The gift that keeps on giving

by Susan Cohen Smith

Sometimes the rewards of teaching come years after retirement. My former student, Edward Chung, is for me, the gift that keeps on giving.

A ninth grader struggling in my French 1 class submitted his written work accompanied by the most fascinating drawings. The following year this young man fortuitously appeared in my Art 1 class. During the subsequent three#1 years, he went on to win first place in almost every citywide art contest in the Philadelphia district. To work off his detentions, he did a drawing of the school, which was reproduced and given as a parting gift to retiring staff members.

Edward is a naturally gifted traditional artist, whose ability to faithfully record exquisitely detailed images from memory is surpassed only by his expressive, emotionally charged, technically excellent, stunningly beautiful creations. As a child in Hong Kong, he began drawing on his bedroom wallpaper. For him, artistic expression has always been a powerful vehicle for translating his vivid mental imagery into tangible visual reality.

In Edward’s senior year, I had more than my share of “Service Learners:” students who have enough credits for graduation but need to fill up their rosters. Not really wanting to serve, a restless Edward needed something constructive to do but it couldn’t be another contest or mural for the school. I had the perfect project for him. My husband had framed out an area off our second floor with the intention of creating a door that would lead to an outdoor deck. For two years, I suffered the sight of the Tyvec building material where the door would go. I had the idea of painting a trompe l’oeil mural of a door to hide the offensive Tyvec panel.

My husband cut a piece of plywood the size of the opening and brought it to school. Edward ably sketched a drawing of a door with a large glass window. For the window’s reflection, I handed him a crude snapshot of the buildings

Original Photo 2001

Original Photo 2001



Edward (right) and helper with completed painting in school.

across the street from where the painting would be installed. It so happens that across my street was the rear of the Art Deco Reliance Insurance building, an area of greenery, a parking area, and a bagel shop with striped awning. To my amazement, Edward did a convincing, detailed sketch of the structures, as they would appear in the window’s reflection merely by looking at the poor quality photo. Next, he executed a skillful representation of the door in outdoor acrylic paint. He obligingly used the same distinctive color paint to match our front door.

In March 2001, my husband hung Edward’s painting of a door on the outside of our house and it has been there ever since. It has been quite a neighborhood attraction, even more so now that the building across the street has turned into the Perelman Annex of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The site that Edward painted is where the rather unattractive addition to the Perelman has been appended to the old building, much to the chagrin of the neighbors facing it. Edward’s faux door painting serves as a reminder of how the site used to look.

Over the years, the painting took a beating from the elements and was beginning to fade. I needed to find Edward to restore the mural. With my son’s help, I located him and renewed our acquaintance. Edward was pleased to hear from me but was sad to have to tell me that his career as an artist was going nowhere.

He had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Digital Media and had not been able to find a job in his field in three years. He did not want to visit his family in Hong Kong because he was ashamed of his situation. His mother always told him that I brought him luck and success in high school. So I took on the daunting task of helping him to find a job in a crowded field during the worst economic recession in recent memory.

I scrutinized his resume and website and tried to learn ways to improve them. Never having had experience in web design, it was an education for me as well. What I noticed about his latest work was that it lacked the imagination and mesmerizing attention to detail that his high school work had. Edward’s greatest asset was his ability to elevate ordinary, mundane subject matter into extraordinary works of art, an element totally absent in his college work. I also recognized that he had lost all confidence in himself as an artist. I know firsthand that Art School has a way of tamping down youthful exuberance. My alma mater had a similar affect on me many years before.

I don’t accept credit for it, but within three months of our renewed relationship, Edward Chung landed what he calls his “dream job.” Within a very short time, his enthusiasm and zest for life returned.

 Edward Chung continues to keep in touch with me. He seems to be enjoying his life to the fullest. Knowing that I played a small part in his success is probably the most gratifying reward a retired teacher could hope for.

#4#5 Ta DaHe successfully repainted the trompe l’oeil painting of the door on site, perched on the roof outside of my second floor. He spent many hours in the sun after work on this endeavor that dragged on longer than expected because of weather-related delays. After a painting session, Edward would join us for dinner. He entertained my family with lively conversation and impressed us with his gustatory sophistication.

Edward Chung continues to keep in touch with me. He seems to be enjoying his life to the fullest. Knowing that I played a small part in his success is probably the most gratifying reward a retired teacher could hope for.

 Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at

Public must scrutinize district spending



by Susan Cohen Smith


It has been said that, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As news of the School District of Philadelphia’s new leadership team and windfall budget sinks in, it would be prudent to recall lessons learned from the past.


