I am excited; yet I’m troubled. I’m as energized as I’ve ever been; yet I feel paralyzed. I am remarkably free to do as I wish; yet I feel terribly constrained. I feel incredibly optimistic about the possibilities; yet I am pessimistic about what can actually be accomplished. I can envision with jarring clarity certain aspects of what the future holds; yet I haven’t the slightest idea, really, of how to get there. I feel in contact with an obvious, simple and profound reality; yet I become a bumbling, disturbing mess of words when I try to express what I know. I am clear; yet I am confused. I feel elated about what I can bring to help things improve; yet I feel terribly inadequate about how much I can actually help. It’s fantastic and I love it; yet it’s a mess, and I don’t know what to do. There are people all around who are becoming wonderful friends and close colleagues; yet I feel very lonely.
Question: “I guess you’d say what can make me feel this way?” (These words, along with the melody from a popular song of the 60’s, just popped into my head…)
Answer: “My job… talkin’ ‘bout my new job…”
It’s the loneliness that’s the worst part. I feel a pressing need to be with others on a regular basis who are more of a like mind. Then perhaps all of the rest would be easier to deal with. But then again, nobody (including myself) said it would be easy. At least, by writing this monologue for Questions, I feel as though I’m expressing things that its readers will much more easily understand than most other people I try to discuss them with.
The new school
A little over a month ago, I was appointed superintendent of the Ogdensburg School District. Ogdensburg is a small, rural community in northern New Jersey, only 2.2 miles square, with about 2,000 residents. There is one school, which serves 385 children in Kindergarten through 8th grade. Many of the people who live in Ogdensburg are from families that have been there for generations. Others relocated in the past 10 to 30 years from New York City or its satellite urban areas to settle in a quiet, stable and peaceful community that lies on the outskirts of the metropolitan area.
The school reflects the character of the community. In fact, the person I replaced was in the school for forty-nine years, most of those as the school administrator. A single woman, the school was her life; she was the matriarch who ran it with deep love, unequaled commitment and a sharp sense for what she could best contribute. She spent at least half of the school day doing “duties”; that is, monitoring the lunch room (two hours each day) and the arrival and dismissal of the children (for a total of another hour, at least). Far from a wasted use of her time, she used the duty assignments to mingle constantly with the children, parents and staff, getting to know everyone very closely and providing a caring and nurturing environment in which people knew they were safe and protected. She rarely ventured into the classrooms and had little or nothing to say about instructional matters. At the same time, she was totally supportive of any initiative the teachers wanted to take, which they did, as best they could, being somewhat isolated from other groups of professionals. What they did hear about, they made efforts to understand and pursue, yielding some progressive efforts on their part, including recent attempts to implement “hands-on” math and what is popularly known as a “whole language” approach to reading, both of which, it seems to me, represent worthwhile and increasingly popular efforts to engage students’ intelligence in the learning process.
It’s a good school with a fine, committed and hard working staff. It’s more than I could ask for, actually, and as principal as well as superintendent, I find myself in an enviable position, one that I have dreamed about for some time. I have only the school board to answer to, and even though everyone seems to know everyone else’s business in such a small community, its members have not been and do not appear to be intrusive. As long as I can find the right things to do, I believe I will have the freedom to play an important role in helping the school to evolve into a place where an extraordinary type and amount of learning can occur daily, at least compared with most people’s expectations.
Questions about the children
Certainly, there are lots of extraneous matters to deal with, including budgets, schedules, complaints about the dismissal procedures, state bureaucracy mandates, negotiations with two unions, and on and on; but, so far at least, all of those things seem manageable and containable, so long as I remain willing to spend the needed amount of time and effort to address them. The real challenges, those that produce the ambivalent feelings I have, all relate to the experience the children have when they are in the building. What does each child leave with each day in exchange for the time they give us?
