Part 3: How the Teachers Got Conned and the Vice Principal Became Successful

After much thought about DeShawn and his teachers, I came up with an idea that I hoped would work. It was a variant on a strategy I had used as an elementary school principal: Teach kids how to be in trouble successfully. To understand this strategy one has to understand a bit about the behavior of youngsters at school.

Without a middle class background, and sometimes with a middle class background, kids would resist or defy the teacher or adult who wanted to apply discipline or just correct them. Many times the initial offense was paltry but became instantly serious when followed with a loud “Fuck You” to the teacher. With certain students who were often in the situation of small offense magnified by bad response to correction, I applied my failsafe training for being in trouble successfully. I simply taught them to face the teacher, drop their eyes and say “Yes Ma’am,” or “No Ma’am,” as the situation demanded. We practiced privately in my office. I would yell at the kid and he would smile, put his head down and say “Yes Sir,” or “No Sir,” as needed. I taught them not to smile, just keep your head down and say the magic words no teacher in California had heard for the last 50 years, “Yes Sir, No Sir; Yes Ma’am, No Ma’am.” This worked like a charm. Teachers and other adults were instantly befuddled in their anger, and would not even contemplate throwing the kid in the ivy. I was smugly proud of myself, and couldn’t believe the miracle worker I was with these kids.

In DeShawns’ case, I knew he would most likely misbehave again. And I knew the teachers would goad and tease him to make him blow up and curse or strike out so he would be expelled. I didn’t know what else to do so I tried my “Teach kids how to be in trouble successfully” approach.

I met with DeShawn in my office and proposed the strategy in which he joined with me in a charade that demonstrated that he was submissive to teacher authority. We talked over the whole situation and DeShawn agreed that this might be a good plan and would be fun too. We practiced a con job in which I would yell at DeShawn, curse and slam a book down on the table in front of him. He would calmly keep his eyes cast down and say “Yes Sir,” or “No Sir,” as the situation required. DeShawn knew that these teachers would not let up on him unless something changed so he agreed to this charade. Their con job on the danger of his behavior was about to be conned.

Ted came to my office to complain about DeShawn again and I let him know I wanted a meeting with him and DeShawn. He thought this might be a waste of time since what I needed to do was kick the kid out of the school. But he agreed to meet with DeSchawn and me in his room that day after school. When DeShawn and I arrived in the room, the science teacher, the PE teacher and the union site rep were present along with old Ted. I started the meeting by sitting us all in a circle with DeShawn next to me. I didn’t talk to the teachers but started in yelling at DeShawn right away.

I shouted at him with, “I’m sick of the way you have been disrespecting these fine teachers! And it sure as hell better stop! Who do you think you are? Someone special? Well you are not special! What do you have to say?”

DeShawn said, “Yes Sir,” and kept his head down.

I yelled again, “What do you mean, ‘Yes Sir?’” and slammed a book down on his desk in front of him. He jumped, the teachers jumped and gasped. And then DeShawn said, “Uh, No Sir!”

“That’s more like it,” I said. “This meeting is over. Get the hell out of here and I don’t want to see you in trouble again! Understand?”

“Uh, Yes Sir,” he said looking down. He got up and walked out quickly.

The teachers were stunned. They sat in silence and stared at me. I said, “Well I hope that takes care of it,” and left the room.

The next day, the union site representative came to my office and said I was the toughest, most effective Vice Principal he had ever had in 25 years. Everyone was talking about the way I took care of that rough kid and no one expected any problems from him. In fact, some wanted to protect DeShawn from my wrath. The site rep thought he might be an ok kid if given a chance.

DeShawn and I got hot fudge sundaes together at Baskin Robbins to celebrate our victory. I told him he was amazing to take that role and act it out so well. I also told him it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what else to do given the fact that all those lifer tenured industrial factory assembly line teachers had decided to gang up on him. He was so mature and wise that I decided I would never let those teachers get rid of him.

Looking back from my present knowledge and experience base, I’m actually a bit embarrassed about the incident. Perhaps I should have handled it differently, since it was really a case of teachers misusing their authority. Perhaps I should have filed a complaint with OCR (Office of Civil Rights) and written them all up for local discipline up to and including release from employment. This would not have resulted in anyone of them being fired except for perhaps me, since they were all tenured and I wasn’t., and as my principal had said, no vice principal could continue without the support of the teachers. But it would have satisfied a need for justice and against these racist teachers who unjustly conspired against a kid. I didn’t know about these options then. DeShawn stayed at the school the rest of the semester and did well in his classes. He left the school when his parents moved to a different town over the Christmas Holiday.

 

 

 

Part 2: Why Teachers Sometimes Get Really Angry at Adolescents, or Why I Threw a Kid Into the Ivy

As a former elementary school principal and rural junior high teacher, I knew that the teachers would gang up on a kid just because of his family background. But I was a little surprised at how blatant these teachers were, and especially about their undisguised racism. I spent a good deal of time thinking about this and becoming angrier at these particular teachers. There was no one I could talk with about the situation since my principal had basically told me to do what the teachers wanted or be prepared to hit the road. I had just finished an MA in Education where the faculty knew a great deal but were not available for practical help. I remembered in my reading somewhere that I should try the hardest to understand the people who bothered me the most. What would it like to walk in their shoes within their minds?

At about this point, I came to the realization that the teachers really needed emotional support to help them handle their fear of a black kid and his family. The teachers operated from their feelings, not from any kind of analysis of evidence. And I understood this. Unless you have been mocked by a bunch of 7th graders when you are trying to teach them some Math, you don’t really know how angry and desirous of corporal punishment you could be. I remembered during my first week at my first job as a teacher at a private Episcopal school, one 7th grader just wouldn’t shut up when I was trying to teach. I didn’t have any training so I would simply stop teaching and ask him politely to pay attention. I added that he was now sitting in a Junior High School style chair that was designed so students could take notes.  Since he had neither listened respectfully nor taken notes at any prior point in his life, it was a fairly unreasonable request. My next move as I became angrier was to actually yell at him, “Shut up!”

He was proud of his skill at driving teachers nuts, as are many adolescents and kept interrupting me and making noises by rocking back and forth in his desk so it squeeked in a nice rhythmic way, whistling the Star Spangled Banner softly, over and over again and occasionally burping loudly. Once he even chucked a Frisbee across the classroom when I was writing on the board. I could tell my command of the classroom and the respect of the other non-rebellious students was at stake. I tried to hold my temper but just couldn’t pull it off. The next time he opened his mouth I calmly walked towards him, picked up the desk he was sitting in (with him in it) carried him and the desk to door, kicked the door open and chucked them both out into a bank of ivy. The class was silent.

After about 15 minutes I checked on him and let him drag his desk back in. He was better behaved but not perfect the rest of the day. The next morning the parents were at my door to apologize for their son’s disruptive behavior. He had evidently told them what I did and they let him have it for not shutting up when I asked him to.

They confided that he was hyperactive and couldn’t really control himself. I thought for a moment and said I thought he would be ok.

