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October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

Back in the Classroom

Returning to teaching from an administrative position can be a revealing experience.

Instructional Strategies
We say it in moments of administrative exasperation. “All I want to do is go back and teach again. That's what education is really about.” After 10 years as a superintendent, I said it a lot. I told my colleagues and friends, “I want to do something besides budgets, board meetings until 2 a.m., and PTA spaghetti dinners.” Their condescending looks and pats on the head convinced me not to seek another administrative position but to “get back to the classroom.” I began looking for a job.

Swimming in the Pool

Being just a tad stubborn, I wanted to start the process from the beginning. I didn't want anyone to pull strings for me; I wanted to be just another candidate, to sell myself as a teacher.
The first system I had to maneuver was voice mail. No one answers the phone anymore; the job has been taken over by what I assume to be robots. “For information concerning how to get into the candidate pool, press 3. If you are already in the pool and want information on current openings, press 4.” After nine other options, it said, “If you are none of the above, press 11.” Feeling like “none of the above,” I pressed 11. The robot repeated, “For information on how to get into the candidate pool, press 3. If you are already in the pool....” I pressed 3.
To become one of the hundreds of “fish in the pool” swimming around for jobs, I had to submit application papers, resumes, references, transcripts, and notarized documentation of my previous experience. After two months and 113 different pieces of correspondence, I was relieved to hear the robot say, “You are in the pool.”
I pressed 4 to find out about current openings.
“Due to budgetary uncertainties, there are no announced openings in the district at this time.” I received the same message for the next seven weeks. I was now four months into the process.
Exactly one week before classes were to start, the number 4 robot said, “We have the following openings for elementary school teachers....” and it listed six openings in a school system employing more than 1,000 elementary teachers. The instructions were to call the listed principals, which meant wading through their voice mail. I made contact with all six and wrangled interviews out of three.
The first principal I interviewed with stated that she had spent her whole career in the system, having been “pulled out of the classroom” by the district—she didn't really know why—and that she'd been doing her best with the resources available. Her school was poor, it looked poor, and her most exciting news was that she'd been promised a new administrative trailer in the coming semester. She needed it.
She didn't believe in whole language, and she liked her other man teacher because she could count on him to hold back the kids when she needed it. She ended the interview saying, “You don't really want to work here. You should be a principal someplace.”
I was unprepared for the second principal I met. He was a star—obviously. His school, located in one of the most affluent neighborhoods of the city, received lots of community support. He was congenial, but calculating about his questions and expected responses. I stumbled over “What science technologies do you utilize?” and “How do you construct your thematic lessons?” His final question was, “I've never seen a former administrator do well in the classroom—what makes you different? Why don't you want my job?”
I'd forgotten.
I relaxed a little with the third principal. She seemed sincere, and the building was OK—certainly not ramshackle, but a little dusty. We talked at length about the needs of the kids, her challenges with this “difficult” school and its “troubled” students, and her need to find someone with strength and patience to help her pull the staff together. Her biggest concern seemed to be whether I should teach kindergarten or 5th grade. Despite inner concerns about any ability I had left to crawl around on the floor with a roomful of 5-year-olds, I said, “Either.”
She asked that we both “think about it overnight,” and told me to call her the next day with my preference of grade level. She would make a decision on which by Monday.
A fourth interview came as a surprise. It was in a new school—still beautiful and shiny. The principal called on the Friday morning before school was to start. He had received my resume in the mail and wanted to talk. Could it be that afternoon?
I got there at 4:30. He asked if I knew process writing and whole language. Then he said, “I'm going to give you the chance I hope someone gives me.” I thought that odd.
He explained that, although he expected to have an opening, official “allotments” would be decided on Monday. He would call me back. I was in and out in 15 minutes.
On Monday, I didn't leave the house, I swear. I sat by the phone all day.
The phone didn't ring once.
I envisioned my family on welfare.
On Tuesday I looked at the phone, suddenly realizing it hadn't rung all weekend. One of those feelings of horror that belongs to fathers of young children swept over me. I remembered that my kindergartner had been playing with the phone on Saturday morning. In deference to my child, I said it turned itself off, but it was off, and no one could have gotten through.
I called the office of the nice principal with the dusty school, and her secretary informed me she had chosen another candidate.
I saw food stamps.
I called the principal who was “going to give me a chance.” His secretary answered, “Finally! We've been calling all weekend. Can you teach 5th grade? Can you start tomorrow?”
YES!
I had swum successfully through the pool of voice mail systems, bureaucracy, and interviews. I was back in the 5th grade!

