Change and Stability in A Four Decade Career in Teaching (Part 1)

I began teaching history in 1956 in an urban high school and ended my career of full-time teaching at Stanford University in 2001 when I retired (I did teach a graduate seminar every other year as an emeritus professor until 2013). Overall, I taught 14 years as a high school history teacher in two cities at all-black and low-income schools and 25 years as a professor of education working with highly motivated, high-achieving graduate students in a private university. I have taught for 39 years seeing reform after reform sweep by my eyes.[i]

Examining my career as a teacher offers possible insights into how, over time, a teacher working at different levels of schooling continuously changes lessons while maintaining the fundamentals of classroom practice. Sounds like a contradiction at first—change amid stability–but looking closely at one’s life as a teacher may resolve what appears to be a paradox

I make no claim that my reflection on how I managed both change and continuity in over decades of teaching in six public high schools and one university is typical. My experience may well be an outlier. Race, gender, class, the generation within which I was born, and passing through the seasons of a life cycle all have effects on one’s experience that may well differ from others. It is, after all, as my academic colleagues would point out an N=1.

Were there many biographies (or autobiographies) of teachers with sections on how they taught over their careers and the impact of the organization, reform cycles moving through their schools, and life events from marriage, raising children, illness, and death on their teaching, I would be able to position my story within these sources. But such personal descriptions and analyses of teaching over time in different institutions and what occurred in classrooms are sparse. [ii]

For those who prize research-produced knowledge married to experienced-produced knowledge as I do, the limning of one’s career may prove helpful in making sense of this uneasy equilibrium of stability and change in classroom practices over decades.[iii]

Teaching High School and University Graduate Students (1956-2013)

I began teaching at Cleveland’s Glenville High School in 1956 at age 21 and taught there seven years. Student were predominately black and, over time, largely poor. My teacher preparation at the University of Pittsburgh was in the Progressive tradition of student-centered instruction. Yet if an observer had entered my high school history classes in those initial years they would have easily categorized my instruction as wholly teacher-centered. On a spectrum running from a teacher-centered pole at one end and a student-centered pole at the other, I would have been hip-deep in the teacher-centered end.

Students sat in rows of movable chairs with tablet arms facing the front blackboard and my desk. I planned detailed lessons every afternoon and evening for the following day of five classes. In the written lesson, which I would follow religiously in the initial years of teaching, I would carefully list the questions I would ask, summarize the readings I had assigned to the class, orchestrating the sequence of activities aligned to the questions.

The content in my U.S. history classes was strictly chronological. I prepared unit study guides (I gave up on the textbook by the second year of teaching) on the colonies, the American Revolution proceeding decade by decade through the Civil War for the first semester and in the second semester I began with Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and Industrialization through the Great Depression and occasionally reaching World War II. Each unit study guide was sub-divided into daily lessons. They included key questions students had to answer what I had assigned in the dittoed readings I distributed daily to students and in books I had put on reserve in the school library and had in my classroom. I had begun creating readings for students on what was then called Negro History and gradually inserted those readings into the chronological sequence I followed religiously for the first few years I taught at Glenville. [iv]

More often than not, the primary activities in each lesson were teacher led-discussions interspersed by mini-lectures, occasional student reports, a class debate, quiz games to review for tests, and a filmstrip to break the routines. Over 90 percent of instructional time was spent teaching the whole group.

Part 2 describes high school teaching in Washington D.C. and eventual arrival at Stanford University.


[i] I do not count workshops I taught to Arlington (VA) teachers when I served as superintendent of the district for seven years. Nor do I count the three times I taught semester-long high school social studies classes when I was a professor at Stanford (Los Altos High School, 1990 and Menlo-Atherton High School, 1993, 1997).

[ii] European researchers initiated a line of scholarship describing and collecting accounts of teacher “life histories” and career trajectories that have spread globally. See, for example, Ivor Goodson, Studying Teacher Lives (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992); Michael Huberman, The Lives of Teachers (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993); Michael Connelly and Jean Clandinin, “Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry,” Educational Researcher, 1990, 19(5), pp. 2-14; Andy Hargreaves, “Educational Change Takes Ages: Life, Career, and Generational Factors in Teachers’ Emotional Responses to Educational Change,” Teaching and Teacher Education, 2005, 21, pp. 967-983.

[iii]In other writings I have described my family, my early years growing up in Pittsburgh (PA), and entry into teaching and the years I taught at two high schools in Cleveland (OH) and the District of Columbia. See Derek Burleson (Ed.) Reflections: Personal Essays by 33 Distinguished Educators (Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1991), ”Reflections on a Career in Teaching,” pp. 97-111; Larry Cuban, The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership in Schools (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), chapters 2 and 4; Wayne Urban (Ed.), Leaders in the Historical Study of American Education (Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2011),”Teacher, Superintendent, Scholar: The Gift of Multiple Careers,” pp. 45-54; Larry Cuban, Teaching History Then and Now (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2016).

[iv] As an example of a unit study guide I used in 1958, here is the a sample from “The Growth of American Business and Its Effects upon America.”

  1. Industrial Revolution hits America as a result of Civil War.
  2. How were farming, railroads, mining, and communication revolutionized and expanded? List specific examples from 1860-1920.
  3. Rise of Big Business
  4. What is a corporation?
  5. Describe the rise of Standard Oil Company as a typical example of the growth of a large corporation.
  6. What are the benefits and detriments of a monopoly?
  7. If you were the owner of a large factory, as a representative of Big Business, what things would you need to continue earning a profit?

III. Opposition to Big Business

  1. Labor unions
  2. What things are unions always striving for?
  3. What various methods could a union use to obtain its goals?
  4. .Why did many labor people join the American Socialist Party? Anarchists?
  5. On the whole, what progress did unions make by 1914?….

In 1956, I had begun a Masters in history at Western Reserve University taking evening classes and began focusing on “Negro History” writing research papers for Professor Harvey Wish, a scholar who then worked in the emerging field. From my readings and research, I accumulated an array of primary sources on colonial slavery, the institution of slavery, Reconstruction, etc. I used many of these primary sources for lessons in my high school history classes until I left Glenville High School in 1963.


Filed under how teachers teach

4 responses to “Change and Stability in A Four Decade Career in Teaching (Part 1)

  1. Thanks, Larry, for sharing this with us all. If you’ve had the gift of multiple careers, I’m so glad you’re sharing the gift with us.

  2. Laura Cooper

    I started teaching in 1966, and I am still working to improve instruction and results for students in schools where this is not yet common. I think often about what I’ve learned at every step of my career….and I’m still learning because I have the opportunity to continue to read, write, and teacher teachers and principals in school-based change efforts.
    I often reference your work in workshops, fondly remembering working with you over the phone to edit an article for the Harvard Ed Review so many years ago.
    I’m still reading and thinking about what you are writing. Harvard did have an impact on me.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Laura, for your comment. I’m glad that you continue your work and wish you well. That HER piece came out in 1967, I believe, and I thank you for your help in getting it out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s