My first year in Boston was a blur. Despite getting the teaching job in Winchester I kept my bartending gig, usually working Thursday night, Friday and/or Saturday night, and Sunday brunch. Even though that would be a “full plate” for any “normal” person, I also took a part-time position at Hellenic College, a Greek Orthodox institution in Brookline, teaching United States History on Monday, Wednesday, Friday afternoons from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. (with the fringe benefit of watching the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics practice in the Hellenic gym!) I’d be less than honest to not note here that my weekends (following a strict Friday night through Sunday night regimen) were classic examples of drug/alcohol excesses. Like any good addict, I denied having a “problem” and it was a crazy, careening three years that, naturally, ended with a (rather anticlimactic but predictable) crash and burn. In spite of my “bad behavior,” my time at Winchester was wildly successful, a veritable highlight reel while it lasted.
The first weekend I lived in Boston I took the “B” line from the stop in front of my apartment building in Brighton to Kenmore Square and walked over to Fenway Park, where I bought a bleacher seat ticket and took in a Red Sox game. It was a beautiful July afternoon and, at that point, I was still adjusting to the move. One of the most immediate challenges I faced was understanding the natives! The famed Boston accent required some getting used to and I spent at least three or four weeks saying, “Excuse me?” Once I began teaching I encountered the same problem with my students. “Hey, Mr. Jawn-son, are you gonna potty this weekend?” Quizzically, I’d ask, “Potty? Potty? Like go to the bathroom?” “No!” they’d howl, “No! You know, potty . . . like drink beer, and all …” I’d feign that I finally understood, “Ah, you mean party! Why can’t you guys speak English?” They’d howl with delight and continue to make fun of me and my crazy accent that insisted on pronouncing the letter “R.”
It was during this year that Herndon’s Notes from a School Teacher was released and, naturally, I gobbled it up. The timing seemed fortuitous. How to Survive appeared just before my teaching career began and now, pausing to restart my career, a new Herndon book. While Notes echoes some of the basic ideas of How to Survive (particularly regarding school structure) it also reflects the shifts that had occurred across the educational landscape over those dozen-plus years . Writing in the early 1980s, as the President of his Local Union, Herndon takes on the hot issues of the time: “standards,” “time on task,” “merit pay,” and “teacher evaluation.” The last one particularly irks the author, as it seeks to quantify what he believes is essentially unknowable.
Herndon frames his discussion of teacher evaluation using the merit pay issue, quoting AFT President Albert Shanker:
The idea that if you’re paid more you’ll work harder may apply
to selling encyclopedias. If you’re a lion-tamer, you’re not
going to work any harder just because you’ll be paid more. The
job of a teacher is more like a lion-tamer, I think.
As Herndon describes it:
You begin to teach as a lion-tamer, to be sure, and if not
eaten up, go on to ask other teachers what they do here
and there, what “works” for them, and quite soon, by some
curious amalgam, you develop a way to work in the classroom,
which suits you and which you think is best . . . best, considering
the various and vast distances between what you must do, want
to do, and can do. (p. 83)
At Blind Brook I had been a Humanities teacher, a Social Studies teacher, an American Studies teacher, a History teacher, an Ethical Issues teacher --- but never a full time English teacher, which is what I was now in Winchester. My teaching assignment was: “lower” track Juniors ( U.S. Literature and Poetry); A T.V./Media course (for “low track” Seniors); and one group of “challenged” Sophomores, for a writing class using our shiny new Macintosh computers. After several weeks working with “my kids” I realized that everything I believed about tracking was true, particularly about expectations. My students had been told they were “low-achievers” and therefore became low achievers. I wasn’t having any of it. From the start I let them know that I thought they were pretty smart and could, if they put their minds to it, easily achieve success in my classes --- if they met me halfway and worked at it! It took some time (lion-taming) but, in relatively short order, they were doing great work and, more important, we were having fun.
Winchester High School was a world away from Blind Brook. It was four times as big, in terms of number of students and physical size. To me it was a throwback --- much more like the Bay Shore High School I attended in the mid-Sixties than the Blind Brook of the mid-1970s/early 1980s. Winchester had not been touched by the Sixties “school reform” movement but it was sensitive to the Federal rumblings bubbling up in the mid-1980s. In Notes from a School Teacher, Herndon writes that public education has been subjected to periodic pendulum swings, starting with the Committee of Ten in 1893, followed by the Carnegie Foundation Reports (around 1910), then Dewey’s Progressive movement promoted by Columbia University in the 1930’s --- with the Sputnik Revolution shifting our educational focus in 1957. The late 1960s saw the advent of the “school reform/alternative school” movement and, by the mid-1980’s Herndon rails about the Committee on Excellence and their recommendations. His point is: the pendulum swings from left (progressive) reforms to right (conservative) reforms but very little actually changes for the classroom teacher. So, while still deeply interested in genuine school reform I figured the best I could do, for the time being, was teach as a subversive activity (thank you, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner), introducing Winchester High School to some new ideas inside my classroom.
This created some “buzz” at Winchester High. While I only taught about 125 kids (out of a student body of approximately 1600) they were the “middle/low track” kids and, therefore, part of the numerical majority of the student body (AP & “Honors” students comprised not more than 20% of the student population). Anyone who has worked in a school knows how quickly news/gossip spreads and, before I knew it, random kids were popping into my room during free periods to check out the "new guy." My students thought I was a “good” teacher, apparently, and pretty “cool,” at that (I was conversant in the popular music of the day, sports talk, movies & tv --- “popular culture” --- and tied that into school as much as possible). My Dad always said the only ones who could judge whether he was a good father or not were me and my brother. I figured the same held true about my teaching (only my students could really judge) and that brought me back to Herndon.
Considering the question of what “makes” a great teacher, Herndon says:
Are the great teachers more entertaining? Have they better intellectual command
of their subjects? Have they greater rapport with their students? Are they more
efficient, provide more time on task? Are they more aware of their students’ ethnic
backgrounds, social class, personal or family problems? All of the above? Well, some
of the above? No one knows. Does anyone know whether students actually learn
more from great teachers, if you could ever find out who were the great teachers?
No one knows that either. (pp.84-85)
I have no idea how good a teacher I actually was at Winchester High School, but I did know that focusing on my students, working at engaging them seemed to hit a responsive chord. The first year at Winchester flew by and my whirlwind lifestyle as the “hip, young (Bartending) Teacher” wrapped up.
Still hoping to become a writer, I also took a couple of workshops on screenwriting and actually found a writing partner (a customer from the bar!) and headed into the summer (and full-time bartending) hoping to write the Great American Screenplay, but still looking for how to get back on that school reform bandwagon. And that’s when Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise entered the picture.