I have to say that most of the teachers would consider that question as vital and are prepared to entertain it on a serious and sustained basis. It’s in replacing it with the right set of questions that are accessible to us as a group of practitioners that the problems begin. Sitting here in my home on the weekend, it’s not too difficult to begin formulating some of those questions: Do the children feel more secure in their learning? Do they feel more in control? Do they seem energized? Do the teachers feel more energy at the end of the day, rather than less? Are the teachers pleasantly surprised by the ease with which their students master something new, rather than disturbed by how difficult some things are for them? Is the joy that the teachers and children feel in some occasional pursuits more and more felt in everything that is tackled, including those things ordinarily accepted as being the drudgery type of work that has to be done (e.g., memorizing the number facts or recognizing the difference between subjects and predicates)?
The way the children are taught now
Somehow, when I am in the school, right in the thick of things, which is exactly where I wanted to be and why I sought the job, such questions seem out of place. They appear too theoretical and removed from the daily stream of pulls and pushes that consume, first the minutes, then the hours, then the days. I know how freeing and joyful all learning can be; yet almost everywhere I turn I am confronted with seat work activities that are repetitious drill and practice, with lessons that ask students to interpret through their teachers’ words what is in their teachers’ minds, with homework that is uninspiring and tedious, with tests and grades and students who are not doing as well as “they should or could.” I don’t dare say too openly what I see for fear of alienating almost everyone, either by offending them, through sounding too harsh or critical, or by appearing to be some nut with ideas that are alien to almost all deeply rooted traditions and practices, ones that have worked pretty much to everyone’s satisfaction and have met everyone’s expectations for as long as everyone can remember. And certainly, while it is generally accepted that there is always room for improvement and even a certain amount of significant change, there is a mostly correct perception that everyone else in all the other schools are doing things pretty much the same way that things are done in Ogdensburg.
Facing all of that, I know I have to be patient. I can be and I will be. I’ve already shared with the teachers that they can expect me not to impose anything on them (a great worry they had about any new administrator who would come into the building, given the laissez faire atmosphere in which they had lived for so many years). I have decided to do as much teaching as I can in the school, either with individuals and small groups of students who have been having some difficulties (as long as their parents, teachers and they, themselves, agree) or with whole classes, when teachers invite me or accept my invitation to try something with their classes.
Rediscovering the Words in Color charts
I have rearranged the superintendent/principal’s office and have found a wall that is perfect for displaying the Words in Color charts. They have been up now for about two weeks. In addition to my desk, there is room for a small table and a few chairs for students and, if they wish to be present, for a teacher or parent. It doesn’t look like the typical school administrator’s office and the charts have already caused a raised eyebrow or two; but I find it wonderful to be able to “hold class” right in my own room. Very few of the children have ever been in the “principal’s office,” except perhaps to be reprimanded for some deviation from school rules and, I must admit, I greatly enjoy the stir it causes when one or more of the children find themselves invited in for an enjoyable lesson!
My very first effort to teach was with Michael, a second grader, right after I got the charts up on the wall. Not having taught for approximately eight years, and then with much older students (except over the years with my now almost fifteen year old daughter, but that has been less like teaching and more like arguing), it felt strange. It was much like my first clumsy attempts almost twenty-five years ago (could it really be that long?), to use the charts and to attempt to imitate some of the behaviors I had witnessed in seminars with consultants from Educational Solutions, including Dr. Gattegno. Michael was, of course, very patient with me as I hunted about for words I knew to be somewhere on the charts and as I groped for the right questions and activities that would engage him in resolving some confusions he has had regarding reading and writing. It was interesting to observe my own clumsiness and to consider how it could help me to work more sensitively and delicately with teachers new to the approach. It was also very interesting to watch myself stumbling, trying to connect with a very bright, very active mind in a way that was respectful of his gifts and powers and, at the same time, helping him to focus on some matters to which he was already clearly “turned off” (e.g., being attentive to the sounds he was making and in what order he uttered them).
