I began teaching in the fall of 1971, unless you count my student teaching, which was in in the spring semester at Xenia High School in 1971. I was fortunate enough to get to student teach with my mentor Mrs. Martha L. who had been my French teacher at that same school for three years.
Actually, I did not get to teach with her long. She greeted me when I came in by telling me she was delighted I could student teach for her because she had some surgery coming up and would off for most of the semester. The principal at the time informed me later that I would be serving as the substitute for her absence at her request. So, I sort of student taught, sort of just taught.
I have informed the director of Human Resources, Mr. Aaron Page, who I knew well since he had been the principal of the black secondary school, East High when I was in 8th grade, that I would like a job in the system in the fall. Being a nerd, I had stayed in college longer than necessary and therefore, had certification in French, History and Political Science. He, like all of the other black teachers and administrators was kind of shoved into a position to give him the least contact with white students in the newly integrated school system. So, instead of being a building principal he was now the director of human resources, a job he was overqualified for.
For some reason I will never understand nor forgive, he forgot about me and I ended up having to scramble for a job, and ended up teaching my first year at Cedarville High School in a tiny town about eight miles away from Xenia. I was hired by the Superintendent while the Principal was away. I had no way to know that the two did not get along and the Principal would consider me being hired by the Superintendent a smack in his face and a usurping of his authority.
I was, basically, in the middle of a fight. I did not know this, but I kind of got the feeling it was going to be a bit of a struggle when the Principal, named Guthry, greeted me, before he said “hello” with ” The students have never had a black teacher before, they might not like you.” The kids, it turned out loved me. Mr. G, not so much. The only “superior” rating I got on my annual evaluation was for ” appearance.”
For obvious reasons I chose not to work there a second year. Instead I was hired by the Dayton, Ohio school system to teach at iconic Roosevelt High School, an inner city virtually all black school. So I went from country white kids, some of whom missed school to cut off lamb’s tails ( I had not known lamb’s had long tails), or go put turkeys up if it rained because as the daughter of the turkey farm owner, Chandra, told me, “Turkeys are so stupid they will look up to see where the rain is coming from and drown when the water chokes them.” I have recently had some thoughts about what she told me after watching the January 6th Hearings and realizing there are Trump supporters still looking up for his leadership, but I digress.
My second year was challenging for entirely different reasons than my first. I had not had to convince the Cedarville students that I was worthy to teach them. My Roosevelt kids, I taught juniors and seniors Government and American History, were not impressed with me at first. Turns out that when I was hired in late September, I was the third teacher they had had. The other two had quit. Uh oh.
My first issue came when I checked into the main office and was told to give them my purse so they could lock it up. The administration informed me the kids would steal if I left it in my desk even if I locked the desk. I informed them I would be keeping my purse with me and would watch it. I was not going to insult students I had never met by presuming them to be thieves.
My year there was way more of an education for me than any teaching I did. I had grown up 18 miles from Dayton, but I learned that city folks, inner city folks, have very, very different experiences, outlooks, challenges and heartaches than us suburban/country blacks.
I put a picture on my desk of my husband, my son Michael, who would have been about five, and our cocker spaniel. The students acted like I was an alien. My speech, my clothes, my picture, my everything was so odd to them that they spent a lot of time asking me questions.
At first they wanted nothing to do with academics. Being a new teacher I was stumped, I finally announced that anyone interested in learning should pull a desk up to the front of the room. I got about six the first day. By the end of two weeks I had almost all of them. As a matter of fact the ones in the back of the room goofing off started making comments like , “Aren’t we good enough to teach?”
Roosevelt was one of my favorite years to teach. I loved those young people, and they loved me for the most part. I had students who worked the night shift at factories because their families needed the money and then came to school. I had at least one young woman who would be gone for three or four days and come back, when I asked what was going on she informed me she had had to go ” make some money.”
I still 50 years later tear up remembering my puzzlement when one young man began to borrow inconsequential things from me after 8th period. He would appear at my door, he was in third period class, and ask to borrow a pencil, an eraser, a paperclip, etc., and then in the morning when I went to unlock the classroom he would be waiting to give it back to me.
I finally asked one of the black veteran teachers why he was doing this. She told me, he wants to make sure you come back.
I mentioned at one point that I had to make a birthday cake for my son. Several of the students informed me they had never had a birthday cake. So, I made birthday cakes. I learned three important things at Roosevelt that would shape my career until I stopped teaching college in 2015. If you students know you care about them, they will do anything you ask and more. Second, never let anyone tell you about your students. Third, you have to be willing to learn as well as teach.
Fast forward, I got pregnant with our second child and decided I needed to be closer to our home in Xenia. I was hired to teach French and History in the fall of 1973 and left Xenia Schools to get my masters in 1989. I tried to go back, loved my kids, after I finished, but the only job available was at a school where the administration had a bit of a distaste for me, since I was privy to some pretty bad secrets about one of them. The person they hired in my place was convinced to having sex with one of the students and jailed. Karma.
So, I needed a job. I ended up getting a call from a friend who worked at the Ohio Board of Regents to be the Director of a program at a local Community College and teach history there as needed, for extra money, of course. I did that until 2002-2003 when I got the opportunity to be a Library of Congress Research fellow. While in DC at one of the residencies I got a call from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ended up there as an administrator and had a faculty appointment in the School of Education. I was also the Chair of the Black Faculty Staff Caucus.
I retired in 2013, came back to Wilberforce and did some teaching for Central State U across from my house. I am now a diversity consultant and work a couple of times a year doing assessments for colleges.
I tried substitute teaching for a while, partly because I am friends with the local Superintendent, and partly because since I write about education, I think it is important to keep your hand in. That did not work after about 2 years, I only did it a few times a month. Loved the kids, it was the teachers that made me quit .