“Do you mean it?” cried the mother. She turned to her husband in tears and said, “Did you hear that Charlie? He thinks our son will be ok! Oh, thank you Mr. Rich.”

Of course I had no idea if he would be ok. But I learned that people in the role of teacher are ascribed incredible knowledge, insight and power from some in the world. From others, teachers are just cogs in the great machine of schooling. I was grateful not to be fired and the principal suggested I not throw kids out the door anymore. But this was a private school. Parents were grateful to be able to pay for their children to attend and bought in completely to the ideology of the institution, although it was true that throwing a kid in his desk out the door was out of line. I probably would have fired myself if I had been principal then.

But now I was in a very different situation. I was the new Junior High Vice Principal and the teachers were afraid of a black kid and his family and working hard together to get him expelled. I knew I understood them to a certain extent but I didn’t have a solution to this problem. I had suggested to them that his offenses weren’t that serious but they were not about to relent.

 

Part 1: How the Teachers Ganged Up on the Black Kid and Tried to Con the System into Expelling Him

“He just sat there and defied me. I told him to move to the back of the room and he just sat there and ignored me. I want something done. I know you already busted him for gambling on school grounds. And I know his kind, professional negro boxers in his family. All into crooked stuff. I want him out.”

This bitter report came from the math teacher, old Ted as he sat across from my desk in the school office. I thanked Ted for coming in and let him know I would talk with DeShawn asap and do my best to get him to comply. Ted said I had better do something because all the other teachers were pretty upset too.

Ted’s accusation about DeShawn’s gambling and about his family was partially true. The Education Code stated clearly that gambling was not allowed at school and De Shawn had been busted like 3 other white kids for flipping nickels against the gym wall during lunch recess. They all had to write 100 sentences, “I will not flip nickels at school,” except for one of the white boys who got his nickels and more by extorting lunch money from other weaker kids. He was suspended for 2 days.

In fact, in my view the schools had already kind of lost the moral high ground in the gambling discipline since California’s voters had recently in 1984 approved a lottery with proceeds to be spent on education. It was also the case that DeShawn’s uncle, a professional boxer had gone to prison for a crime he had been convicted of locally, and gambling by the community was involved somehow. And it was also true that other faculty members were upset about the fact that DeShawn was a “new kid,” and had enrolled at this school a couple of weeks earlier.

Ted’s was actually the third faculty visit I had received regarding DeShawn, an African American 8th grader who was one of the few people who had been at the school less time than I. I was the new Vice Principal at this Junior High School which was in a area where people lived for years, and rarely moved. I had received a 25% raise over my prior position as an elementary school principal in a rural district to come here. This was a multi-school town district, so the job that came with unfamiliar problems to accompany the nice salary increase.

The first visit I received about DeShawn had actually come from the science teacher, an older man who was known across the school community for his no nonsense discipline. Furthermore, he had been the preferred candidate of the local faculty and union for the job I had been hired for by the school board. He told me that I had one chance to show what I was made of, and handle this ‘young buck’ the way the school expected me to handle it. He would help by doing his share to keep a running incident list of anything DeShawn did so he could be expelled legally.

The second visit had been from the PE teacher/coach who brought DeShawn to me to complain that this kid was playing flag football too rough for the local boys. A big kid had tried to block De Shawn but the kid ended up bouncing off DeShawn and landing on his face. The result was a bloody nose and muffled racial epithet where no one else could hear the bloodied kid say the word ‘nigger’ except DeShawn.

The science teacher appeared again later that day to tell me that the teachers were together on keeping track of any incidents and would document them so I would have lots of evidence in writing when it came time to expel DeShawn. I asked him if he thought it was legal to do that before the kid had actually done anything that bad? He told me these teachers knew how to get rid of any kid. And as a newbie, I’d better support them or I’d be gone too. I talked with the principal about this and she told me those teachers would drive me out in a hot minute. Better figure out how to make them happy.

Now there were many great teachers in this school who saw themselves as developers of human beings. But there were also the kind who seemed to be industrial assembly line workers. They set up their classrooms and ran them on a tight schedule that resulted in basic coverage of the curriculum in the textbook. This sounds fine, but there was no room for any issues brought forward by students, such as questions, or challenging personal circumstances such as sudden homelessness. In fact, they could deliver the same lessons whether there were students in the classroom or not.

Old Ted was a good example of this. My first day at school I met him as he was running off copies on an old ditto machine. He said he had dittos for every day of the school year all ready to go. This way he wouldn’t have to waste any time planning during the year. This need for freedom from planning was going to be really important this year since he had been elected Exalted Ruler (chairman) of the local Elks Club. Ted had let me know when I arrived at this school that he would be pretty busy this year due to this Elk honor. This guy was a future poster boy for the entire charter school movement in my view. I knew the Elks had been in fairly recent hot water for denying membership to African Americans. Locally they denied membership to the president of the community college.

Every day old Ted’s students entered his room and sat in the assigned seat in long rows. Ted did a sample math problem on the board. Then the students worked on a set of problems silently. After half an hour, Ted let them ask questions and then class was dismissed. Every Friday was Quiz day and students could show whether they understood or not.

Interestingly, later in the school year, a large sum of Federal Title 1 money came to the school for Math Instruction. All his students qualified for remediation. The principal placed half of Ted’s 36 students per period in a new portable classroom (trailer) with a bright and caring teacher’s aide. She used varied methods and materials to help her student understand and succeed. Ted, on the other hand, didn’t change anything. He just taught the same way with shorter rows. He also got the same results.

It was Ted who sent DeShawn to the office the next day with a discipline referral for shooting spit wads from a milk straw in class. The note included the comment that, “This dangerous activity could put someone’s eye out.” Ted was working the documentation angle hard this early in the process so my worry level increased. I made DeShawn stay after school. But this didn’t’ satisfy old Ted. He went to his union school representative and told him I was letting a dangerous situation go on that could end badly for everyone. The rep came to visit me again and I told the rep that I was aware of the situation.

 

A Day in the Park, or a Kid under a Tombstone

One of the field trips many parents liked to accompany the class on was Henry’s Spring trip to the Gold Rush capitol of the county. Even a dad who was a doctor took the day off to come along. This always made me feel better about any possible injuries on such a trip. There was a museum, an old jail with a platform for hanging rustlers and murderers, a barn filled with covered wagons, farm wagons and other equipment from the historical period. There was also an old school house where Henry held a pioneer spelling bee during his field trip with the class as an example of the way school used to be. They brought lunch and ate together singing songs at picnic tables under the big shade trees. Henry always brought ice cream as a surprise and this was also a huge hit. Joey mixed among all the kids and had a great time as they played red light green light and other games.

This was a marvelous teaching and learning opportunity and the class and parents loved it. Wilbur always came along and any kids Henry thought might need extra supervision were assigned to supervise Wilbur by keeping him on lead, or on two leads if there were two kids. Henry had trained Wilbur well so if the kids got out of bounds, Henry just whistled for Wilbur and he dragged the kids back.