Now that I have several more lessons under my belt, with Michael and with others, mostly in small groups, I still feel clumsy, but much less so. My familiarity with the materials, which at one time was intimate, is returning fairly quickly. It is wonderful to experience all over again an appreciation of their power and usefulness as an instructional instrument. The techniques for teaching reading/writing are also reemerging, thankfully due more to my attentiveness to what is being called for at the moment than to memory. My bigger problems are in the area of mathematics, on which I had always focused much less attention than I had on reading and writing in one’s native tongue. Still, I have little reluctance to enter into a math lesson with students, for several reasons: their good will is always there; I am watchful enough that I can learn as I go along and not waste their time too much; I have Gattegno math reference materials to go to for help; I am much more of a mathematician myself since participating in a number of math lessons with Dr. Gattegno over the years I worked for him.
Helping a teacher to work on numbers
And so, I face this great irony. Here for the most part is a group of people who are open minded, willing to consider making changes and ready to learn better ways of doing things. Here I am, in enough contact with the actuality of human learning to work with children in manner that, at least to some recognizable degree, keeps them in contact with their powers and able to handle in stride challenges that otherwise seem daunting, overwhelming or beyond them. Yet I have little clue on how to help the teachers learn better how to help their students learn better!
For example, just a few days ago, a very fine second grade teacher came to me and asked if I was interested in hearing about a problem she was having in getting her students to recite instantly the “addition and subtraction” facts up to 18 (which, she explained, was the amount covered in the second grade curriculum). I had already offered to visit her class every morning for a week, with the hope of helping her class to learn to read and write numerals into the billions. I had told her that I thought it could be done quickly, without any pressure, but rather in a way that the students would enjoy. Since the numeration curriculum for second grade provides for a whole year to reach 1,000, she was intrigued and ready to see, along with me, what could actually be accomplished in a few short lessons. I had also said that I could not promise her anything except that it was an experience from which we both could learn if we resisted any particular expectation.
Feeling inadequate and clumsy
I told her I greatly welcomed the opportunity to work with her on the addition and subtraction issue and asked if she had Cuisenaire rods in her classroom. She did, but she almost never used them. She brought them to my office and I then embarked on an awkward, meandering and confusing explanation of how they could be used to help students create mental models that, when practiced, led to the speed and accuracy she desired, not only for addition and subtraction through 18, but much higher. I said no memorization was required, only enjoyable game-like activities that produced certainty and security. I tried to give some examples, including building “trains” with the rods and families of equivalences. I spoke briefly and demonstrated with her how our sets of hands and complementarity easily produced a way of working on pairs that yielded at least some of the answers she wanted to obtain from her students. She listened politely and closely, generously granting to me that I might have something worthwhile to contribute to her efforts. She kindly agreed with me that the sort of teaching that I was describing represents a lifelong effort, which is never completed. Yet that was more for my sake than hers, since I had to admit that I only have some vague sense of how to help students become mathematicians instead of just calculators. I felt terribly inadequate and clumsy in what I was saying and doing and wished I could bring to the moment some of the richness and depth that Dr. Gattegno and others I had worked with so many years ago had to offer.
While my relative lack of experience in teaching math was part of the problem I was facing, the issue really runs much deeper, since I feel a similar disquietude when talking with the teachers about reading and writing. Just yesterday, upon my invitation, a teacher of a “special education” class brought six students to my office. This teacher has been in the school only one full year, compared to everyone else’s ten to thirty years of experience in the building. She is non-tenured and is worried about my estimation of her abilities, since in practical terms, she is the only one who could easily be dismissed from her position if I felt she were not good enough. She works very, very hard, trying to meet the needs of students who are in academic trouble, struggling to “individualize” her instruction and spending hours each day and evening correcting reams of drill and practice worksheets her students dutifully complete to the best of their ability.
A demo lesson
I conducted a good lesson, and within minutes the students were working with greater and greater care on comparing what they say with what they hear and with what they write. They all displayed behaviors that would lead most professionals to label them as dyslexic or perceptually impaired. All I witnessed was six individuals with intelligence, insight, a lot of knowledge, a great eagerness to learn and some confusion about the connections between the spoken and written forms of English and about some of the inconsistencies and conventions of the latter.
