In this series of posts on teachers drawn from my 14 years of experience teaching history in three urban high schools between the mid-1950s and early 1970s and my experiences as a district superintendent, I write about teachers who I came to respect and admire. The first post was about an elementary school teacher whose classroom I visited many times while serving as superintendent of the Arlington (VA) public schools. The second post was about music teacher William Appling, a colleague of mine at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH) in the mid-1950s to early 1960s. This post recovers an incident that occurred at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C. where I taught history in the early 1970s.
At Roosevelt High School in 1971, I taught five history classes a day—50-minute periods. While I had learned to pace myself much better than when I was taught at Glenville a decade earlier, I still found that teaching five classes with three preparations (sociology, government, and U.S. history) forced me to make compromises in both the what and how of teaching. I had wanted to prepare new materials for at least a few of my classes but the work was too much for me if I wanted a life outside of school–I was married and had two daughters at the time. Nor could I assign essays twice a week in each class, once a week was all I could manage. I could see only a fraction of my 150 students before and after school and during my one preparation period. I saw only those who needed the most help; I practiced educational triage.
What drove me to do more, however, was the students’ response to the history labs (learning centers or teaching stations, as some called them) that I set up once monthly and the new units that I developed on reasoning skills. These units contained lessons on how to tell a fact from an opinion, how to determine what is a reliable source of information, how to judge the accuracy of eye-witness testimony, and so forth. I used these units for the first three weeks in each class. The rest of the semester, while using a textbook or my materials, I would repeatedly apply the half-dozen skills learned in the opening weeks of the class.
What enhanced these efforts was sharing with other like-minded teachers. My next-door neighbor, a new teacher, asked to use my materials and adapted them for his classes. We laughed over the joy of lessons that succeeded and knocked our heads in frustration over those that died in front of our eyes. Carol Carstensten, a former Glenville student who had taken history from me a decade earlier, came to Washington, D.C. with her lawyer husband. She wanted to teach in the District and was assigned to Roosevelt.
Bright, enthusiastic, and very savvy about teaching in predominately minority schools, Carol and I joined forces on a number of student projects. We shared materials and ideas. of how best to connect the past to the present. I didn’t feel isolated, the common workplace hazard for teachers.
A unique skirmish with another teacher during those two years distilled for me both the triumph and despair of teaching in big city high schools in the early 1970s. The prickly exchange between veteran teacher Myrtle Davis and me occurred over a unit on the city in my U.S. history class. I had divided the class into four groups to gather information about urban problems in the early twentieth century and in the 1970s. Each group would then report their findings to the entire class.
One group decided to explore the prevalence of venereal diseases in cities then and now. As part of the information-gathering, they decided to construct a survey of both students and teachers on venereal diseases and means for reducing its spread. We worked together on how to construct questions and how to do a random sample. The one-page survey went out to selected teachers and students in the school. Myrtle Davis, who had taught in District schools before desegregation and had a sterling reputation at Roosevelt for her no-nonsense, demanding approach to teaching, returned her survey with the attached note:
To: Larry Cuban
From: Myrtle Davis
Subject: Survey Form from 5th Period U.S. History Class. What justification is there for a survey of this kind under the banner of American History. These matters should, it seems to me come within the province of the courses dealing with Health and Science.
Moreover, the performance of our students in the social studies, American History, et al. have consistently fallen below acceptable standards. Could it be that each of us working in the field should make every moment of class time count in a concerted effort to bridge this no-information gap in American History?
I sent her a reply the same day.
Dear Mrs. Davis: Our class is studying urban problems past and present. They are divided into four groups. The topics they chose to research were education, housing, venereal disease, and rats. Each group has to make an oral presentation and write a research paper with at least five sources of information. The group dealing with venereal disease researched history books, magazines, and films. They also decided to get knowledge from people. The form that you received was part of the effort.
Since I believe that historical information can be a vehicle to learn skills and not only an end in itself, I feel that the skills students learn from researching, organizing, and presenting an issue they are interested in is far more important than covering information in a textbook. Thank you for your interest. Please feel free to visit the class,speak with students, or observe what is going on.
Before I sent the note to the teacher, I deleted the teacher’s name and read her letter and my reply to my students. The class exploded in anger over the fact that another teacher had criticized what they were doing. A few suggested that the class write a response. By the next day, a few students had drafted a reply to accompany mine again without knowing who the other teacher was.
The reply was signed by seventeen of the nineteen students in class that day.
We the students of Mr. Cuban’s class feel that we are obligated to write a response to your letter. We feel that your charges are not concrete; by this we mean that you do not have substantial evidence to say that we have fallen below acceptable standards. Your criticism is in the poorest taste, for we are learning. And before you criticize a teacher that is trying and has the interest of his class, check yourself.
Feel free to visit any time!
I gave the letter to Mrs. Davis that day. The next day she came to my room during my preparation period and asked if she could talk to the class. She wanted to read a reply to their letter. We arranged a time.