When it was time to leave, the kids got back in the bus along with Henry and Wilbur. The parents in their cars followed the bus as it pulled out on the highway and started to head back to school, a half hour drive away. Henry always “remembered” at this point that he hadn’t told the bus driver that he was taking the class to the pioneer cemetery up the hill. The bus driver told Henry that part was not on the approved field trip itinerary but Henry quickly assumed his mill worker approach and ordered the bus driver to make the damn turn. The parent cars followed the bus and in a few minutes all were assembled at the edge of the pioneer cemetery to conduct tombstone rubbings. Henry pulled paper and colored chalk and crayons from a big bag and gave directions. Everyone was eager to take part in this interesting but scary activity. The kids spread out across the graveyard and Henry walked among them helping them to make the tombstone rubbings.

Suddenly a child screamed and everyone looked in his direction. He had been rubbing a fairly large tombstone and it tipped over on top of him. It looked as if he was being crushed by this large piece of old marble. The first parents to reach him bent down together and tried to lift the stone. But they couldn’t make it budge. They tried to pull the child out from under the stone but he was now screaming that his leg hurt. He was trapped as all the parents and Henry ran towards the stone.

Henry spoke calmly to the boy saying, “Now Charlie, this is no fun. Just relax and I’ll get you out of there.”

With that, Henry turned his back to the stone, squatted down and lifted it easily. The parents pulled Charlie out from under the stone and made room for the doctor to take a look. Charlie had stopped yelling and was calm as the doctor felt his leg and checked him out for injuries. In a few minutes, Charlie stood up and limped towards the bus. Henry called all the kids and adults back to the bus, collected the tombstone rubbings and boarded the bus with Wilbur.

When the group arrived at school, no one wanted to tell me what happened. The story about Henry fetching Joey from home had spread among parents and he was beginning the gain the status as a law breaking folk hero., even as my own reputation as a risk averse rule-keeping bureaucrat increased.

Anyway, I happened to see the kid limping and asked what happened to him. The doctor let me know about the tombstone and that he had checked the kid out and felt he would be fine. The custodian joked that he might not be much of a doctor if he had all this time to be on field trips with a bunch of kids.

None of this distracted me. I had read the itinerary and I knew there was no part of the trip that permitted tombstone rubbing. If the child had been injured, the liability of the school, district and teacher would be huge.

Henry came up to me and said with a grin, “Sorry boss.” This felt terrible. Here I was working with a great teacher who was beloved by years of parents and children and I was relegated to being his “boss.” Maybe that’s what administration is really about. But I rejected the label and said, “I don’t want to be your boss, Henry. I’d rather be the guy who helps you keep teaching.”

Henry nodded and grunted, “Thanks,” and then went off to round up his class.

The following week Joey’s mother moved to a new job out of our attendance area. She couldn’t drive him to our school because she was using the car to drive to work.

He took the bus to his new school. In a month, he was referred for assessment and diagnosed with various emotional disabilities that qualified him for placement in a self contained Special Education classroom. His new teacher at his new school was not like Henry.

There were many Henrys in my school and some factory style lifers as well. The story of a brilliant teacher bringing a needy child back from severe emotional distress happened often. And the work was often reversed when the family moved to a new school where the child might receive a factory style lifer as a teacher.

 

 

Henry the Teacher Busts Down the Door

I enjoyed walking the classrooms at my school and dropped in on about a third of them daily. I didn’t have to stay long to know how things ran and if the climate was right for teacher success and student learning. I always went to Henry’s classroom with an expectation of simple enjoyment because he was such an incredible teacher. When I walked in on this particular Thursday, the Special Education Aide who was assigned to a disabled child was the only adult in the room. Surprised I asked, “Where’s Henry?”

“He went to get Joey.” She said off handedly.

“You mean at the cafeteria or something?” I asked.

“No,” she answered. “He drove to Joey’s house.”

She explained that a message came to the class from the office that Joey’s mother had called to say she overslept and so Joey missed the bus. He wouldn’t be at school today.

“Henry just took off and told me to stay here until he got back,” the aide said.

The class was going to leave in about an hour for a field trip to sing Christmas carols at a nearby retirement home. So I guessed Henry went to get Joey so he would be able to participate in this event. Fortunately there were several student teachers on campus that morning so I went quickly to one of the classrooms where one such teacher was observing and drafted her into service in Henry’s class.

“Just sit here and call the office if there is a problem,” I told her.

The kids were occupied with their normal morning routine and they expected Henry back any minute. He told them before he left that he would be back any minute.

I finished my rounds and of the classrooms and went back to the office in time to meet the school cook come rampaging in with Joey in tow. She was not a nurturing cook. She was a hardscrabble descendent of dustbowl survivors whom the custodians accused from time to time of taking leftover cafeteria food from the garbage cans where the kids dumped it to feed to her pigs at home. This was a rip off of federal free and reduced lunch money, according to the custodians, who for some reason became hyper-legalistic on this particular point. Fortunately I never heard of the feds ever prosecuting anyone for feeding school garbage to their pigs. Anyway, the cook was tough, and mean without sarcasm. Her combination of Arkey and Okey grammar became worse on any occasion in which she lost her temper.

“He done left this kid and ordered me to feed him,” she shouted at me.

“Hi Irene,” I said. “What’s going on?”

“Henry brought this kid in late and just ordered me to feed him. I don’t give no meals to no late kids no how. It ain’t part of the program. I gots to keep count and how can I keep count serving meals whenever somebody the likes of Henry just decides I supposed to.” Like the custodians, Irene was a self-appointed protector of federally funded school lunch programs.

I sat Joey down in the office next to Betty the secretary who smiled at him and said, Hi Joey, glad you came to school.” Joey smiled back glad to be out of the clutches of Irene.

I took Irene into my office to let her cool down. I told her it was a federal requirement in the free lunch program that we feed anyone who showed up whether they were on time or not, including Joey’s mother if she wanted it. Irene told me she knew that but done got pissed off at Henry when he just dropped the kid off and told her to, “Give him breakfast and bring him to class when he is finished.”

“Who does he think he is?” She said.

“He means well,” I said. “So why don’t you go prep his tray and I’ll bring him to you in a few minutes so you can give him a good big breakfast, the kind all the kids like. Then I’ll take him to class myself.”

“Well,” she said. “That’ll show him when the principal brings the kid to class.”

She bustled off to the kitchen and I talked with Joey.

He told me that his mother had slept in and called the school to say he missed the bus so he couldn’t come. And then teacher came and knocked on the door but his mother had gone back to sleep and didn’t hear it. Then teacher “…done knocked on the door with his foot an’ just like that, it opened up so he came in and done got me. My mom done waked up and waved goodbye to me and him after teacher talked to her. I got to sit in the pickup and Wilbur done come too in the back. I’m singing for the old folks later so he told me I need me to come on to school.”

I was amazed at the way Joey sat calmly, looked me in the face and shared his story without being nervous or twitchy as he had been when school began a few months earlier. I sent Joey to the cafeteria and caught up with him in a few minutes to be certain the cook was calm and could feel some of the pride she normally exhibited in feeding a hungry kid. After he finished I told him to walk to class and I would see him at the retirement home.