The agreed upon reason for my doing the demonstration lesson was to give the teacher some idea of how the students, even though they were all on different “grade levels” in reading, might be able to gain more from a half hour in class by working in a group than they could by doing separate, individually assigned, seat work, paper and pencil activities. As the lesson unfolded, my awkwardness came in my efforts to bring to the teacher’s attention some things I was noticing: the students were helping each other; they were quickly using the charts for criteria; they were self-correcting; they were very patient with one another; they were attentive even when I spent several minutes working at the charts with only one of them. I had no idea if she felt threatened, moved, confused, uneasy, inspired or anything else. Did she think the charts were some gimmick? Did I appear as some zealot trying to convince her that she should start using these weird, color-coded charts?
Questions I ask myself
Sure I could ask her, and I will. Yet I am uncomfortable about it, since I am not confident that I can help her in any significant way, even if she chooses to seek my help. Let’s say we find the money to purchase Words in Color materials (it is a small school, and not having enough money is a very real problem), how and when do I find the time to be in her classroom to give her the support I feel I owe her after turning her world upside down? Okay, we can take our time and it will take the time it takes. But how do I know what to say to her and how to say it? How many demonstration lessons should I do? How often? Which exercises should I engage her in? Should other teachers be invited to work with us? How will I know if they are coming because of my position in the school or because of a real interest in finding what all of this talk of mine is about? Can she and the other teachers see beyond my errors in my working with the students to the richness of possibilities that exist if they subordinate their teaching to learning? Furthermore, on top of those issues, rests my promise not to impose anything on anyone, coupled with my knowing that if she did things differently, her students would be far better off.
Any clumsiness I feel in my work with the children is not an issue for me. But clumsiness in working with the teachers is a worry… in fact it’s a big worry. And, at the same time I recognize that it is that very worry that in many ways blocks me from finding the right things to do, I nevertheless worry about the clumsiness because of a reality it affects. That reality is my place “politically” within the culture of the school and, by extension, the broader community. I say “politically” because I cannot think of a better word. I cannot afford to have too many people consider me to be radical in my approach to education or too critical of what is happening in the classrooms. As the administrator of the school, I cannot afford myself the luxury of saying to myself, “Well, I need to say what I know is true and I need to trust that if it is true, others can know it as well.” This school is where I am and where I expect to be for some time. I don’t have the fortitude (courage?) to take undue risks and jeopardize my career and my livelihood. All of these things, I well know, are distractions from fulfilling my destiny; yet they are there and not to be denied.
Very happy, yet deeply disturbed
So I am back where I began: very happy, yet deeply disturbed. On balance, I recognize easily that I wouldn’t trade places with anyone I know. The challenges, however unsettling, are vital ones and they are the right ones. The only real obstacles, given my title and position, come from within myself. By design, I no longer have anyone else or anything else to blame. I am where I belong, at least for me. Just how much I belong there for others remains to be seen. If the editors of Questions see fit, I will report back to you before too long to let you know how things are going. Meanwhile, if any readers have any suggestions, admonitions, words of encouragement or anything else they would like to share with me, I would greatly appreciate hearing from you.
© Ted Swartz
New York, 1993
The Science of Education in Questions – N° 10, Une Education Pour Demain, France. December 1993
Revised October 1, 1994
Dr. Theodore (Ted) Swartz was the lead applicant and founder of the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning, one of New York state’s highest achieving independent, public charter schools, with average English Language Arts (ELA) and math scores exceeding those of all comparison groups, including all of NYC schools, all of NYC charter schools and all of New York State public schools.
Dr. Swartz was a first grade teacher during Bronx Better Learning’s first two years of operation. Since then he has served as the school’s Executive Director for three years and now as the Director of Professional Development.
Just prior to his involvement with Bronx Better Learning, he was the Superintendent and Principal of a one-school, 400 student, K-8 district in Sussex County, New Jersey. Under Dr. Swartz’s leadership, the district established a strong track record of academic success, including its achieving the distinction of being the school, among 21 in the county, with the highest percentage of students meeting state standards in all sections tested, on both the fourth grade and the eighth grade statewide assessments.
He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, Special Education, from New York University.
“Talkin’ ‘Bout My New Job” by Ted Swartz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.