Respect for Teaching: One Person’s Tale

Most of my adult life I have been a teacher. And on this day of Thanksgiving, I give thanks for the six decades I have been with students.

As a teacher, however, I winced whenever someone disrespected what I and others did not only for a living but a calling. Sometimes I did more than wince by responding in words at the moment or wrote about it later. 

One incident occurred to me over 40 years ago when I worked in the Washington, D.C. schools that was an act of disrespect for teaching. Sure, four decades ago is ancient history so readers will have to judge whether the disrespect displayed in the incident continues today or is merely a historical curiosity.

I wrote the following piece for a Washington alternative journal in 1971.

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I have taught off and on for nearly fifteen years. When not teaching, I have been an administrator…. I directed an experimental teaching project called the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching 1963-1967. [Afterwards] I taught half-time while writing a book. The following year, in the hope of working with others who shared my interest in [reform], I returned to administration as the Director of Staff Development in the D.C. schools. That lasted two years since the budget and program [were] gutted … by the D.C. Council….  At that point [1970] I decided to return to the classroom rather than occupy a desk [downtown].

It was an uncommon decision I discovered. To understand why, you have to appreciate the nagging guilt that haunts administrators about leaving the classroom. Talk to most central office administrators … and you will inevitably hear how important it is ‘to stay in touch with kids. That’s where the action is. How I miss it.’  When I would ask why not return to the classroom, I would hear: ‘I would like to, but, you know, the money, and well, I like to make decisions, and well, I needed a change.’

Shortly after I was appointed director of staff development, I suggested at an [administrative] meeting that [their] perceptions … and sense of urgency might be considerably sharpened if [they] would teach one or two weeks and then return to [their] desks. The idea was beaten down. I began to see that administration was as much an escape from the … classroom as it was a search for status, authority, and dollars….

[Yet]  administrators deeply believe that the classroom is the backbone of education. Thus, when an administrator decides to teach, one would expect some encouragement from colleagues, perhaps a bit of support, and an easy transition. How naive I was. Disbelief, punishment, and shame dogged each step of my return to teaching….

When my colleagues found out [that I would be returning to the classroom], a wall of silence appeared. Except for some close associates, the response–when people chose to talk to me–was disbelief. They seemed to suggest by smile, smirk, or wink that I must be waiting for a good offer….For the most part, I was ignored.

In hallways when passing someone, eyes turned away…. Within two months, a series of actions, unmalicious in intent, initiated and executed in a most efficient bureaucratic manner occurred that created within me a sense of shame and failure.

The first shock came [over] salary. To teach meant taking a one-third wage cut… The Board of Examiners* informed me that my four years of administrative experience meant nothing in dollars and cents. Of my ten years of teaching, only seven met the standards set by D.C….

Next … I received a notice that said I was “demoted without prejudice.” The phrase is semantically correct. I am now on a lower rung of the school ladder and being there was my choice. [But} demoted sounded like grade school, like being pushed back to a lower group because you are dumb and misbehaving. The phrase is from the language of failure.

Then the Board of Examiners informed me a week before [I returned to the classroom] that I could not receive a regular … contract because I had never taken a college course in teaching at the secondary school level. With almost 15 years of classroom experience in three different cities, with five years experience in preparing teachers to work in [D.C.] schools, with a book and numerous articles on teacher education–I am told that unless I take a course on Teaching in the Secondary School within two years I will not be able to teach in D.C. After a pay cut, a demotion, and then a threat, I felt like I had committed a crime. What had I done wrong?

The unintentional but very destructive way a school system punishes administrators and teachers from moving freely back and forth between classroom and central office reveals [that] the stated value is: teaching is cherished; the real value is that teaching is [tough work] and unimportant; anyone with sense will get the hell out of it and the quicker, the better….”

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Pundits, know-nothings, and politicians on the make may praise and bash teachers in the same paragraph yet often overlooked is the disrespect for teaching that too remains hidden in organizational rules.

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*The Board of Examiners no longer exists. Those functions have been assumed by the Office of Educator Licensure in the Office of the State Superintendent, District of Columbia

4 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, leadership

4 responses to “Respect for Teaching: One Person’s Tale

  1. Ann Staley

    Ye gods, Larry! You will remember that I chose to leave the Stanford PhD program, Leadership and Public Policy. After shadowing an elementary principal for two days, I could see that what I really wanted to do was to work with students. I was not interested in writing a book, except for a poetry book, and to do be back in the classroom. I have always thought that any Administrator should keep on teaching one class/day, so as to recall what public education is all about. The ways you were mistreated were reprehensible…hard to forgive those who made their opinions of you visible. I hope you believe in karma.
    with love, gratitude, admiration, Ann Staley

  2. David F

    Ugh—and all these years later I’m sure that still rankles! There’s something to be said about the cult of credentialism in education, and don’t get me started on the silly hoops we have to jump through for professional development credits…

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