'Revelations' of Return to Classroom
Nothing is about what you think it is about, including you," said the author Neil Postman at a National Council of Teachers of English convention about 25 years ago.
Borrowing a phrase from Ernest Hemingway, Mr. Postman's rousing talk addressed "the art of crap detecting." I admired the speech, and I have come to accept his assertion.
For years, I worked in the textbook-publishing world--as an editor, sales representative, marketing manager, vice president for development, and eventually as president and chief executive officer of Laidlaw Educational Publishers.
In 1987, Laidlaw was acquired by another publisher, and I faced a major decision.
My choice was to return to the classroom as a high-school English teacher, with all the rights and privileges granted thereto.
I told my friends I wanted to "get back in the trenches."
After spending many years and millions of dollars in an attempt to improve the quality of textbooks and other instructional materials, I figured it was time to rediscover what life was like on the users' side.
My wife--an attorney--and I were particular in choosing rural Maine as the location for my adventure. Maine is a special place, with straight-talking people, magnificent scenery, and a bit of isolation. Hemingway would have loved it. The crap detectors work remarkably well, and the fishing is still pretty good.
The decision was not lightly made. It meant my wife's giving up her practice.
One late-November morning during the year after the move, I was standing in front of the high school on bus duty, waiting for our share of the district's 40 buses to arrive from the outlying areas.
Bryan Morgan, a Mainer and much respected mathematics teacher, stood at a nearby post.
"Tell me about 'snow days,' Bryan," I said. "What are they about?''
"Those are days when school is called off because of slippery roads."
"How many do we get?"
"As many as there are," he said. "Usually about five or six."
"You mean the whole system is shut down because of a little snow?" I was half kidding.
Bryan looked at me for a second and told me a question: "Have you ever been on a school bus full of screaming kids sliding sideways down a hill?"
The image was vivid and penetrating. I got it. It meant more to me than Bryan ever expected it would, I'm sure. For an instant, in its grip, I felt a paralyzing hot chill.
My concern was different from the kinds of feelings I was accustomed to--those associated, for example, with making multimillion-dollar decisions about a mathematics-textbook adoption in California, or responding to a journalist seeking a quotation about religion in U.S. history books.
Somehow, Bryan's question and the sensation it raised seemed more vital, more authentic.
Later that day, Sherri shuffled into class in her untied Reeboks and came straight to my desk before anyone else arrived. Under the weight of her heavy blue eye shadow, wild, bushy blond hair, and oversize denim jacket, she was a pretty girl. Sherri had missed as many days of class as she had attended and had refused to do most assignments.
"Ya wanna see this?" she blurted, smacking gum as she threw a folded piece of composition paper on my desk.
"I wrote it myself last night. It's a poem, but it's not about anybody real. I made it up."
Sherri was new in school, and she had made it clear to everyone from her first day that she was tough--she had scars she'd shown to prove it--and that she wanted and needed no help from anyone.
I unfolded the paper and read the large printed lines:
"If I told you I loved you
You probably wouldn't believe me
And I couldn't stand that.
If you find out anyway
Please don't tell me you don't love me.
If you do, I'll kill myself."
"Sherri," I said. "This is terrific! I like it a lot."
"It's not about anyone. I just made it up."
She took the gum out of her mouth, whammed it in the wastebasket, smiled a fraction, and shuffled to her seat in the back of the room.
Sherri's adoptive parents had given up trying to manage her and had sent her that year to live with her older sister in our school district.
When I learned, a little later, that Sherri had been suspended from school for swearing at a teacher, I had the feeling again that the school bus was slipping toward the edge of an icy road.
Sherri's pain was not induced by an inferior curriculum, I knew. No textbook I had ever published would or could help her.
I noticed Marsha in the hall during my planning period. "Hi, Marsha. Shouldn't you be in class now?"
"What period is this?" She seemed bewildered, but since she had only recently enrolled in our school, I was not surprised at her confusion.
"This is 3rd period. Where are you going?"
Her eyes were watery.
"Can I help you, Marsha?"
"Oh, no. I was just down the office. My mom and me aren't getting along, so I'm moving out."
"Oh," I said, wanting to be soothing. "Are you going to your dad's?"
"No. I tried living with him, and that was no good either. That was before the foster home."
"Well, where will you go?"
"I don't know exactly. Another foster home, I guess. I'm not sure."
The following Monday, I received a notice to remove Marsha from my class list. She was gone from the district.
And the bus slid a little closer to the edge.
After Sherri and Marsha, there were others, with different stories--and the same. There were Tammy and Vanessa and Neil and Steve; Tony, Ellen, Patrick, and Chris and on and on.
Returning to school as a teacher wasn't proving to be about what I had thought it was about. And neither was I.
Teaching wasn't any fun. Warriner was still Warriner; Hawthorne and Emerson and William Cullen Bryant were all still marvelous and ...
The teachers were into collective bargaining; we were "working to rule." The self-esteem of my colleagues was low. All the while, concerns mounted about drugs and alcohol, about child abuse, about raising student aspirations.
Some veteran teachers tried to bolster my spirits. They had slogged through worse times, and they intended to persevere. Small successes with a few kids fueled their efforts.
Now in the role of principal at a 575-student junior high school, I've just completed my second year "in the trenches," and the revelations continue.
I smile, even chuckle, when I read the profundities of business executives carefully explaining what's wrong with elementary and secondary education.
I also sense the contempt many of them seem to hold for my colleagues.
Schooling is not a business. The profit motive does not drive school people. Something else does--something precious and worth preserving, even worth encouraging.
I know now that the problems in our schools are serious--that, for example, teenage pregnancy and suicide happen in rural Maine as well as Chicago; that at-risk children abound here as well as there. I know now that many parents of bright kids oppose heterogeneous grouping of students, no matter what the research says, and I know that textbook companies publish what school people will buy because textbook publishing is an8American business enterprise.
A word to those executives who would make pronouncements about education. If you want to gain credibility among educators and you want to stop the sliding bus before it goes over the edge with a cargo of our nation's children, take a month every three years or so to go back to the classroom.
Eat in the cafeteria, sit in study halls and detention halls, attend faculty meetings, ride in a school bus, shadow a principal for one week.
You may discover, as I have, that school is not about what you think it is about--and neither are you.
Vol. 8, Issue 40, Page 30Published in Print: August 2, 1989, as 'Revelations' of Return to Classroom