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

June 21, 1998|By Gary Levin

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.

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