Where Al Shanker Stood: How To Harass A Fulbright Teacher

In this column, originally published in the New York Times on November 3, 1985, Al Shanker argues that teachers need to be treated respectfully, as the dedicated professionals they are.

This is the story of a man who offended the powers that be. It has nothing to do with the Medicis, the Borgias or Henry the Eighth but a lot to do with the way too many of our schools are administered. Bert (not his real name) has been a New York City social studies teachers for many years, first in junior high and then in high school. He's also a perennial student. In addition to holding two master's degrees, he's spent most of his summers taking solid academic courses at places like Columbia, Temple, Princeton, Rensselaer. Over the years he's won three Fulbright scholarships for study in India, Israel and, this past summer, in Korea.

There's nothing parochial about Bert's  interests. He's done work in human relations, psychology, urban problems, Ottoman and Korean culture, the history of anti-Semitism and of slavery, law, school administration, American history and a whole college catalogue of other subjects. In 1980 he was cited for his "outstanding  professional participation" in a summer human rights workshop at Skidmore College.

Most important, there's nothing of the ivory tower or the dilettante in all this. Bert brought what he had studied back into his classroom and into his professional relations with his colleagues. His principal once praised him for the "keen insights" he offered in a presentation to the entire faculty after a summer of study in Israel. Now he's preparing a new syllabus for his social studies department based on his summer in Korea. His chairmen have consistently praised his teaching ability. A recent observation report on one of his lessons concluded with, "Keep up the good work."

Sounds like the record of one of the top teachers in his school, right? Wrong! The punch line is that Bert was rated "unsatisfactory" by his principal at the end of the last school year.

On the surface it was his third Fulbright for last summer that caused Bert's problem. When he received notice that he had won the grant, he was told that he was scheduled to leave the country the last week in June. He would have to miss the last week of school, but this had never presented a problem before. There are no classes then in high school, and the teachers are exclusively involved in clerical work. Bert tried to get the travel arrangements changed, but was told they were firm and that he had to report to an orientation session in Seattle. He expected to lose a week's  pay (even though he had used four days of his Easter recess to shepherd his students to a model U.N. program in Manhattan), but he wasn't prepared for his request for a leave to be denied by the local superintendent on the recommendation of his principal. No one in his school's administration would discuss the matter with him. As far as they were concerned, that was that.

But Bert wasn't about to lose out on a Fulbright. So, after informing the authorities of his intention, he left for the Orient without official approval. He thought that his attendance record over the years should count for something in his favor - after all, he had accumulated over 170 days in his bank of unused sick leave, which means over 17 years without an absence for illness. But when he returned in the fall, Bert discovered that he had been given a "U" rating for the entire school year. And, his teaching program had been changed, making it more difficult. Nothing personal; administrative necessity, of course.

Now I think I know most of the arguments, some of them quite sound, against insubordination toward properly constituted authority, but there also has to be some way of preventing Captain Queeg from steering his ship into the path of a typhoon, or, as in this case, preventing a school principal from chipping away at staff morale by arbitrary and shabby treatment of a highly respected faculty member.

Another consideration is the plain fact that Bert and his generation are the best educated people that we're likely to get in the profession for a long time. All of them are at or near retirement age. We should be looking for ways to hold onto them as long as we can and not trying as hard as this principal to push them out the door early with petty harassment.

Also, at a time when most of us are seeking to sell the virtues of our school system to the public, you might think that a principal would want to let the whole world know that one of his staff had won a Fulbright - for the third time. Unfortunately, the administrative mind doesn't always work that way. Most likely this story is about the exercise of power and the intricacies of school politics and not at all about education.

One of the official reasons now given for denying Bert's request for a leave is that there allegedly was no point in going to study in Korea because the school didn't teach Korean culture or history. This in spite of the fact that several hundred youngsters of Korean ancestry attend the school. And I suppose that, in the administration's view, the Korean War is a little too recondite a subject for high school students. At any rate, Bert is still working on the new syllabus on the Far East for his department with the approval and encouragement of his chairman.

There are plenty of fine supervisors throughout the country, but Bert's story is all too familiar to teachers. There are still many in administration who can't shake the old notion that school is just another factory and that teachers are hired hands who have to be told what to do at every turn, and where every manifestation of independence of spirit is insubordination plain and simple. Thousands of teachers would give a lot for supervisors who are firm and fair, confident enough to treat teachers as professional colleagues and involved with the education of children, not preoccupied with "teaching" Bert and his colleagues who's boss.

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