School's out for teacher after 32 years His career spanned a challenging era


A few years ago, at the beginning of my 30th year of teaching, I sat in a meeting at a Baltimore County high school and, along with about 120 other amazed colleagues, heard an administrator utter the following statement: "Recent studies have shown that 'knowledge' is not important to our students."

Excuse me?

Could a supposedly intelligent educator actually utter such nonsense in public?

As though reading my mind, she repeated herself. She went on to say that what is important is that students have the ability to think critically and to solve difficult "real" problems in life. Fair enough. I don't know of any teacher who would disagree with the importance of critical thinking and problem solving as part of a viable school curriculum.

However, her dismissive attitude toward the importance of knowledge (or, to be more precise, "content") was the impetus for my beginning to consider the idea of retirement. The fact that I hung on for two more years before deciding to retire does not mitigate the impact of her statement. It is the content of a course, after all, that nourishes a student's understanding of math, science and the humanities. Without sufficient basic knowledge, solving "real" problems becomes a much more difficult process.

Furthermore, if there is one phrase used by administrators that will raise a red flag among experienced teachers, it is "Studies have shown I" In the nonscientific field of educational theory, a study will "show" anything its promoters and the sycophants under them want it to show. After all, it was "studies" that gave education such innovations as "open-spaced schools" and the "whole language" approach to reading. The former was abandoned after millions of wasted taxpayer dollars and 20 years of student chaos, and the latter was foisted upon $l elementary school teachers despite the protests of the most experienced among them.

The best administrators with whom I have worked trusted the classroom experiences of their teachers as a more reliable gauge of what works with students. Unfortunately, the era of strong, independent-thinking administrators (with a few exceptions) is long gone. In the 1990s, teachers mean very little, and "studies" mean everything. It will be interesting to see how we view the MSPAP experiment after the politically powerful Nancy Grasmick is gone and we are allowed to evaluate the program objectively.

It would be untrue to say that my retirement is only a result of my disagreement with current educational trends. Very simply, it is time to move on. For 32 years, I worked very hard at what can be a very demanding and difficult job -- teaching English to high school students. My wife recently calculated that I have taught more than 4,000 students in 32,000 class sessions and have graded more than 40,000 essays and 1,000 term papers.

Looking back, I ask myself what most retirees ask: Did I do a good job? Did I make a difference? If loving kids, loving my subject and loving to teach are the criteria, then I was certainly a good teacher. If you were to ask my former students, I really don't know what the overall verdict would be, but I have received some unsolicited opinions over the years. For example, in the past year alone, I received the following from students: A former Hamilton Junior High student, upon turning 40, wrote, "[I] have had an attack of 'nostalgia' I [and want to] thank you for inspiring me to enjoy writing. ... Your students are lucky; I'm grateful to have been one!"

In the same month, I received an envelope from someone who chose to remain anonymous. Within the envelope was a Polaroid photograph of a very large and naked female rear end. On the photo was written, "Kiss my ass." Turning it over, I read, "For a pompous, stuck up, self centered, sexist, bigoted, conceited bastard. From an obviously caring student."

I recently received a note from a graduating senior at my final school, Towson High: "I just want to thank you for being such a great teacher. ... I've really developed a love for classic literature this year -- I even want to major or minor in English in the future."

My conclusion? Two out of three ain't bad!

In 1966, during my first year as a teacher, I sat in the faculty room at Baltimore's Hamilton Junior High and listened to one of the more senior members of the faculty (he called himself an "old warhorse") as he considered ending his 38-year career. He turned to me, the only young, idealistic face in the room, and growled, "You think that you'll hang in for 30 years?" I hadn't

really thought about it, being more concerned about simply getting through this first one. Before I could respond, he continued, "If you do, I guarantee that your first 30 are going to be a lot tougher than mine." A traditionalist, he constantly complained about how children had changed in the previous few years. Each year, they seemed to be more disrespectful and less interested in learning. He didn't envy my future.

