Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Memories: Teachers in Charge

As teachers have been shunted aside and de-skilled in the corporate takeover of school systems I still cling to the increasingly unlikely thought that if teachers controlled schools, they would do a much better job of addressing the issue of colleagues who don't carry their share of the water (defined as potentially capable teachers who are lazy or don't give a shit) and the just plain incompetent (those who just can't do the job - based on my years of observation, a fairly small % – they either leave or work their way up the ladder to principal.

Back in the 70's we had a milquetoast principal – not a bad guy, a real educator of the old style – many years as a classroom teacher followed by over a decade as an AP, all in the same school – who believed in trying to teach teachers good pedagogy and promoted some good ideas – "Nothing learned, nothing taught" was a favorite expression of his. But in terms of leadership, it was the AP's who carried the load. (I'll leave the details for another time as to how the district destroyed him in order to install a political appointee, a younger, stronger, ambitious leader who had "zero" teaching experience, installed a test prep system, and took away the rights of teachers to decide anything - in 1979 - sound familiar?)

Mr. A, our AP in the upper grades, was also a lifer - classroom teacher for many years – a man who taught in an elementary school in the 50's was rare and many ended up on the supervisor track – the war babies like me invaded in the late 60's and changed the landscape. Good leader, great personality, (also a lawyer), let us pretty much do what we wanted.

Now, he didn't have a lot to worry about – the school was under pretty good control – the massive special ed influx hadn't begun yet. They put the men in the 5th and 6th grades and by the time I got there in 1971, the guys had all been there for a few years and not only had good control, but where pretty good teachers.

Well, there was one guy who could have been good but didn't give a shit about teaching, planning to get out as soon as he could – but it would take 10 years 'till he left - and used his time to work on his law school stuff while maintaining absolute control – he became a chapter leader, a good one in that he intimidated the principal, but no one thought he was a good teacher, something he was actually proud of. (One of the knocks on the Mr. A was that he let this go on, and years later, he came under attack for this.) Mr. T was also very smart and very funny to boot. So the kids actually liked him. Of course when I got his class the year after him and found they knew very little math and had lower level reading than they should have had despite being the bottom class, I had a bit of resentment. Actually, they did know how to look up words in the dictionary, which is what they did for hours while he studied. (For new teachers - great idea when you need to take a breather for a few minutes - but I bet they don't let you do this (take breathers or have them look up words) anymore - probably don't even have dictionaries.) He finally left to go into the law and became very successful I hear.

All the hysteria about "quality teachers" would line Mr. T up squarely in the gun sights. But schools can tolerate Mr. T's. He brought leadership, humor and kids were not running wild. However, if we had real power as teachers, we would have found an out of classroom position for Mr. T (which eventually happened) to make use of his talents or would have treid to pressure him to do a better job.

There's always good and bad in these situations and the good was that the AP, Mr. A let us run our own deal as long as we checked it out with him. Mr. A was totally open to suggestions. When I wanted to try an open classroom, he not only gave me the OK but gave me a double sized room to make it more feasible (it turned into a disaster.)
We had input in everything, especially the four 6th grade teachers, who were all so good and learned a lot from each other.

Next time I'll tell you how we all (Mr. A included) pulled a practical joke - punk'd someone in today's parlance - on Mr. Z, one of our weak, always trying to get over, loser teachers. We could tolerate Mr. T, but just the mention of Mr. Z as a teacher made you laugh. Oh yes, in the "shit rises to the top" category – years later we heard that Mr. Z became a supervisor. We're still laughing.

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