I enjoyed seeing kids singing and waved them off as they boarded the bus. I looked at Henry without smiling and he avoided my face. When they got to the little stage in the home, Joey was very nervous so Henry held his hand as they sang. He seemed to stand straighter as the rounds of applause and happy laughter rolled towards them from the residents. When the class boarded the bus to return to school I caught up with Henry and told him to meet me in my office fifteen minutes after school dismissed.

Henry was in my office a few minutes early. I asked him what the hell he thought he was doing kicking the apartment door open? He could have been arrested for breaking and entering, much less accused of some sexual attack by the mother if she wanted to get back at him for something. And driving the kid in his own car without an insurance waiver meant he could be bankrupted if there had been a wreck and the mother sued him. The school district would have walked away from him and tried to fire him at the same time. And leaving the class with a non credentialed aide who by federal law has to take care of the special education kid, not your class of regular education kids, further exposed us to another kind of lawsuit altogether. I finished with, “Next time call me and I’ll go get the kid myself with a female aide in the car as well. I should write you up just to protect myself. You could cause me to get fired.”

It felt good to yell at Henry a bit. He knew he was wrong and he said he was sorry. But he said, “It felt right to Joey, it felt good to get him.” So he did it. How could I teach him about being successful in a bureaucratic environment when he didn’t care about it? He cared only about his students.

 

 

Henry the Teacher and the Custodians

“That man cussed at me!” said John, in outrage. “I’ve been head custodian here for over 20 years and no one has ever cussed at me, especially a teacher!”

“And did you even know he has a dog here in his classroom?” shouted the day custodian, Pete.

‘That’s got to be against the board of health!”

“OK, men,” I said, as I walked up the path to my office. They had met me at 7:15am at my car. “Let me get a cup of Joe and we’ll do something about this.”

They followed me in quasi darkness up to my office, tool belts softly clanking as we walked. I got my cup of coffee and we all went into my office. The marvelous school secretary Betty just smiled at us as we passed her desk. I knew she knew what was going on and that she could advise me later. I invited the custodians to sit and left the door partially open so Betty could hear. I took my laptop out of my briefcase and set it up on my desk. As it started up, I said, “So what is going on?”

The head custodian, John explained that the teacher I admired above all others had cussed at him about cleaning up dog shit that the teacher’s own dog, a golden lab-retriever mix puppy, had dumped on the grass outside his classroom.

“Can you tell me exactly what he said?” I asked.

“He said, ’Do your job, God-damn it, and clean that up!’” John said with hurt in his eyes.

“You mean, clean up the dog poop?” I said applying a more elementary school style of language to the issue of dog shit.

“Yes,” said Pete as he pulled the contractual custodian job description out of his pocket. “This is my job description, and on the next page is John’s job description and it don’t say anywhere we have to clean up dog shit from a teacher’s dog.”

“So, Henry told you to clean up some dog poop and cussed at you too?” I asked.

“He sure did, about 6:00 a.m. this morning when we were about to change shifts,” said John. “I don’t want to file a grievance with the union, but I will if I don’t get satisfaction.”

“Did you clean it up?” I asked.

“Yes, I take care of this school,” said John.

“Thanks very much, John,” I said. “I think you should go home since your shift is finished and I’ll work on this today. The bus is about to show up and you know there will be some problem right away guys. But one thing I want you to know is it is never ok for anyone to cuss at you. I’ll get back to you by tomorrow morning.”

At that the custodians seemed to calm down and I ushered them out and continued outside to be visible as the first bus arrived. This also gave me a bit of time to review this situation in my head and to consider some of the aspects of possible solutions.

A couple of weeks prior, I had approved the request of teacher Henry to bring his new puppy to his second grade classroom. Henry and his family used to hunt, (although now he only sat in the blind to take photos), so he knew how to train and manage a dog. He wanted the dog to act as a kind of service dog for the many apartment-dwelling students who never could have a pet or play with one. He asked his class to name the dog and since he was reading Charlotte’s Web to them, they came up with ‘Wilbur’ the name of the pig in that story. They all got a great laugh from this. When I visited the room as I did usually on a daily basis for a minute or two, I often found a child or two lying with or on Wilbur among some beanbag chairs in the room’s reading corner.. They would read to Wilbur or just read silently with her nearby. Wilbur was mellow and didn’t mind kids laying all over her. She was a great addition to the class. I had notified parents and no one was concerned chiefly because they trusted Henry so much.

But the issue with the custodians was deeper than cussing. I had learned that these custodians were highly influenced by the status hierarchy of maintenance and cleaning. In other words, they would rather be involved in maintenance, i.e. run some kind of power tool and fix something than ever clean anything. The big field lawnmower was an object of veneration for them and they loved to ride it as often as they could, usually when the teachers in the classrooms nearest the field trying to teach math or reading. Another favorite was the leaf blower. No matter what the season, there seemed to be a reason to use the gas powered and very loud leaf blower to blow leaves, trash or dust around the campus, especially near classrooms. A broom was just too closely aligned with cleaning. The result of this status hierarchy was less than clean classrooms. The custodians would rush to replace a light on the ceiling but doing more than emptying the trashcans and running the industrial and tool-like vacuum cleaner over the carpet was asking for the moon.

The normal response from an HR perspective would be to break the job down into small parts and write the parts on a document called a ‘task analysis.’ The task analysis would be provided to the custodian and he or she would follow it as closely as a production line worker in a factory. Usually, the custodian would resist this kind of embarrassing control from a boss, but just enough to be remediated and re-trained at a cost to the school. The solution to this quandary came from a secret administrative decision to use gender roles in the local culture. This meant that women were hired as custodians and assigned classroom cleaning. The reasoning was that the women were generally more nurturing and aware of the children and were able to see what needed to be cleaned in the classrooms. This shameless exploitation of gender worked like a million bucks in the schools were it was employed. But I still had two men who loved to wear tool belts, loved to run equipment that made noise, and didn’t like to clean. And they were being told to clean up dog shit in a not so polite way.

I understood that Henry, having worked sweeping floors at the bottom of the status hierarchy ladder in lumber mills, even below apprentice, might follow a version of the model given the way he had been treated there. In fact, Henry was usually very kind to the custodians since he didn’t box their ears or just shove them around, experiences he had in the mills as a kid.

Meanwhile, as I thought about all this, the busses arrived and children came into school happy and smiling. What a great world I lived in! Parents who drove their kids to school walked them to class or dropped them at the front and waved.

When I got back the office, I asked Betty, “What do you think?”

“You did fine with the custodians, “ she reassured me. “And I’m glad you didn’t start babbling about that teacher and Nietzsche and the ‘Wheel rolling out of itself’ stuff. It makes you sound weird when you talk about that to most people.” She was referring to the way I saw Henry within our culture and to the nature of the motivation he enjoyed as a creative and marvelous teacher. She listened and discussed this with me regularly, but also knew when to not discuss it as well and coached me about this.

“OK, ok,” I said. “But what do you think I should do?”