Mrs. Davis appeared and read the following letter:
Dear Mr. Cuban and Fifth Period Class:
In response to your letter dated May 10, I feel obligated to make the following comments.
- I made no charge against anyone. My statement of fact concerning ‘our students’ referred to students of Roosevelt High School. Whether any of you as individuals were included in the numbers who have taken the various tests, I could not know because I did not know nor did I seek your names as individuals. The matter of fact which I cited was based upon information which had come to me through the counselors. In fact, in one meeting this year, the social studies teachers were admonished by one counselor to the extent that she wondered if we were teaching U.S. History at any time or place in the curriculum.
- According to her records, the average score on the College Board Tests in U.S. History ranged in the mid-200s and the highest in the range of 350. The highest possible score is 800. A score from 550 to 750 is considered good to excellent. As late as last week, I learned that only one student at Roosevelt scored up to the cut-off point in the National Merit exams. These facts are on file in the counselor’s offices.
3. I did not criticize Mr. Cuban. I am also a member of the “I Love Larry” club. I did raise what I considered a justifiable question. If to question is to criticize and to criticize is to oppose, then I plead guilty as charged. However, if this be so, the entire course of education and the concept of a free society are already lost.
4. Your suggestion that I check myself first before criticizing anyone suffers from the same shortcoming with which you so glibly charged me. What evidence do you have to indicate that I have or have not “checked” myself? You failed to cite any.
5. As to ‘taste’: this is a matter of opinion. You surely are entitled to your opinion and I am entitled to mine. Having carried this highly professional exchange to the illogical conclusion, I suggest that we continue to devote class time to basic !earnings to help bridge the now developing non-information canyon. I am doing this at home till 8 P.M. However, I do find it odd that a group of young people seem to resent having a question raised concerning a fundamental issue, when in this place and time in history the young are questioning all the time. A practice which I both welcome and encourage. Perhaps a real thorough examination of the basic rights of all people would reveal the truth of the old saying:
‘What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
Myrtle Davis, Chief Gander
After she read the letter, she asked if there were any questions. A few students again questioned her right to criticize another teacher. Another asked why she was making such a big deal out of learning facts from textbooks.
She replied: You have to learn these facts so you can do well on tests. If you do well on tests, you are going to get jobs, good jobs. All of us [Davis was black] have to play catch-up. We have been behind so long, we must learn all the skills and knowledge we can. By not getting facts your chances to do well on tests and get into college will be less. We have to catch up.
Davis was passionate in her words. Her voice rose in volume; she occasionally trembled. The high pitch of emotion in the room broke after she spoke. I asked for more questions but nothing was said. Davis left.
As soon as she left, the class exploded, hands were raised and students began calling out. Their emotional temperature zoomed. There was much yelling and anger, but it was mixed with respect for what she said and how she said it. The bell rang.
With only a few weeks before the end of school, the incident was soon forgotten in the rush to complete assignments, tests, and turn in work. What struck me then and even now as I write this, was the seriousness with which Myrtle Dais and I tangled over the subject matter of this class, even in the midst of the new reforms mandated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Open classrooms, teacher accountability, community control, innovative reading programs, new curricula, and dozens of other schemes designed by non-teachers for classrooms were imposed upon elementary and secondary schools by boards of education and superintendents anxious to demonstrate their progressiveness.
In the midst of these feverish efforts to install “can’t-miss” programs, two reasonably intelligent teachers (one annoyed by a colleague’s departure from traditional content for an all-Black class and the other amazed at her affection for test scores debated old but crucial questions in the early 1970s, ones that again have surfaced in subsequent decades and are current in 2021.
Here were two independent, strong-willed individuals, who believed that the basic questions they asked, the content they offered, and the kind of class they created would help students. Each had asked: What is schooling for? What content is worth knowing? What role does a teacher play in learning? Which ways of teaching get students to learn what is important? Does an education for Blacks differ from that given to whites? Not trivial questions by any means, yet few policymakers, researchers, or professional reformers asked them of teachers then or now. And that is why I respected and admired Myrtle Davis.
Davis and I continued to teach at Roosevelt the following year, my last at the school. We differed, but we recognized that there is no one best way to teach history to students or to teach students history.
Correspondence and memos exchanged between Mrs. Davis, myself, and my fifth period U.S. history class.
Account in Managerial Imperative, pp. 105-109
2 responses to “Teachers I Respect and Admire–Myrtle Davis”
Amazing account. Thank you. Just one query. In the following passage… “a few students had drafted a reply to accompany mine again without knowing who the other teacher was.
The reply was signed by seventeen of the nineteen students in class that day.
Dear Mrs. Davis:”
… is there not a contradiction between “without knowing” and “Mrs Davis”?
Thanks so much for catching a mistake I made in my account of Mrs. Davis, Andy. I went back to my personal journal and saw that the original letter from the fifth period U.S. history class had “Dear _______” and not “Dear Mrs. Davis.” I appreciate very much your careful reading of the post and noting the error I made.