“Confessions of a School Reformer”(Part 1)

I am drafting chapters for my next book with the above title. I described the idea of the book and my experiences in the Pittsburgh schools during the Progressive reform era (see the five-part series “We Are All Reformers”on this blog).

In alternating chapters, the book will describe and analyze each of three reform movements during my lifetime and then trace my life in and out of school as a student, teacher, administrator and researcher who experienced these reforms for over three-quarters of a century.

Since 1939 when I entered first grade until 2020, three major reform efforts have swept across American public schools: the Progressive movement (1890s-1940s); Civil Rights movement (1950s-1970s), and business-inspired standards, testing, and accountability movement (1970s-present).

I have completed a draft chapter of my years as a teacher (1955-1972) in three school districts during the Civil Rights movement. I begin the multi-part series with this post. Comments appreciated.

As a teacher I was not a civil rights activist. While I did participate in a few marches, I was never arrested at a demonstration. Nor did I join any organizations at the forefront of the movement. I did work, however, for a few months at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a federal agency committed to desegregated schools in the 1960s. It was a disaster (see below).

While my wife Barbara and I contributed to civil rights groups and moved our family into an integrated Washington, D.C. neighborhood, my public involvement in civil rights activities was close to nil. But not so in schools. For the most part, then, where and when I was involved in civil rights grew directly out of whom I taught and what I did in my classes at Cleveland’s Glenville High School and Washington, D.C.’s Cardozo High School. 

I was a classroom teacher who worked in de facto segregated Black schools in two cities. As a white teacher teaching history to Black middle- and working-class students who already had experienced segregated schools, racial discrimination, and institutionalized racism on a daily basis—preparing uncommon lessons and instructional materials about the American past was the civil rights road that I traveled in the years I taught at these two high schools.

Becoming a Teacher

After graduating Taylor Allderdice High School (see Part 4), I attended the University of Pittsburgh (hereafter Pitt) for four years while living at home. The first in my family to attend college, I tried pre-med but biochemistry proved my undoing. I drifted into other pre-professional courses and then eventually entered Pitt’s School of Education.

In the early 1950s, the School of Education contained professors imbued with the Progressive ideas of teaching and learning that had dominated the field for decades. I took courses in which I read John Dewey and absorbed the ideology of Progressivism. I cannot remember if I had read his Pedagogic Creed but at the time his sentence: “… [E]ducation is the fundamental method of social progress and reform,” I believed when I entered the classroom.[i]

 In social studies methods courses, I developed a series of lessons organized around a topic in accordance with the Unit Plan laid out in Henry Morrison’s textbook, The Practice of Teaching in Secondary Schools (1926).  I worked at various jobs to fund my schooling but always turned in on time assignments on organizing lessons, assessing students, and orchestrating small group collaboration while figuring out what tasks to give those students who chose to work independently.  Progressive vocabulary and ideology were in the air that we breathed.  And I inhaled a lot.[ii]

My final year in the School of Education required me to student-teach.  When I showed up at Peabody High School, the two middle-aged teachers assigned to supervise me spoke with me for about a half-hour and then gave me their copies of the required textbook and student attendance rolls.  I seldom saw them for the rest of the semester. I taught two classes in U.S. History at Peabody High School while working full time at the U.S. Post Office. 

Turns out, I learned, that teaching is part performance.  That wowed me.  What I remember is that every day was a dramatic show and I had to be ready. My lines had to be memorized. I had to get audience participation. Before each class, I could feel my stomach muscles tense. I was wired for action.

I could write that I entered teaching to improve the lot of under-educated children, to serve the community, or a similar noble sentiment. While such motives may have been buried within my psyche—and I believe they were–what really appealed to me initially was performing with a captive audience and the challenge of conveying to others what I believed to be crucial information, ideas, and skills.