When the School Reform Commission was formed in 2001, the system was in financial as well as academic distress. With the appointment of Paul Vallas as CEO came an influx of new money for educational reforms. The workforce tentatively acknowledged Vallas’ ideas and new leadership.


Some of us were slow to jump on board, and reluctant to accept the alien presence of Vallas’ Chicago imports whom we sometimes referred to as the “Square-Toes” for their preference in footwear.  When in the presence of downtown administrative types, many of us instinctively gazed down at their shoes to determine if they were the new guys from Chicago.


One such administrator was charged with heading up the new Secondary Education Movement.  Student Governments fell within his bailiwick. The SRC’s first act with regard to Student Government had been to do away with the longstanding, largely ceremonial tradition of including student representatives on the School Board. These positions had come with the honor of having the students’ names lettered on office doors at the 21st Street headquarters, which the SRC also did away with, but that’s another blog.


To make up for this slight, the new head of Secondary Education promised an enthusiastic gathering of Student Government sponsors a whopping $1000 annual budget plus a host of other unprecedented activities and opportunities for students. The goal was to prepare the student leaders of each secondary school for the world after high school and to encourage kids to get involved with the often-thankless tasks surrounding student government.


While some of these promises and programs were eventually enacted, their implementation was inconsistent and short-lived.


One interesting innovation introduced by this Chicago transplant was a program called Senior Residency, whereby outstanding 12th grade students were identified and recruited for service to their schools. For satisfactory performance of their assigned duties, the Senior Residents were paid a stipend of $100 a month and received academic credit as well. We were warned never to say double-dipping.


The following directive went out to the high schools:


“Seniors will be required to wear a specially designed uniform while serving as a Senior Residency participant. The uniform will consist of a Secondary Education Movement logo polo shirt and the approved bottoms of their respective school.”


At sponsors’ meetings, we questioned the value of this expenditure, as the shirts would be worn only for a few months by kids who were graduating and would never again wear them. We were told that the administrator ordered them and that was that.


The high-quality polo shirts, along with heavy cotton button-down long-sleeved shirts, each with embroidered logo, all in size XL, arrived the first week in June! The seniors who were still around refused to wear either shirt in the sweltering buildings. One of the Residents refashioned her oversized polo shirt into a mini dress.


This same Chicago Square-Toe also spent enormous amounts of newfound money on elaborate High School Fairs, referred to by many as his “dog and pony shows”.


To no one’s surprise, he left the School District of Philadelphia after three years on the job, just before the $180 million surprise deficit surfaced in 2006 to become Superintendent of another urban school district in the Midwest. It became clear that his lavish spending practices were nothing more than portfolio enhancements to enrich his job search.


Right now, with a fresh look to the School Reform Commission and new money in the coffers, there must be unrelenting public vigilance and outcry the moment these new faces appear to head in the same direction as their predecessors. Indefensible spending based on dubious and untested practices must be vigorously held to critical examination and intense scrutiny lest we find ourselves in the same mess as in 2006.


Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at


Bad evaluations don’t always equal bad teachers



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


Paul Vallas reincarnated?



by Susan Cohen Smith


On a sweltering September day in 2002, mad dogs and school teachers sat out in the midday sun, awaiting the arrival of Starship Vallas to descend on our wretched souls and breathe new life into the beleaguered Philadelphia public school system.


Paul Vallas sailed into the School District of Philadelphia promising sweeping reforms and a new day in public education. I clearly recall that even I, a seasoned, but somewhat cynical teacher, was so energized and hopeful by the dynamism of our new leader that I dropped everything I should have been doing to prepare for the new school year and spent precious time attending to his first directive.


I was asked to compile a detailed inventory of my classroom furniture: every desk, chair, cabinet, pencil sharpener, etc. and its age, condition and functionality. The incentive for the swift completion of this task was the promise of new equipment and furnishings because “Mr. Vallas is committed to world class arts programs in the high schools.”


I dutifully documented each student desk, teacher desk, shelf, bulletin board, sink, storage cabinet, etc. whose precise age I knew for certain because they were the exact same fixtures that existed in my classroom when I was a student at that school in the sixties!


When Paul Vallas left the system in 2006, those very same desks and furnishings were still in that classroom, the promise of their replacement left unfulfilled by the “surprise” multi-million dollar budget deficit that emerged toward the end of Mr. Vallas’ tenure as CEO.


Experienced Philadelphia teachers are understandably weary of the hoopla and lofty imaginings of the district’s current Superintendent. They have heard it all before—only to have it forgotten when funds do not materialize, or when the crisis du jour takes precedence over the implementation of new initiatives, or when the five years of the Superintendent’s contract are up, which ever comes first.


