1999-10-30 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Plato was right. Education takes place between a teacher and his or her students.

Everybody else is superfluous to the process of education.

Right? Maybe, maybe not.

Perhaps that was true in Plato’s day when the "school" was an old stone fence and his educational institution was not responsible for educating large numbers of kids, feeding them, looking to their health needs, ensuring their self-esteem, building their bodies and making sure they get to school and get home again.

Even Plato would have been overwhelmed by that kind of responsibility.

When an institution takes on those kinds of responsibilities, then people are needed to make sure they are performed correctly.

Many of the roles in today’s schools have evolved out of the perceived need of the institution to control those functions and make sure that the taxpayers were getting their money’s worth.

For example, when you had one or two teachers in Plato’s school, they were colleagues, sharing ideas and strategies. As schools grew, the teachers usually jointly made all of the decisions.

When the school began to grow larger, however, and problems grew among colleagues, then a principal teacher was needed to address those problems and to make group decisions.

So were supervisors born. And, as long as they were there, why not task them with making sure those teachers were doing their jobs. How do you do that? With lesson plans and observations, of course.

When the number of teachers in a school grew and it was perceived that the principal (as he or she came to be called) was overwhelmed by his or her duties, the answer was to give the principals some assistants and call them assistant principals. See how easy it is to build an educational infrastructure?

No more collegiality for this institution. Decisions are not made by colleagues of equal rank any longer, but by the principal and his "cabinet" of assistant principals. After all, what do teachers know?

They are the " piece workers" at the low end of the educational food chain. They therefore must be continually monitored by the administrators by providing lesson plans, through observations and memos telling them what to do in order to insure that they are doing their jobs to the administrator’s liking. The teachers have become paper work drones, responsible for Metropasses, lunch applications, period to period attendance, attendance-related bubble sheets, report card bubble sheets, candy sales, health monitoring and the like. That they have to time to teach at all is a minor miracle.

There is no doubt that there is a place for administrators in the system. I do not want to give the impression that I think that we could do away with either principals or assistant principals. We should, however, restructure how they impact the educational process.

At the beginning, both the junior high schools and the high schools had supervisors called "department chairmen." Today, they probably would be called department chairpersons, but we don’t have to call them anything because they no longer exist on the junior high school level.

These department chairpersons were master teachers. They taught one period a day, did staff development, assisted in the administrative minutia of running a school and made sure that new teachers learned how education really worked. They were largely indispensable to a new teacher.

They were invaluable mostly because they knew their academic subject cold. They knew how to teach. They were experts.

Each school had a department chairperson for each of the four major subjects. If you taught social studies, for example, your department chairperson taught the top section each day and was a resource for all of the other social studies teachers.

When I first began teaching at JHS 198 upon leaving the Navy in 1965, that school already had assistant principals. I was teaching math out of license and I got no help from anybody. The only advice I got from my AP was to pass the wastepaper basket around at the end of each period and to keep my window shades lowered equally. When I asked for a transfer at the end of that school year, I was placed in the largest junior high school in the city – JHS 296 in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

It was a training ground for many principals and superintendents of schools. Several of this district’s principals and assistant principals came out of that training ground.

There were department chairpersons who were knowledgeable both in their subject area and in how to teach it. I learned more about teaching in those few years (before I went to write for Weekly Reader) than I did in all of my ed courses put together and I learned the subject as well. The department chairs at JHS 296 made me into a teacher. They did that for 90 percent of the new people who passed through the school. The rest went into other professions.

Today, that system no longer exists. There are no longer any department chairpersons. They have been replaced by assistant principals who may or may not know anything about the subjects that are taught by the teachers they supervise.

Dumb, isn’t it? Yes, but unfortunately true.

For example, there were three assistant principals at IS 53 the last few years that I was there. Some of them have retired, others have moved on. One has become the principal.

One had been an elementary school teacher, with no need to "major" in any particular subject. Another was an English major who had been in business for most of her career and had been in the system less than seven years when she became an assistant principal. The third was an English major as well.

Not one of them knew anything about science. Not one of them knew anything about social studies.

Yet, they supervised and worked with teachers who were majors in those subjects and who had to impart their knowledge to their students.

I often wonder how they can write an observation on a teacher when they have no mastery of the subject he or she is addressing in the classroom.

It became something of a joke since I had written a series of American History textbooks and the assistant principal who had to evaluate my work had never gone further than basic American History.

That is not the way education is supposed to work.

We should go back to the department chairperson model, except that we probably could not even if we wanted to.

The fact is, we cannot even find new assistant principals with any experience at all, nevertheless people with experience in subjects such as math or science.

In fact, we are going to lose many of our most experienced administrators not to other venues, but to the classroom.

In the past month I have met three assistant principals with about 20 years of administrative experience between them who are about to go back on their teacher’s license.

They are going to do that because they have no contract as administrators and they will earn considerably more as a teacher than as an administrator and will have to work less hours and have less aggravation to do it.

Who will replace them? The only people who will take the job under present conditions are those with a large ego who need to be the boss and those who have less than 15 years in the system.

Those who have the ego need will take the job under any conditions and those who have been in the system for less than 15 years will still get a small raise by becoming an administrator.

All others will lose money, unless they become an administrator after December 16, 1999. Since state law says that a person cannot take a pay cut to become an administrator, those senior teachers (more than 22 years in the system) who become administrators After that date will keep their $70 thousand salary. Those who were made administrators prior to that date, however, will earn only $64 thousand, even if they have been administrators for ten years or more.

Only in New York City could something like this happen.

The Board of Education has projected a need for as many as 54,000 new teachers over the next five years. Those new teachers will need nurturing and training like no group of teachers entering the system in 30 years.

Their colleagues will be new and their administrators will be new and inexperienced.

The board is attempting to make it easier to become a teacher at the same time the state is making it harder to become a teacher.

What will happen? Stay tuned for more in next week’s column.


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