When I was teaching, as I like to say, back when the earth was still cooling, I loved my job, I loved my students, I liked my parents, I liked almost all of my principals. I lived in the town I taught in. I saw my parents at the store, at the football games, at various civic events. I asked them to chaperone field trips.
In the early 80s when my classroom needed painting and the school system said there was no money I organized my parents, who reached out to other parents, I got the paint donated by a local store and we painted the whole damn first floor of the school on a Saturday. The local KFC donated lunch for all of us.
About the same time a levy failed, and kids were told they had pay fees to play sports, a lot of them could not afford it. Again, my other teachers and I sprang into action. We visited stores in town and asked for donations of anything we could raffle off for money. The local sports store guy gave us sneakers, even the local thrift store gave us a new garden hose someone had given them. We held raffles at halftime of football, basketball games and made a slush fund the kids could use to apply for the money to pay their fees.
My husband ran the clock for the freshman football team and me, an English teacher and a math teacher, all women, ran the chains.
We were respected. We were cared about. We were basically loved by our community and the feeling was mutual. Almost immediately upon beginning to substitute I saw things had changed. There was very little cohesiveness among the staff, instead there were cliques. Virtually none of them lived in town. Granted, I only subbed at the secondary level, little people are not my cup of tea in a classroom. I subbed once as a favor to a principal friend for half a day in a fourth-grade classroom. Hardest half day of my life. The kids were very curious about me, one boy cried because he lost his lunch money on the bus, I gave him new lunch money, he cried more and insisted on hugging me. I had only taught secondary school before that. This being the 70s and 80s some of my students did hug me, but they did not cling to my waist and sob into my stomach for five minutes in gratitude.
My new crop of secondary teachers, there are, of course, exceptions, have an entirely different attitude about their students, the parents of said students and the administration. Granted, there were administrators that teachers were not fond of when I was teaching, but we did not have an adversarial relationship with them. And, our parents were our backup. If one of my students went home and told his or her parents that I had been mean to them they would more than likely have been told to suck it up. Again, I knew my parents from civic events, etc., my husband coached elementary football, Little League and Pop Warner baseball, etc. We were not big church goers, but we were big community event goers. We had season tickets to the basketball games and attended all the football games. We ate in the same restaurants.
Each year, at the beginning of the semester I announced to my students that I was going to have the same relationship timewise with them that their mother had originally–nine months. Therefore, I informed them, we are part of each other’s lives for the rest of our lives, like it or not. You are, I told them, My students, you will always been one of my students and I will be proud of you when you do well and I will mourn if you do badly.
Because it has been so long ago I sometimes now get pictures from my former students, the early ones, of their grandchildren. When I run into former students and their children in town I tell the children, I am their Grandteacher.
Granted, new teachers have a much harder row to hoe than we did since the Republicans have upped their war on education. Parents do not trust them, seemingly a lot of the administrators do not protect or support them. Their decisions from curriculum to language to lifestyle are questioned in ways ours never were thirty plus years ago. However, much of it is their fault individually and collectively.
I always, always, made sure my first contact with a parent was not negative. If I had to construct something that was only semi-true about how much I enjoyed their child, tell them an anecdote about something funny they said or did or something sweet or if they aced a test, I made sure they heard about that. At this point I have to admit that many of the classes I taught were electives, like French so that if I did not like the student or he or she did not like me we were not required to be together. Teachers now have to make a coalition with their parents too. There are other advantages to knowing a bit about your student’s homelife. You can pick up on some of the influences of their behavior and attitudes.
Second, teachers have to become active in their unions and insist they fight back against what the Republicans are trying to accomplish. They have to restore respect for teachers. Not very long ago the idea that any backward state would try to declare you do not need a degree to teach as Arizona has recently done, would not be tolerated by anyone, but would have definitely gotten the ire brought down on them by the teachers’ union. It is hard to tell what came first the chicken or the egg, but when I was teaching these increasing encroachments on teacher decision making would never have been tolerated. I do not know if the unions lost power first or if the teachers stopped supporting the unions or society just decided to abandon teachers to the vagaries of a political party that thrives on ignorance.
But, one of the main things that needs to happen is that teachers have to realize something that should not take that long to realize. Kids who are not engaged with the learning process for whatever reason tend to be behind academically and often, a discipline problem. I am sorry but a lot of the problems the current crop of secondary students give them are because they are bored shitless.
These are not like my students. They have a computer in their pocket and access to the internet. It is folly as so many teachers try to do, to keep the students from having access to their phones. Use your imagination and design a lesson plan that uses the resources of the phones instead. Most campuses have some kind of internet blocks that could keep them from accessing things they should not. They are addicted to their phones, use their addiction. Use your imagination. Creative teachers have high performing students who love them. I have students in their 50s who talk about activities we did in my classes when they were 15, and we had never heard of the internet.
Do not rely on multiple choice or true false or anything that mundane for evaluation of student academic progress. Make your students think, use their critical skills, give them research projects as early at 6th grade, maybe earlier. Argue with them about their results. I always told my students; I am going to argue with you even if I agree you because when I say you are right you stop thinking. If you are teaching history present them with historical questions and scenarios. What would have happened in the U.S. if black people had been accepted as equals from the beginning? What would have happened if the attempts to declare only WASPS as white people and others like the Italians and Irish had remained discriminated against? Would the blacks, Irish and Italians have joined forces and overthrown the WASPS? If so, what would America look like now? The scenarios you could come up with would be endless, and the students would have to provide evidence to support their positions, of course, along with where they got their information.
Imaginative teaching takes more time to prepare for but it pays off richly.
Next time: Teacher training is in the toilet and must be repaired and cleaned off.