“Make it a two stepper,” she said quickly. “First Henry has to say he is sorry for cussing and he has to do that today. Make him do it. Second, try to get Henry to ask for something to be fixed, the light or the sink or something that needs a drill. And afterwards, his wife can bake cookies for the guys.”

“Ok thanks,” I said and took off for Henry’s room.

When I got there we still had about 5 minutes before school started. Students were in the room so I asked Henry to speak with me where they couldn’t hear us. I let him know the custodians had come to me upset because he cussed. He told me he thought they were lazy and it wasn’t their place to question what he asked them to do. I let him know they were about to file a grievance and I wanted him to keep Wilbur in class, which might not be allowed if he wanted to press his position. I needed him to say sorry now and then get it over with. I said I would watch his class while he went to the custodian shed.

He thought for a moment and then took off for the shed.

“Hey boys,” he said when he got there. Luckily, John, the night custodian hadn’t gone home yet. “I think I was out of line when I cussed at you earlier today.”

“Hey Henry, that’s ok,” Said John. “Can’t you potty train that doggie?”

“Awe shucks,” said Henry. He’ll go after ducks in a heartbeat but I can’t train him to hold it all day.”

They all laughed”

“Got to get to class,” said Henry.

“Thanks for coming by,” said John.

When Henry came back to class I told him about step 2, asking for help repairing something. He didn’t like it, but said he would think about it.

I went back to the office and told Betty she was a genius, which is something I said almost every day.

A few days later, Henry showed up with a plate of cookies for the custodians. I never asked if they worked on a repair in his classroom. After all, it’s also a good idea to let sleeping dogs lie.

 

How the Principal’s Promise for a new Lawnmower and other Bureaucratic Maneuvers Resulted in a Classroom Music Teacher for the Elementary School.

One of the great concerns that plagued me was the lack of classroom music or school choir in the elementary schools were I served as principal. Instrumental lessons were provided to the most rural districts by a traveling county music teacher who pulled an orchestra together after practicing separately with small groups in remote schools. This was truly a herculean act, although most thought it was normal for the time. In the town district where I now served as principal, the district provided a junior high music teacher and a part time teacher who traveled among the schools giving instrumental lessons. Naturally, the group taking instrumental lessons was tightly correlated to socio-economic status since the family had to rent the instrument.

The best solution to this problem would have been to hire many more teachers like Hilda. She was well into her 70’s when I became her principal. She spoke three or four languages. Her Austrian mother had married an Englishman and they moved to London just in time for the blitz. Her Austrian cultural background demanded that music hold a high value in her life and profession. For my first classroom observation of her third graders, I saw in the space of an hour an integration of math, literature and science all rounded out with a great rendition of Beethoven’s “Alle Menschen werden Bruder…” belted out by her kids and pounded out by her on the classroom piano, the only one in the school. She was astounding, completely marvelous, unique, even an oddity for the school, town and region.

But there were no other Hilda’s around when it came to hiring new teachers. And there were always problems with simply playing music in class and having the kids sing along. The funds that purchased the record player or tape recorder had to be aligned with the group of students who heard it. Most of the disposable money in a school came from federal Title 1 funds that were strictly to be spent on the specific children who needed remediation in Reading or Math (and who were also closely correlated with SES. In fact the funds were and still are distributed throughout most districts based on the free lunch count at each school).

My first music school finance blowup came in my first year as a teaching principal in another district when an auditor asked me how I could be sure that only the approved kids heard the record when it was played for the whole class? I told him that the Title 1 kids used sheets with the words to the songs on them to help them learn to read while the other kids just had to learn to memorize the songs. He liked this and I passed the audit even though I made it up on the spot.

The only path available to me now, in this my third principalship, was to either get a renewable grant for outside funds, or to re-allocate existing resources already being spent on something else at the school. Only two of the 25 teachers at the school (Hilda plus one other) had any interest or ability to provide classroom music to their students and finding more with such skills, knowledge and orientation to learning was less likely than finding Spanish-speaking teachers. Getting a grant that was renewable was just about impossible. Reallocating existing funds, while not a cakewalk, was going to require much political savvy.

Most of the money spent in school is tied up in employees. It is employees, then, who are affected when you reallocate funds. The reallocation means you are planning to change what people do, or get rid of people and hire someone else to provide a curriculum based on different and more valuable skills and knowledge. As principal, you are saying to some employees that what they are contributing is less important than your own great idea for improvement. Crucially, school folk do not think about the curriculum that individuals bring to the students. On the contrary, they think only about the individual him or herself who is doing the work. So, for example, if good old Larry, the friendly senior gentleman who works as a classroom aide, has been running copies for teachers, running approved reading programs from the approved box of instruction (this means Larry teaches from directions given on a 4 x 5 card in a publisher’s nice, kit-like box), and you come along as principal and drop this box instruction, and then drop old Larry himself in favor of adding something like music, then you have undertaken a tactic that is a huge political loser. I could hear it now. “You,” the principal, “are trashing Larry himself, the kindly older gentleman who was loyal to the school, came in every day on time, wouldn’t hurt a fly and loved the children probably more than you did, you punk bastard!” Definitely a huge political loser!

Dropping Larry would also mean trouble with the union since they believed they owned Larry’s work. Just like longshoremen owned the right to unload whatever came across their docks using whatever method they had used in the past, a clipboard and paper pencil check list for instance, instead of a bar code reader. The union for aides sometimes claimed they owned the exclusive use of the actual material taught by the aides. The neat box of 4 x 5 cards of learning activities was a perfect fit. It was a tool, a product and a process all in one. Any change from using that box would require negotiations, or a protracted grievance depending on how beloved Larry was to the local.

Another even greater obstacle to reallocating the resources used for the Larry(s) of the school was the teacher(s) he served. In this case, they were tired out, did not enjoy teaching anymore and were generally grumpy to kids and parents and other staff members. People in the school community could hardly stand them. They were tenured so they couldn’t be touched and they were not about to change their instructional system that included the use of Larry to teach while they drank coffee or rested their swollen feet in the classroom. These poor souls had no other choice except to continue for 5 or 10 more miserable years or live a life in ‘penury’ throughout their retirement years.

Yet I had learned a thing or two in my previous administrative roles. Instead of tackling Larry head on, I needed to set up the system to make the needed change to music instruction and insure a political victory as well. Now whenever a victory took place that could result in as many as one loser, the principal loses some power and credibility. People stayed at schools for entire careers and there was no real advantage to choosing any curricular change that cut against the interests of any of your teacher-colleagues. Life is long and you would get yours someday too if you didn’t stay on the right train.

It seemed worth it to me because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life at that particular school. The first step I took was to make some curricular changes to the document (School Plan) that guided the way some specific funds were spent. This was state money, not federal money so one had much more latitude. The plan needed to be approved annually by the committee called the School Site Council. This body consisted of parents, teachers and me. Most principals used the committee to simply rubber stamp the way the professionals wanted to spend the money, such as for aides. And most parents just went along. When I changed the plan I added language that stated, “Classroom music would be provided as funding allows.” It looked like I was talking about an external grant or funding from a new state program, which might have been true, so there was no push back. The teacher aides, like Larry were getting on in years so my plan was to not re-hire aides in their positions when they retired but hire a music teacher as a contractor to provide classroom music in grades 3-5. I thought I would have time to work on this idea so that at least some teachers would support it.

