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Al Shanker Remembered

By Joseph A. Shivers — March 12, 1997 4 min read
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Al Shanker will be eulogized as a giant in education in the last half of the 20th century. And he certainly was. But he was also a friend and colleague to everyone--at every level--who worked to make public education in the United States better. Today, public education is a much lonelier endeavor without him.

Like the good teacher he was, Albert Shanker left a little bit of himself with everyone he ever taught or spoke to, and with everyone who ever worked with him or negotiated against him. It was my privilege to work as Mr. Shanker’s teaching assistant in 1987 and 1988 at Harvard University, where I was a doctoral student, and he taught me much about what is important in education and in life.

When I heard that Al Shanker died on Saturday, Feb. 22, I felt sympathy for his family, for his many colleagues and friends, and for his staff at the American Federation of Teachers, where he had been president since 1974. (“The End of an Era,” March 5, 1997.) But I also felt sorry for my two sons, ages 9 and 6, who must finish their formal education without Albert Shanker as one of their champions.

A superintendent who interviewed me for a job a few years back noticed that I had listed my work for Al on my r‚sum‚. After the interview, the superintendent leaned forward conspiratorially and said, “Tell me--what’s Al Shanker really like.” I answered perfunctorily that Al Shanker was a brilliant man, a clear and passionate thinker who could communicate his thoughts eloquently in speech and in writing. I said that he taught me the difference between a principled person (which he was) and an ideologue (which he was not). I told him that Al was the most committed worker for teachers that I had ever met.

But if I had thought a bit more before answering, I would have remembered that whenever I spoke with Al or heard him speak, I always felt that his bottom-line concern was the public education of American children. He was the quintessential teachers’ advocate, but he understood that teachers are important because children are important. It is for this reason--his ultimate commitment to kids--that he took a place with the great educators of our time, most notably Harold Howe II. In the years I knew Al, everything he said seemed to stem from two considerations: “What are the most important things--skills, concepts, facts--that kids should know?” and “What is the best way to teach them what they should know?”

His interests were vast; anything that had an impact on public education in the United States concerned him. No educational issue was beyond his grasp or beneath his interest. And his knowledge was encyclopedic; he read voraciously. One could not mince facts with Al Shanker. Furthermore, everyone always knew where Al stood on whatever issue he addressed. He was just as critical of fanciful idealists as he was of knee-jerk gainsayers. Still, he was gracious in his criticism. And he was particularly patient with graduate students who tried to take him on.

He always gave the impression that the current educational issue with which he was involved was the most important.

In his course at Harvard, “Education Policy in the 1980s,” he lectured and cajoled and debated students about teachers’ unions, educational vouchers, curriculum, professionalism, and school reform. He quoted “Father Guido Sarducci” of television as easily--and as effectively--as he quoted John Dewey. Each semester, to the delight of his students, he told the story of how he was mentioned by name in the opening scene of Woody Allen’s 1973 movie “Sleeper.” (Mr. Allen, awakening from 100 years of suspended animation, asks an attending physician what happened to the civilized world, and the doctor replies, “A man by the name of Albert Shanker got ahold of a nuclear warhead.”) He told his classes how Woody Allen wrote about choosing “Al Shanker” from among a list of possibilities as the best symbol of raw power for his movie.

He had power and influence, certainly, and he was confident in his power. He was proud of what having power enabled him to accomplish, like negotiating in 1961 the very first collective bargaining agreement for teachers anywhere. His past victories notwithstanding, he always gave the impression that the current educational issue with which he was involved was the most important.

His obituaries have listed his many accomplishments, dating from his early days as a 6th grade teacher in New York City’s public schools. Over the past two decades, he was a member of (or an adviser to) every national education panel and committee of importance. He taught, he spoke, he read, he led. He influenced educational issues--from classroom procedures to national educational policy--as much as anyone else during that time. His weekly purchased column in The New York Times, “Where We Stand,” was a national clearinghouse for educational research and commentary and for whatever was on his mind.

In spare moments he enjoyed talking about cooking and good food and wine. And in 1987 he and another teaching assistant and I were caught in mid-laugh over some joke or story by a photographer who was following him for the day. He inscribed a copy of the photograph to me, “To Joe Shivers, A job well done! Al Shanker.” I cannot think of a better epitaph for him: A job well done.

A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 1997 edition of Education Week

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