscretion.
I apologized after the fact for not asking permission. He reported to his superiors that I had apologized for my actions and that ended the incident. And that lesson I learned from my experiences over five years as a teacher I continued to practice when working in urban schools, as a superintendent, and professor. I consider that lesson wisdom I had gained from teaching at Glenville.
Sure you can tell such wisdom to novices but they lack the organizational savvy to make sense of it. They lack the mindfulness drawn from pondering one’s experiences in a school and classroom. And I would guess that TFA-ers don’t learn that lesson in their summer training or in the two years they spend as classroom teachers. What a powerful lesson I learned as a young teacher: do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards.