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. Since the 1980s, as part of school-based research studies I have completed, I observed at least 20 different principals do this crucial (and often overlooked) job. So from below as a student, above as a superintendent, and next to as a researcher, 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. How common my experience as a teacher was with this unusual man, I do not know.
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. I had been hired to teach high school history a few days before Labor Day–the traditional end of the summer and beginning of school. I hurriedly packed and drove to Cleveland.
Meeting with Oliver Deex, Glenville High School’s new principal at a local deli the weekend 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 continuously 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 a 21 year-old rookie 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 by 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 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 seven years I taught at Glenville and even morphed into a social group around making investments and bringing spouses into 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 school 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.
I suspect that many principals across the country do the same with rookie teachers today. I hope that those teachers would honor their mentors as I do here in this post.