I graduated in 1955 with a major in history and a minor in biology. That summer I applied for a dozen jobs in social studies and was turned down for each one. One month after school started, I found a one-year job teaching biology and general science in McKeesport, a city 20 miles from home. The students I was expected to teach had had a series of daily and weekly substitutes and when they saw me in early October, their eyes glazed over believing me to be another teacher who would leave in a few days or a week. I stayed until June. Any rookie year of teaching is hard but I did survive.

From collecting animal specimens for biology class in Schenley Park’s Panther Hollow to preparing late-night lessons on mass and volume, I barely made it. McKeesport Tech had no wet labs, a few microscopes, and hardly any instructional materials. Thus, I gathered salamanders in nearby creeks. I built pulleys and simple machines. I scrounged cardboard boxes and whatever else I could find at home or buy cheaply at the store.

None of my Pitt education courses coated with Progressive ideology and dressed up with student-centered lessons applied to my flailing efforts to do a journeyman job teaching biology and general science. What did help me survive was Gene Surmacz, the chemistry teacher who had been there for three years. He saw my floundering and asked if I needed help in teaching biology. He gave me lessons that he had used when he taught the course and set aside time for coaching me. He was my life preserver that year

But I wanted very much to teach history and the social studies. Every week I looked for postings of vacancies across Western Pennsylvania and even Ohio. I applied for any social studies spot I could find. And just before school opened in 1956, I heard from the Cleveland public schools (signaling me that I was at the bottom of their last barrel of newbies) that I should report to Glenville High School immediately to teach social studies.  At 21, I left home to start a career in teaching.


[i]John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, (New York: E.L. Kellogg & Co., 1897), p. 16.

[ii] When I began writing this section one phrase kept returning in my memory, “The Morrison Plan.”  So for these paragraphs I looked up who Henry Morrison was, his career (teacher, district and state superintendent, professor), and the text that I used in the methods courses. See “Henry C. Morrison,” Wikipedia at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_C._Morrison


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11 responses to ““Confessions of a School Reformer”(Part 1)

  1. wjshan

    Wonderful story written autobiographically! (There is a section titled “scholarly writing autobiographically” in you 2016 book–Teaching History Then and Now). I like it. Part of the story is new to me, especially the part describing you student-taught in Peabody High School while working full time at the U.S. Post Office. You made it! I was more fortunate than you. During 1969-1973, I studied in National Taiwan Normal University, then, one of the only two higher institutions that prepared secondary-school teachers in Taiwan. I paid nothing for tuition and fees, and dormitory room and free meals were offered instead. (Teacher education was considered as a pert of national defense!) And most important, I was assigned a teaching job right after I graduated. However, the good old days were gone. My teacher education students had to count on themselves for everything now!

  2. So interesting! I knew some of your story but not in this detail. I am excited about the book!

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  3. Wonderful to read your story as a hopeful novice teacher. From my experience, I recognize that many new teachers deal (or dealt) with the absence of adequate materials as you did – scrounging for whatever would help, whether in the field or in piles of rubbish waiting to be picked up. For some of us, that habit of looking for anything we could find became a kind of lifelong habit. I have also learned that there are also many teachers who enter the profession and don’t spend their time supplementing the provided materials. I wonder how much that distinction is a predictor of creativity, persistence or success among new teachers.

  4. Educating Human Potential

    I love reading your memoir excerpts and learning about your planned structure of the book. Can’t wait to read it through when published. I was left with one question when I read today’s excerpt-Can you remember an example of Gene Surmacz’s tips or lessons? If I was a new teacher, or even as an “old” one I still love to learn about effective strategies.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment. Looking back to 1955 when Gene helped me out, I cannot remember specific tips he gave me. What I do remember is that he reached out and helped a rookie he did not know. That in of itself is worthy and probably reinforced whatever he advised me to do. Years later after I came to Stanford in the 1980s, I contacted Gene and thanked him. He had just retired from teaching at the time and we exchanged phone calls and letters.

      • Educating Human Potential

        Thanks. You are so right about extended a helping hand, I was fortunate to have someone similar in my first year!

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