Volunteer Teacher Leads to Conflict With Vt. Union
The title of Bill Corrow's class is "Conflict in the 20th Century," and that's just what his presence at a Vermont high school has generated.
Mr. Corrow, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, volunteers three days a week to teach the class to eight students at rural Williamstown Middle High School. They read works by Plato, Aldous Huxley, and Harper Lee, conduct independent research, write papers, and monitor current events.
"The stuff we offer in the class is built around my experiences living in Europe for 15 years," Mr. Corrow, 53, said last week. "I've been to the Gulf War; I spent six months with the U.N. in Bosnia in 1993 investigating war crimes. I personally feel I bring a lot to the table."
But to the Vermont affiliate of the National Education Association, Mr. Corrow's life experiences and willingness to donate his time to enrich the curriculum at the 190-student school aren't the point. The union argues that he is not properly licensed to teach the class, period, and should not be allowed to offer a course for credit as a result.
After receiving a complaint from a teacher at the school, the union this fall filed a grievance with the school board over Mr. Corrow's volunteer teaching. The union argued that the district was obligated, under its collective bargaining agreement, to hire only licensed people. And it asserted that if Mr. Corrow was going to teach, his working conditions, compensation, and benefits should "conform to the terms of the master agreement," according to Mark Hage, a field representative for Vermont- NEA.
"Most people have jumped to the conclusion that a good volunteer is being attacked here," Mr. Hage said, "and that's not the case."
At the time, Mr. Corrow had let his license expire, which he had done before joining the Air Force in the late 1970s.
The volunteer has since brought that license up to date. But the union maintains that he doesn't have the proper endorsement to teach a social studies class, the subject for which his students earned credit last year. Last week, the district decided to offer credit in English for the class.
Superintendent Clif Randolph, who accused the union of "splitting hairs" over the licensure issue, noted that Mr. Corrow is not taking a job from any teacher.
"The teachers' reaction is that they weren't aware this was going on until it was made public in the papers, and the majority of the teachers were upset that anyone was trying to remove him from the school," he said.
The school board also last week rejected a proposal by Vermont-NEA to allow Mr. Corrow to teach the class, but not for credit, and to require that he be supervised while doing so.
The president of Vermont-NEA, Angelo J. Dorta, said his association was trying to hold the line for high standards in focusing on Mr. Corrow's license to teach English, not social studies. Vermont has relatively few instances of such out-of-field teaching, he said, adding that in his four years as president he knew of no other grievances over the issue.
"Are we going to allow district officials to pick and choose the licensing rules they are willing to follow?" Mr. Dorta said, noting that Mr. Corrow taught the class for three years without a current license. "We have here a twilight zone of attitudes toward the teaching profession and the importance of licensing regulations."
A Case of 'Chicken Little?'
Further complicating the volunteer's presence at the school is his status as a member of the school board in Williamstown. State law prohibits board members from being district employees, but because he is unpaid, Mr. Corrow and the superintendent say he's in the clear.
Nevertheless, Mr. Dorta said, his presence in the classroom appears to violate the "spirit of the law."
Mr. Corrow's volunteer work began in 1996, when he offered his class in a semester-long course to try to improve college-bound students' writing skills. The following year, he was elected to the school board.
"This is Vermont," he said. "We have community-based schools. Everybody is involved in our schools. I have a strong sense of ethics and integrity, and if I felt it was a conflict, I would avoid it."
What he also has, Mr. Corrow acknowledges, is a strong sense of what high school students should be learning about writing. That conviction, and his own dissatisfaction with his daughter's experience at Williamstown High, prompted his involvement.
Publicity over the dispute has reached the capital, where state Rep. Howard Crawford is preparing to file a bill that would explicitly permit volunteer teaching. The measure will stipulate that volunteers who teach should be licensed, the Repubican said, but aim to ensure that school boards can use local talent.
"The NEA is like Chicken Little in this case," Mr. Crawford said. "I just think it's an out-of-proportion, inappropriate reaction."
For his part, Mr. Corrow said he intends to continue teaching the class, if students continue to come. As he tells them, "The roots of conflict dwell within us as people."
Vol. 19, Issue 14, Page 3Published in Print: December 1, 1999, as Volunteer Teacher Leads to Conflict With Vt. Union