March 01, 1998 3 min read

After a four-year leave from teaching to work for two national reform initiatives, Grace McEntee was eager to return to the classroom. Filled with ideas, she developed a new course for students in her district. When she described her plans to the head of the English department at the school where she planned to teach, she was greeted with a coldness bordering on hostility and a suggestion to take her new ideas elsewhere. Disappointed but determined, McEntee got lukewarm support from the principal and superintendent and persevered.

She had been formally notified that she would retain her nearly 30 years of seniority when she returned to the classroom, guaranteeing that she would get the high school job she needed to carry out her project. But when she re-entered the system, she found she had been stripped of her seniority. As a result, her only choice was a junior high job.

Reluctantly, McEntee filed a lawsuit. A month later, a job serendipitously opened up in the English department at another high school in the district, and she got it. The faculty at that school welcomed McEntee; she taught her course and, eventually, succeeded with it. But largely because of the resistance she encountered among administrators and students, what should have been an exhilarating intellectual adventure turned out to be the hardest year of her career.

Last May, Dennis Frederick learned he was losing a battle with cancer and was given six months to live. He declined an aggressive, long-shot treatment, preferring to return to his 3rd grade class at Pleasantview Elementary. Frederick told his principal that he wanted to teach as long as he could and that he wanted to discuss his dying openly with his students. She agreed, and the two met with the district superintendent to plan the teacher’s return to the classroom. The plan included hiring a standby teacher for the times when Frederick’s illness kept him from the classroom, lining up clergy and mental health professionals for special counseling of students and staff, and assembling parents of Frederick’s 24 students for a meeting before the school year began.

At that meeting, Frederick told the parents that his impending death was a “teachable moment” and that he would discuss it with the children when appropriate. There were no objections and no withdrawals from the class. And so began an extraordinary year of teaching and learning—not just for the students and staff at Pleasantview but also for Sauk Rapids and, thanks to the media, the entire country.

These two stories show teachers wanting to share their most precious gifts with students, wanting to lead them to new understanding. Surely that must be the “calling” that draws so many into the classrooms of America year after year. This enthusiasm is the most wonderful asset that new teachers bring to schools. Some get the supportive reception that Frederick got; the odds are good that these people go on to become great teachers, continuously learning themselves. Many more undoubtedly get the reception McEntee got, which may help explain why up to 50 percent of new teachers leave the field in the first five years of their careers.

Leaders of effective organizations make opportunities for people like Grace McEntee to share their new ideas and fresh insights. The leaders of the school McEntee tried to enter weren’t interested in this. They told her to take her assets elsewhere. The staff and parents at Pleasantview seemed to know intuitively that sometimes it is important to take risks, that real learning means venturing into unknown territory.

We’ll know we have the kinds of schools this nation needs when there are more like Pleasantview and none like the one that rebuffed McEntee.

—Ronald A. Wolk