I couldn’t believe it when Larry and another older aide decided to retire in a month’s time. I quickly scheduled lunch with the parents on the Site Council and we met at a local diner. I shared numerous ideas for school improvement and also dropped the idea of hiring a music contractor for grades 3-5 to teach classroom music. I indicated that the teachers who enjoyed the aides might not like this so we would have to discuss this with them. But the parents were happy to remove the aides from the classrooms of these grumpy teachers. The teachers’ rotten attitudes did not win them any friends and actually created enemies. Besides, these parents’ own kids were now in 3rd and 5th grade.

I called a School Site Council meeting for later in the week. In a few minutes, the council voted to not hire more aides and hire a music contractor ahead. The teachers voted against this but with my vote the parents and I prevailed. The next step was to quickly hire the contractor so that the council would not be able to reverse its decision once the push back came on. I had also planned for this and had the person I wanted sign a contract immediately and sent it in to the district payroll office. I told the new music teacher that “The marching band pays for the string quartet” so I needed a patriotic concert of all students in grades 3-5 in one months time. We would give student awards for something and have refreshments too.

Meanwhile the grumpy teachers began to rally their troops to reverse this change and replace the aides. But they moved slowly preferring to go home right after school each day to take a nap. By the time they invited the parents out to dinner to try to talk them into reversing their Site Council votes, the new music teacher had provided lessons in each classroom that thrilled the kids and pleased the upper grade teachers and their parents as well. It was fun, it was active, it was artistic and it was culturally aligned.

So when the seasoned teachers were finally able to rally their colleagues, their years of grumpy behavior and nasty attitude backfired on them. The grade 3-5 teachers didn’t feel the need to please the seasoned, grumpy teachers. Besides, the grade 3-5 teachers were essentially getting a prep period (although I assigned them to work with the music teacher giving curricular advice and supervision to avoid conflict with their union).

Next, I met with the local aides’ union site representative. He was a school custodian and was used to being griped at and insulted by the grumpy teachers who lost their aides. He was thrilled to get back at them by not demanding the district lay off the vacant aide positions before I spent the money that had formerly been spent on them. I also promised him a new lawn mower and tool belt, and that closed the deal.

The final hurdle was the school board itself. Case law had long ago settled the fact that any site council decision was subject to final approval of the elected district board. The seasoned teachers came at the board hard. Fortunately, the superintendent was creative and interested in changing the school experience for the children. He immediately took the board president to lunch and wrote a letter of commendation to me with copies to the board. Now the board would have to counter the superintendent it hired in favor of a few grumpy teachers. By the time the next board meeting rolled around, three of the board members had attended the patriotic concert and student awards ceremony with more than one hundred parents, and cheered the new music contractor teacher. The grumpy teachers did not even stand up to speak at the board meeting because the chairwoman wanted to report on the huge demand for music in all the schools and felt the board should place a standing item on the agenda until this important issue was resolved. She also commended the new music contractor teacher for a marvelous concert. The teachers union was stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, and remained silent. If they supported hiring more contractors it meant they would support loss of aide union jobs and risk a conflict with that union for no gain. If they supported hiring more music teachers, it meant the salary and benefit pot allocated for their membership would need to be stretched to include more teachers. This meant less for each one. So their leadership left the issue alone. The final result was a new position in the budget the following year for classroom music teacher that would serve all the schools. I kept my contractor and took the money as subsidy for more computers.

 

 

How the man who embodied Nietzsche’s Wheel and Dog Shit met to Create Compassion at School.

I’m not really sure where he came from, like any mythical hero. I’m also not sure how old he was, except I knew he was at least 20 years older than I. He grew up working after school sweeping the floor in lumber mills. Right out of high school he served in the military between Korea and Vietnam. He went to college on the GI Bill and worked in the lumber mills pulling green chain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_w307HU2-Q) to support his wife and child. The fact that he escaped the mills with all his fingers marked him as an educated man among the life-long mill workers and especially among the millwrights who knew he wouldn’t stay on. But he drank beer and could talk and curse like a mill worker. This was not an ordinary schoolteacher. He wasn’t intimidated by anyone in the school system or any of the parents. In fact he was almost impossible to control.

He was not exceptional looking but he was bigger than average. He appeared to be serious in the first faculty meetings when I met him and rarely spoke out. I learned he was a strong union man and eschewed any pretense at expertise or ‘moving’ up to supervise his colleagues. His conceptualization of teaching, I thought, was normal for the times: You do your classroom and I do mine and don’t try to infringe on my territory.

But I learned over the seven years I worked with him that it was more than that. He seemed to operate out of some kind of core moral authority mixed with a collision of work and play. While he could implement any curriculum on a conceptual basis, he never aspired to uniformity with other classrooms. His unique person in conjunction with the relationships he constructed with his second grade students made him, his self, the curriculum, not the planned exercises designed by experts far from his students. Learning, safety, play, work, happiness were all embodied within him to his students. I felt he was one of the few living examples I had experienced of Nietzsche’s ‘Aus sich rollendes Rad,’ a wheel rolling out of itself. He expressed his deepest identity in his work as a teacher.

We don’t talk about teachers this way in our country today. They are supposed to comply, implement, collect and submit data to higher authorities. They are under constant pressure to become instrumental of forces outside their control and that they don’t get to discuss. Henry, on the other hand, was very different from the ideal teacher seen by today’s measures. He didn’t believe in collaborative work teams that went about the task of analyzing data on student learning in order to try to improve. For him, collaboration carried the meaning ascribed to the Vichy French in some way. This seemed like submitting the needs of his students to the needs of the organization, of schooling. He believed it was up to the teacher to see these needs and to do whatever was demanded to meet them. He didn’t really trust other teachers to tell him about his students since they didn’t have first hand knowledge. Objective data was fine for what it was worth, but his work was with and among his students on an almost instinctual level.

When I observed him as an experienced principal, it was easy to see he was excellent based on the literature about classrooms. Always soft spoken he ran a tight structure with well-established routines and schedules. Every 2nd grader knew where he was supposed to be, what he was supposed to be doing and how Henry would respond if he didn’t follow the rules. The most important rules were ‘work and play.’ Henry believed that anyone could become more intelligent and successful if he or she worked at it. This was a bit shocking to some of the middle class parents who demanded their children be placed in his classroom. He didn’t care about their understanding of their children, in raw opposition to the mantra that “parents know their children best.” He also didn’t care about their other opinions about the other kinds of 2nd graders in his classroom, the ones who had duct tape around their shoes and in patches on their jackets or who came off the boat from South East Asia.

But he also recognized that he needed middle class children in his room. He told me when I made up class lists that he required at least 6 middle class children of his class of 32 in order to provide role models of how to pay attention, how to work, how to play with others and how to mind. He could build the other 26 children into school learners if he only had the 6 from the middle class.

