by Susan Cohen Smith
Whenever President Obama opines, “Bad teachers need to be fired after being given the opportunity to train effectively,” I am troubled by the vagueness of his statement. Specifically, who should decide when a teacher is bad? What standards are to be used in making that decision? How is the “effective training” opportunity to be realized?
My initial foray into teaching was not altogether different from what may confront a new teacher today. It was characterized by uncertainty, trauma, and virtually nothing in the way of significant support. I was assigned to teach art in an inner-city junior high school on February 1, 1971. I took over for a teacher, a former classmate of mine, who quit mid-year in utter despair.
I was thrown to the wolves quite literally on day one. Each of the classes on my roster contained 33 or more pupils. I was also given an advisory and lunchroom duty where, I remember vividly being pelted with peas.
On February 2, 1971, an art teacher at another junior high school was fatally shot in the schoolyard by one of his students. Upon hearing the news, several of my students informed me that I would be next. Schools were closed on February 3, 1971, in observance of the man’s funeral. I was grateful for the day off.
The following day, my principal formally observed me. The students were not well behaved. I had only met with them one time before, and was not able to establish any sort of management plan. But most were working, albeit not perfectly. The principal spotted an off-task student and with finger wagging, tore into me in front of the class about how I should better monitor my pupils. At my insistence, we adjourned to the hallway where he continued to shout at me. The children, who became silent at the onset of his tirade, went wild.
The principal never set foot in my classroom again. He did, however, place a note in my mailbox and in my personnel file stating that if I didn’t improve, I would be subject to an unsatisfactory rating and to possible disciplinary measures. He suggested I seriously consider other occupations or avenues of employment.
Back in those days, we didn’t quit or change jobs as readily as young people do today. To do so was tantamount to failure. To persist on the job wasn’t always the wisest choice, but quitting just wasn’t an option for most of us who had invested four or more years in post secondary studies.
After the inauspicious beginning of my teaching career, it took a great deal of fortitude and moxie for me to remain on the job. I credit my ability to endure that first half-year to a colleague, a diminutive woman with years of experience in the classroom, who serendipitously took me under her wing and effectively gave me what my college curriculum lacked. It wasn’t all smooth sailing during those 36 years that followed, but I humbly believe that I have made a small contribution in more than a few people’s lives. My collection of cherished memories and gratifying moments convince me that my years of teaching were, for the most part, well spent.
Many of my students went on to art colleges or to other post-secondary studies. They became teachers, lawyers, carpenters, engineers, nurses, plumbers, police officers, movie stars and parents. One is the CEO of an international non-profit health organization who authored a book and listed me first on her acknowledgement page. Many of them still see me, keep in touch with me and regard me highly.
I often think about the very different set of circumstances that may have occurred had I followed the advice of my first principal. His superiors must have realized that he was unfit to handle the rigors of a volatile urban junior high school and eventually he was “kicked upstairs” to a supervisory position. This practice of promoting incompetence on the administrative level, of course, persists today. Indeed, those furthest removed from the education process make up the majority of the decision makers; the latest trend focuses on the business community as education experts.
The President of the United States, in making those sweeping pronouncements about education, must recognize that those who judge teachers are sometimes unsuited to make such determinations based on their limited observations.
I am reminded of the words of an administrator, mistress of the malaprop, who realized she had produced an unfounded negative assessment of me: “I must have misconscrewed what you said.”
Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher. She taught Art and French for 36 years. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org