Our detractors will accuse us of institutionalized pessimism and failure to put the students first. It will take a lot more than a 34 page draft of recycled ideas to fire up the hearts and minds of those in the trenches in Philly schools.


What I would have liked to see in Imagine 2014:


Who exactly is going to evaluate teachers’ performance and effectiveness? Will they be the administrators who have achieved their goal of fleeing the classroom?


A rethinking of the absurd “Easy Pass” grading system of no grade under 50.


An exploration of the possibility of requiring administrative personnel to teach on a regular basis to give them first-hand understanding of how these initiatives should be implemented.


A new requirement of all Charter Schools to accept, educate and retain all students who choose to attend their schools, even those students who do not conform to their standards of behavior, attendance and academic success.


So much of Ackerman’s plan depends on the recruitment and retention of new and presumably better teachers. Veteran teachers wonder how she plans to stem the flow of enthusiastic, motivated, knowledgeable new teachers walking out the door after receiving their floating rosters or when the supports they’ve been promised fail to materialize.


One thing is certain. In 2014, there will be a new strategic plan with a new set of goals accompanied by a new lexicon of terms in the School District of Philadelphia.


Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at


District officials must solve problems, not rename them

by Susan Cohen Smith


Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The School District of Philadelphia’s new Superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, has embraced the time-honored method of enacting wholesale institutional change within the Philadelphia school system: if something’s not working, change its name and call it something different.


Once upon a time, there were Department Heads in Philadelphia high schools. They were positions that required passing a test and paid a higher salary than that of a teacher. Department Heads were knowledgeable in their academic disciplines, most held doctoral degrees, and they gave valued assistance to both beginning teachers as well as seasoned veterans in a non-threatening, demonstrable way.


Although their teaching loads were reduced, Department Heads still taught a class or two, and were nearby to handle minor student discipline problems. A good Department Head was invaluable for maintaining academic integrity within their subject area, managing textbook and supply inventories, and mentoring teachers in their departments.


Some administrators became peeved because Department Heads were earning more money than principals.  Department Heads also taught less than a classroom teacher and, because of PFT contract regulations, they could not be forced to formally observe and rate other teachers.   


There may have been a few bad apples who took advantage of the relative autonomy of the Department Head position, but no more than other education professionals in other positions.


To some administrative higher-ups, Department Heads had it too good.  They represented nirvana because they had achieved the coveted status of getting out of the classroom, being paid a decent salary, and escaping the heinous task of dealing with unproductive staff. They had to go!


The School District’s solution? Blame Department Heads for the decline in student achievement at the high school level. Phase out the position of Department Head and eventually replace all but a handful of them with a new nomenclature: Small Learning Community Coordinators.


This accomplished many goals. Under the guise of creating smaller schools within a school, an SLCC is paid at a teacher’s salary, is selected by the principal and need not possess any particular expertise in an academic discipline. Best of all, there is no job description for this position in the teachers’ contract so they can be made to perform various and sundry duties at the whim of the principal.


Unlike Department Heads, they can also be returned to their classroom duties at the principal’s discretion; it is far easier to rename a Small Learning Community and select a new coordinator than to do away with, say, an English Department.


The public believes it is getting a leader to monitor students more intimately than before, and that enormous high schools are being pared down to manageable schools within schools. Problem solved! Think again.


The case of the Department Head is but a single example of the many instances that the SDP has rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic. Remember Junior High Schools? They were hotbeds of teenaged angst and the bane of public education for many years. There is no more problem in this area because the name was changed to Middle Schools.


Then there was the practice of Mainstreaming.  This process allowed special education students to attend non-academic classes if it was determined they could handle the subject fairly well alongside regular education students.  This served to acclimate the special needs student to the general student population, and to reduce their isolation status.


Mainstreaming was then changed to Inclusion.  When this happened, the number of special education students attending regular classes grew astronomically. The teachers of these classes didn’t need special education training, nor did they have to be paid a salary differential on the elementary level. It provided tremendous relief and flexibility for rostering in secondary schools. Soon, there were instances whereby the special education students in a regular education class outnumbered the regular education students!


The list goes on and on.  Those of us cursed with institutional memory are usually shunned or at best, tolerated by the current crop of administrators.  We remind them of how they got into some of the dilemmas they face today.


For the want of expediency and cost cutting, education has suffered.  The original motives behind many of the changes were relatively unknown to all but a few—and remembered by fewer.  The causes of many of today’s ills are wrongfully attributed, and their solutions, such as the ones proposed by Dr. Ackerman, are wrong-headed.


Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at