During my first year as principal of that school, I put out a call for help on a grant that would give us funds to buy computers for the classrooms. I waited on the appointed afternoon for teachers to come and help me complete the application but Henry was the only one who showed up. We worked together on it. He told me what he wanted and I wrote it so it showed up that way in the grant. We won the grant and got a computer for every classroom.

From that time on I made it a point to listen to Henry closely and try my best to get him whatever he wanted. For his next project, he told me he wanted to start a classroom garden. I wrote an internal district grant that was intended to support teacher-developed curriculum with state lottery funds. After talking over his plans, I presented Henry’s ideas as the integration of science, language and hands on experience. He was thrilled when it was funded for a couple of thousand dollars. He brought his own roto-tiller in the back of his little pick up and used the grant money to buy hand tools, seeds, manure, and plastic plumbing supplies to run a water line from the Kindergarten playground fence to the strip of land he selected in an undeveloped part of the school grounds. He started an after school gardening club for any student and I remember seeing him with sweat dripping off his chin working with a pack of kids hoeing and digging in the dirt. They weighed the seeds or potato chunks they planted, cared for them as they grew, and then weighed the harvest. They feasted on their produce and shared with the other grades. They wrote about their experience and they sang about it as well. “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow…”

It was late in May that a first grader, Joey arrived at school freshly re-united with his mother after a fairly long stint in foster care. Joey behaved typically for such children often moving away from the other children, laying down and curling up like a ball in a fetal position on the playground. He also stuffed bread and fruit from the cafeteria into his pockets. This food hoarding was also typical of such children. Academically, the teacher said she couldn’t really assess him since he was responding to his trauma more than anything any teacher tried to provide for him. We made a counseling referral for him but it was too late in the school year so the counselor never saw him. At the close of the year, when I made class lists for the next year, I put him in Henry’s class in an attempt to provide balance of the needs of students in any classroom. I actually thought he would be referred for Special Education and leave Henry’s room.

The next Fall, when school started, Joey showed up again and his mother took him to Henry’s classroom to start 2nd grade. Henry understood immediately what this boy needed. He sat him near his own desk and spoke softly to him. He worked with Joey individually on every assignment until the boy completed the work and could understand as well. Henry kept any student in from recess on the playground to complete work or just to read. It was against the California Education Code to deprive students from recess but he didn’t care about that and neither did I. He was not mad at them for misbehaving. He just made them stay to learn. It also gave them the idea that they had to work and many did not come from families that had jobs. These families lived in the ‘welfare apartments’ and received a monthly check along with food stamps. This is where Joey and his mother lived. Older students who had been Henry’s students in earlier years also showed up regularly at his classroom during recess. They liked to see him or read quietly.

One morning just before school started, a particularly priggish woman, a volunteer mother in the classroom complained to Henry that Joey smelled bad, “like dog manure.” Henry checked Joey out as he entered the class and determined he had indeed stepped in some “dog manure” and what’s more had “dog manure” on his pants as if he fell and slid on it. Henry cleaned off what he could with paper towels. Then he called the office to ask the secretary to call home and ask his mother to bring more clothes for Joey. Meanwhile, Joey remained at his desk near Henry.

At the first break the woman came to the office to see me. She told me that she was taking her son home due to the smell of ‘manure’ on one of the children. At about that time, Henry came around the corner and walked up to us. The mother repeated her decision to Henry and said neither she nor her son could stand the smell of ‘dog manure’ in the classroom. Henry looked at her calmly and said, “ I doubt if you could say ‘dog shit’ if you had a mouth full of it.” He then turned to me and said, “I don’t appreciate sanctimonious people who look down on a kid who happened to fall into some dog shit.”

The woman and I stood in silence for a moment. She started breathing hard, turned pale and then walked quickly away heading for her car dragging her son behind her.

Henry looked at me and shrugged. I was stunned and thrilled by the way he cut to the heart of the issue. We needed these middle class people but we needed them on our own terms. I also thought he had blown it and I began to strategize what I would say to the superintendent when he called with the parent complaint. I knew I would defend him completely but I didn’t know how.

In an unexpected turn of events, the mother brought her child back to school the next day. I met her and Henry together in my office to try to work out the situation. She said she wanted her son in a classroom where the teacher had the moral fiber he exhibited. And she was sorry if she presented herself as the kind of person who looked down on children in poverty or other difficult circumstances. Henry said he had jumped to conclusions and judged her in a crude way. He also apologized for his language. I thought they were both amazing. But I knew it was he who changed this woman’s perspective, not me, not my mediating skills. I kept on thinking about what I could do for Henry that would keep him teaching.

 

 

How do you Frame a Mental Blur?

I am in the midst of new stimuli. Last week, my wife and I moved from from Chico, California, USA, to a new job in Chiangmai, Thailand. I had my first class on Sunday in Business Statistics, and I had some vague idea of writing up the experience for ethnography.com. But I’m at a loss of where to start. My observations are a blur—meaning that in ethnographic terms, there is not yet a frame. And a lack of such “frame,” and the creation of the frame, is perhaps what such big changes are about.

Frames of course are comfortable. They provide predictability, a way to talk about experiences, and at least the illusion of control. But it seems that when you move like we did and start a new experience, you lose the comfort of predictability. This is exciting, and perhaps a bit scary. It is what we did, it is what refugees do, and it is what freshmen moving away to college experience. I like to also think that it is invigorating, though at extremes it can be disorienting as well.

Erving Goffman of course wrote a whole book, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Ordering of Experience, about the nature of “framing.” And this book’s title of course helps explain why I am writing about framing, and not my first day of class here in Thailand as I originally intended. Being in a blur means that there is still no “ordering of experience,” even though I tried to make the class as orderly as possible. But really, ordering only comes with time, as you adjust to the new social environment, and respond to what is generally known as “experience.”

Order is comforting, but maybe not so exhilarating. I am still waiting for there to come some order—frame—to my experience teaching Business Statistics in Thailand.

For now, it is too far out of my past experience to either order it into a coherent blog, or any semblance of social science. And perhaps that is the point of this blog. Order and framing is the prerequisite for ethnography, aren’t hey? If this is the case, it must indeed be difficult to describe the blur of a sudden change in social location. Which is perhaps why ethnographers take so long to come up with “the story” that will fit into even a few hundred words.

“My husband said, ‘If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, then it’s good enough for my kid!’” How My All-American Schools Remained All-English

When I first began teaching in an Episcopal school in 1973 it became clear that I could develop any kind of liberal arts curriculum I desired. Indeed, such creativity is what rich kids’ parents demand of their kids’ teachers. As a German Lit and History double major who had spent a bit of time in both Germany and France, it seemed normal to me to suggest that I add some kind of introductory level lessons in German and French for my dozen 7th graders. The principal allocated a bit of money for me to buy children’s magazines and some easy books, and away we went. The kids loved the crazy German grammar and played with the French sounds happily every day. One of the kids, Suzanne, had been to France a few times and she told funny stories about what made French people like us and different from us. I made up fun lessons, the kids learned words and phrases, and I enjoyed myself a great deal.

