Teaching Opinion

Democracy: Who Educates the Educators?

By Leo Casey — November 20, 2014 7 min read
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Leo Casey replies again today to Deborah Meier.

Dear Deb:

In three decades as a teacher and teachers’ union leader, I taught in only two schools, Clara Barton High School for the Health Professions and Bard High School Early College. As public schools go, they are quite different in a number of ways, including the ways in which they could be described as democratic.

Clara Barton is a career-technical education high school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. In my 14 years of teaching there, I bore witness to the intense racial and economic segregation of New York City and its schools: I never taught a single white student, even though the school is a short 10-minute walk from the trendy Park Slope neighborhood. My students were entirely youth of color, mostly immigrants and predominantly female. Most of them lived in poverty.

I came to Clara Barton thinking I would teach there for a few years until I finished my doctoral dissertation and went on to change the world in academia or political organizing. But before very long, I found myself caring deeply for the students I taught, and discovered a purpose in teaching them that gave deep meaning to my life. Some time ago, I told the story of my first year at Barton, focusing on my experiences teaching a young immigrant student from Haiti who went on to become an extraordinary writer. I gave that account the title “The Redemptive Power of Public Education” because it captured the transformative grace of those experiences.

By its demographic profile, Clara Barton is an inner-city school, but for all the years I taught there, it never allowed itself to be defeated by the streets or by the growing inequality of American society. In the years since I left, Clara Barton has refused to be defeated by a Department of Education that, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein, was at best indifferent to the work its educators did. Under conditions that are often trying and difficult, it continued to provide an education that opened doors of opportunity, of knowledge, and of citizenship to young people.

While Clara Barton has certainly had its struggles, as even the best school serving the inner-city would, it was a place where I was able to make a real difference in the lives of young people, helping them discover in themselves the power of democratic citizenship that could change their community and our society for the better. Yet Barton has always had a hierarchical governance structure, Deb, of the sort that neither you nor I would recognize as democratic. A number of its past principals had strong democratic instincts and were supportive of the citizenship education that I and other teachers did with our students. In my years, we built a strong union chapter in the school, and the principal genuinely consulted with us on important issues. But for the most part, the school was governed in a traditional way.

Bard High School Early College (known by its acronym, BHSEC) is a collaboration between Bard College and the New York City public schools. Its students complete their high school course work and graduation requirements in the 9th and 10th grades, and then take college courses in the 11th and 12th grades. They graduate with an Associate degree from Bard. BHSEC views itself as much a college as a high school, and this means that there are no important educational questions that are decided without democratic decisionmaking by the faculty. The teachers in a particular department are the key decisionmakers in hiring new staff, in setting curriculum, and in designing and implementing professional development.

What was important to me, especially after my years at Clara Barton, was BHSEC’s social-justice commitment to having a school and a student body that looked like New York City in all of its diversity. While fewer and fewer African-American and Latino students were admitted into elite high schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science during the tenure of Bloomberg and Klein, BHSEC developed a fairer, more robust admissions process that used performance assessments rather than a standardized exam, and it brought into the school substantial numbers of all the city’s races and ethnic groups. On more than one occasion, I taught classes that were for all intents and purposes equally divided among African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and white students. Just as important was the democratic culture of BHSEC: It cultivated an ethic of public service in its extraordinarily talented and intelligent students. And that helped give rise to a student body that was as genuinely embracing of racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual difference as any group of young people I have ever met.

But even at BHSEC we were not successful in building a meaningful peer evaluation program during my years there, despite the fact that everyone, both teacher and administrator, thought it would be a good idea.

Time and energy were in short supply in a school that already dedicated great amounts of time and energy to the meetings that are the necessary medium of democracy, and that had adopted such valuable, but labor intensive, practices as including written narratives of student progress with course grades. (What was the quip attributed to Oscar Wilde—the problem with socialism was that it would take too many meetings?)

For all their differences, I consider myself blessed as a teacher to have taught at both Clara Barton and BHSEC. Not blessed in the sense that some power outside of myself and the other educators in these schools brought good fortune to us. We made our own blessings, and we often did so out of the most trying circumstances. I taught in Clara Barton during the height of the crack epidemic, when there were gun fights on the streets outside of our school and when a gun was fired in the students’ cafeteria.

I became a union activist leading a struggle to have our school building closed and cleaned of dangerous asbestos that was set loose when the Department of Education had asbestos-containing material torn out of the ceilings and walls without the safety measures required by law—and with students and teachers present. We spent weeks in other schools until our building was once again safe to inhabit. (I told that story here.) But we found a way to persevere, and to provide our students a good, dare I say liberatory, education.

As a teachers’ union leader who represented our members in New York City’s hundreds of academic high schools, I visited more schools than I can remember. And in many instances, I was in a school because it was in serious trouble: A union leader is not unlike the dean who sees every student in the school with a behavioral issue. Autocratic and tyrannical principals; incompetent school administrations; toxic school cultures of disrespect for teachers, students, and families: I have seen them all and more.

But I’ve also seen many great schools where educators demonstrated the truth of the maxim that teachers are ordinary people who did extraordinary things in the service of their students.

No one becomes a teacher to become rich. We do so out of a vocation, a calling to educate and care for young people. Given the right opportunities, the necessary organization, resources, and supports, the overwhelming preponderance of teachers will do the right thing—and much more—for their students.

But we teachers also do what we know how to do. Schools with democratic practices were most likely to be created, I discovered, when their founding leaders had worked in a school that employed those same practices, and had actually lived the hard, difficult work of democracy. Without that experience, the best of intentions could be easily undone. Revolutionary pretensions aside and Greek mythology aside, democracy does not spring forth, fully shaped, from our minds. It is painstakingly built from our practices. The problem remains, as the old man once said, “Who will educate the educators?”

What lessons do I draw from these experiences?

Democracy is never a finished achievement, a permanent structure. It is an ongoing process. Democracy suffers setbacks, as well as makes advances, and democratic victories are accomplishments of the moment. Democratic struggles have to be fought and refought every generation, in society as much as in schools. A half-century ago, as the Voting Rights Act was passed, who would have thought that today we would be fighting against voter suppression laws?

Schools are not neatly divided, on the one side democratic, on the other side autocratic. Rather, there is a continuum, in which schools are more or less democratic. And while there certainly are public schools that fell far more to the side of the less democratic, the public character of public schools remains the indispensable foundation of democracy in schools.


Leo Casey is the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a policy and research think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. For 27 years, he worked in the New York City public high schools, where he taught high school social studies. For six years, he served as the vice president for academic high schools for New York City’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.

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