In one important way, he was right. I can't imagine anyone's teaching career spanning a more challenging period: 1966-1998. When I began, the war in Vietnam was just starting to heat up and, by the early 1970s, many high school students had adopted the attitude prevalent among contemporary college students: Everyone in the "Establishment" (especially parents and teachers) was a willing tool of a hopelessly corrupt government and economic system and, therefore, had no legitimate authority over far more idealistic young people.

Then Watergate came along, and much of what students believed seemed to be confirmed by the Nixon administration. The late 1970s evolved into the "Me Decade," when the phrase "Do your own thing" became a justification for drug use and sexual promiscuity among many teenagers. The 1980s were less eventful, although many adult role models in the Reagan administration seemed to reinforce the efficacy of greed (see Ron and Nancy's total annual donation to charity) and lying (see Ollie North). Finally, we reached the "postmodern" 1990s, where Bill Clinton has given new meaning to the word "decadence," and we have education administrators joining generations of underachieving students in declaring "knowledge" to be unimportant.

When I look back over my career in high school classrooms, however, I wouldn't trade places with anyone. Most of my time as an English teacher (in six different schools) has been well worth remembering. The most vivid memories are of some crazy, unexpected moments in the classroom.

Back in 1974, after actions by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer and Superintendent Roland Patterson lead to a disastrous five--week teachers' strike, it became clear that the future for education in Baltimore City was not a good one. So, in September of that year (after eight years in the city), I began my Baltimore County career at Catonsville High School.

About one month into the school year, the principal decided to observe a lesson to see what kind of goods he had received from the city. Classroom observations have never bothered me much, but this was my first one in a county school, and I wanted to make a great impression. The class being observed was a rambunctious 10th grade, so I decided not to tell them about the principal's visit. The principal, a rotund man nearing retirement, arrived early. Many of my students had never seen the principal because a health problem kept him in or near his office much of the time. He found a seat in the back of the room and waited for the kids to enter. The first boy through the door saw this portly stranger and shouted, "Who's the fat guy?" So much for good first impressions.

In the early 1980s, when I was teaching at Lansdowne High School, I liked to give my students a writing assignment in which they were asked to imagine having a two-hour lunch with any celebrity (living or dead). They were instructed to tell the reason for their choices and to include questions they would like to ask these celebrities. One young lady wrote that she would like to meet Jesus for lunch. And what was the most important question she had for Jesus Christ? "Do you date?"

Then there was the boy who asked whether you spell "hisself" with one or two s's. There was the social studies teacher who showed so many movies that his students complained to the principal the day he went too far with a fascinating flick titled "Great Exports of Brazil."

One situation I vividly remember occurred when a 10th-grade student reported to the school nurse with an upset stomach and proceeded to give birth in the nurse's suite, which was located so close to my classroom that my students got an early introduction to the sounds, if not the sights, of childbirth. And there was the group of sophomore boys who read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat," a story about a crazed alcoholic who maimed and then hanged his pet cat. Inspired by Poe, the boys came up with more efficient and enjoyable ways to kill cats.

Sometimes I wonder what has happened to many of the thousands of kids I taught. And that is just what they will always be to me: kids. Some of my more jolting experiences occurred when I went to 10- or 20-year reunions of former students, only to be confronted by self-assured adults. They have changed so profoundly, and I am just grayer and more bald. At the 10-year reunion of the Northern High class of 1974, I noticed a former student gazing through his yearbook, commenting on the way he and his friends had changed. Suddenly he came upon an old faculty shot of me. He took a long look at me and began laughing aloud. He beckoned me over to see myself, and there I was, wearing the same shirt in the picture that I was wearing at the reunion.

Finally, it is time for my graduation. As most commencement speakers remind graduating seniors, it is time to move on to new challenges. At the comparatively young age of 53, I will find something new and different; maybe, 10 years from now, friends and acquaintances will be impressed by profound changes in me.

Gary Levin recently retired after 32 years as a teacher in Baltimore city and county schools.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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