Moving to rural Northern California two years later, I was immediately overwhelmed with managing a class of 40 6th graders, so I didn’t think about adding another language until my second year when I was assigned to teach the forty kids in the 7th and 8th grade. I asked my superintendent if I could have some funds to purchase the same subscriptions for German and French magazines. The response was a surprise to me.

The school superintendent was dumbfounded. He was shocked. Why on earth would I try to teach these poor hardscrabble children even one other language when they hardly knew English? Even kids whose parents had good jobs didn’t need this kind of thing. It would confuse them and do nothing to help them get a job in the future. He let me know that he was the one in charge of the district and school (it was a 2 school district with 7 teachers in one school and 30 teachers in the other), and he would not allow this kind of departure from a curriculum of basic skills that served the students by giving them what they really needed in the United States of America. Furthermore, he said, German was doubly suspect. The superintendent knew I was a good American but even talking about teaching an enemy language such as German might raise doubts about my patriotism in the local community. We had many WW2 vets who still hated the ‘Krauts.’

I didn’t heed the superintendent’s politically savvy warning, so foolishly, I decided to test the waters with some of the more involved parents. When Mrs. Fisher came to school to watch the flag football team I was coaching, I opened the topic.

“What would you think about teaching Foreign Languages to the kids, Mrs. Fisher?” I asked respectfully.

“Well” she said, “ I’m not sure. What language was you thinking about?”

“I thought I could give some introductory lessons in both German and French to help them get ready for high school and college entrance” I replied.

Mrs. Fisher thought for a moment and then said she wanted to check with her husband since they were a tight knit and religious family. I said thought this was a good idea too. The next day, I saw Mrs. Fisher again.

I said, “Hi Mrs. Fisher. I wonder if you got a chance to speak with your husband about foreign language instruction?”

“Yep,” she replied. “We don’t think there’s no good reason to talk like different foreign people. Besides, we are Christians and as my husband said, ‘If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, then it’s good enough for my kid.’”

I wasn’t ready for this one. But I smiled and said thank you for talking it over at home. And I dropped the topic for a few years.

When I was appointed principal of my third elementary school in a different district, I had the great good fortune to work for a creative and interesting man who held the office of superintendent there. He urged us as school leaders to take on new curriculum that we believed in. I shared my hope for an elementary school that introduced several languages to students, and he supported the idea. When I shared my prior experience in a more rural district, he suggested I focus on Spanish since that would appear more practical and might garner greater support. He was willing to increase the attendance boundaries at my school and add a Spanish-speaking teacher for every other grade.

From a financial perspective, one of the strengths of my idea to add Spanish speaking teachers to my elementary school was the fact that the district would not have to add any more teachers to the payroll than English only speaking teachers. You had to have a teacher for every group of 35 kids anyway. So why not improve the curriculum by hiring more highly skilled teachers? In this way, I could win a curricular improvement of huge importance, integrating Spanish into the normal school day, while not paying a dime for the improvement. From a political standpoint, this change would give parents a choice, a key political issue of the times. Parents would be able to choose a Spanish integration track or not. From my perspective the presence of another language in the school would create the kind of impact I hoped for.

As I shared this idea among teachers and parents, I got a lukewarm response. It sounded like more work or more foreign influence.

Teacher Louisa asked, “Does this mean we have to learn Spanish? How many more courses to I have to take to satisfy all these new ideas?”

One of the dads complained, “Who are the kids going to talk to? I don’t want my daughter talking to any Wetback.”

Another parent complained, “I don’t want my kid falling behind because he has to learn math in Spanish.”

I persevered and found a model school to visit in another town, a university town about 3 hours south. I arranged for substitutes at my own school so that several teachers and a parent could accompany me to see the school and visit with the principal. Bilingual teachers taught every class. They all spoke both Spanish and English. And the kids, looked and acted just like our kids except they spoke two languages easily. The older kids wrote two languages. In our meeting with the principal, I was shocked. This older woman told us she had been transferred to this school but didn’t agree with the model of education. She thought it was a form of child abuse to confuse children this way. She tried to close the program but the parents came out in droves to protest so the program continued. She complained that many of the children of the faculty at the university were in the program and those people always got what they wanted, even if it wasn’t the best thing for their kids. This did not help my case.

I charged ahead that summer interviewing about 20 Spanish-speaking teacher candidates but could not find a single one who would move to the conservative, traditional and deeply “American” rural Northern California town. Even for the few who seemed willing, the subject of a job for their spouse blocked their decision.

“Got any jobs for chemical engineers in the town?” asked one great candidate.

“No, sorry,” I replied sadly. In fact in that poor and depressed area of northern California, there were few middle-class jobs besides teaching. I was not able to hire even one teacher who could teach Spanish.

With the first board meeting the next Fall, I was surprised to see a contingent of parents from my school. They asked to speak to the board and were naturally allowed to do this. These were parents I had worked with to volunteer and support the school and we had a solid relationship. But I was a bit unnerved when the topic of their talk was their deep concern about adding Spanish-speaking teachers to their All American School. The board listened and then asked me to respond. I am proud of my maturity in this instance because as a new principal I had not always acted with such political aplomb in prior board meetings in another district. I thanked the parents for their ideas and let them know I would not make any unilateral changes without their advice. I also invited them to meet me at school to continue the conversation.

Around this time, the Spanish teacher from the local high school got wind of what was going on and called me. She naturally thought it would be a great idea to include Spanish in the curriculum for elementary students, but understood my dilemma. She then suggested that her Spanish 5 students could come for a period each week and give lessons for 20-30 minutes in each classroom in my school. I was thrilled. This move was in effect a cultural end run around the parents’ need for their children to to stay white and English speaking, while preparing for entrance to colleges. This plan would give their kids a leg up on students from other schools when they needed to fulfill their foreign language requirement to compete for college acceptance and the English only parents had been hoisted on their own petard.

Teachers went along with this change sometimes happily and sometimes grudgingly. Two were playful, to my delight and called each other Don Diego and Don Romero. But there was still no requirement to expose elementary children to Spanish or any other language besides English in elementary school. I always thought the kids should know at least two languages and quoted Friedrich Schiller’s aphorism that one doesn’t know one’s own language until one knows another. Quoting a German philosopher in German didn’t go far in my district though, and I soon stopped that. The habit in fact cut deeply across the grain of the local culture in parents and town, and in many teachers as well.

My approach to bringing a foreign language to elementary school lasted for the next two years while I served as principal. And then I was promoted to the central office, and the entire idea was gone in a day. The new principal had been appointed by the board to run a tight ship and “focus on the basics.” The superintendent and the two board members who supported this idea could not do anything further to support my effort to stand against the local culture, and in rural northern California that meant English only. And Basics do not include this kind of creativity by teachers, or foreign language instruction. I think many of the teachers were a bit tired of my ongoing creativity with the curriculum inside their classrooms. It might have been interesting but it was also extra work. So English only is what the principal and teachers delivered.