No Longer the Boss

I have had few more exhilarating moments in education than attending that first staff meeting at my new job. Someone else was in charge! Someone else had made the agenda and knew all the secret reasons that those items needed to be addressed. All I had to do was sit back and take notes. I went home that day fully satisfied with my new job.
I spent the second day in my new classroom talking to the other teachers, finding out about the kids, trying to get a grip on what would be expected. The teachers were all enthusiastic; they loved their principal.
That afternoon, the principal called an additional staff meeting, at which he announced that, for personal reasons, he had resigned from the district and had taken a teaching job in a community 50 miles away. His last day on the job would be the following Monday. Suddenly I understood his odd remark. My new colleagues were in tears; I was in shock. As it turned out, the transition to a new principal went smoothly; she did fine. I, however, did less so.
I quickly discovered that being one of the fish in the pond was more disconcerting than I had expected. Many of the amenities I had as an administrator had disappeared.
The person I missed most was my executive assistant. She had kept me on track, remembered the things I forgot, and taken care of day-to-day details. She was the one who would come into my office at 4:30 and say, “You forgot to get your (own) kids home. Don't worry; I've already sent them home with the driver.” Suddenly, not only was there no driver, but there was no executive assistant!
Nor was there easy access to a telephone; I could not pick up the phone and make a call when I needed or wanted to. All calls had to be made publicly during my planning time from one of two telephones set aside for teacher use. Getting any business accomplished on the few minutes of planning time available to me as a teacher was a daily frustration.
I also relearned the value of keeping vital people on my side. When I discovered that my classroom had no materials, the principal told me I could make a small emergency order. Time came to start school, and I still didn't have any supplies, so I went to talk to the guardian of the materials. She explained that she hadn't been authorized to give me any supplies. That old administrative fever came on strong: “I need some materials—NOW!”
I got them by that afternoon, but I felt badly. At the end of the day I apologized. With the air of one who has seen hundreds come and go, she said, “I filled out the request for you.” We've since become friends and will remain so—as long as I keep my requests on the appropriate form.

Classroom Surprises

A bigger blow to my educational ego came in the area of curriculum design and implementation. I had always prided myself as being a progressive educator, one who knew the newest methodologies and how to get teachers to apply them. I had been pleased that this was a “whole language” school that utilized cooperative learning and integrated subject areas—everything that I had advocated as a superintendent.
The reality soon hit that espousing methodologies is very different from doing them. Suddenly I had to teach holistically, develop my own curriculum around themes, and use a curriculum based on the interests and needs of the students.
I began walking the dangerous line of pretending that I knew what I was doing while frantically trying to find out how to do it. I talked with my team leader, who gave me some ideas on how she planned her year. When I asked what we were supposed to teach she said, “Oh, there are district guidelines in your cupboard, but we don't really use them.” I talked with the school's curriculum specialist, who told me: “Teach what comes from the kids. Concentrate on the richness and texture of the curriculum. Scope and sequence will follow.” I talked with the principal, who encouraged me to experiment. Although she supported the different things I tried, she was nondirective.
Besides struggling with what to teach, I began to realize I had forgotten how to do it. I couldn't remember all those little tricks that teachers use to maintain discipline, to get the homework in, to get the kids to use their time and materials wisely. The techniques, the look, had gotten lost somewhere in the research, the philosophical discussions, and a superintendent's concerns over salaries and textbooks.
I was assigned 36 (!) 5th graders, who ranged in ability from gifted to educationally handicapped—from kids who had already read the best literature to those who couldn't read at all. Never mind “richness and texture of the curriculum”! What was I going to do with these 11-year-olds, 5 hours a day, for the next 180 days?
I spent hours and hours planning, but I couldn't make the plan book work. My timing was off. I'd finish one activity too early, while another one would take hours. I worked overtime checking papers.
To make matters worse, I had to be evaluated. Being untenured meant that the principal had to evaluate me at least once a month and send her evaluations to the central office for approval. After years of offhandedly evaluating dozens of teachers, I faced that first hour of evaluation with the same terror I had experienced at my most awful board meetings.
The first evaluation was a flop. I froze, the kids didn't cooperate, two girls got into an argument, and the lesson ended 20 minutes early. I had to fill time while the principal sat stoically in the back of the room.
Despite these traumas, I found the kids themselves to be interesting. They were middle class, a mixture of races and cultures. Except that the kids in my previous schools had come from fast-track families, striving for the Harvards and Yales of the world, these kids were the same. They were curious, and they saw school as a good place to be. They were worthy of whatever I could offer them.
And that's where I began. One day it hit me that the problem was that it was my curriculum and my planning that the kids weren't buying into. Suddenly the terms “richness and texture of the curriculum” took on a whole new meaning.
I began to play with themes. Selecting “Discovery and Exploration,” I freed the kids to explore the theme as they wanted. For example, a discussion on Benjamin Franklin elicited interest in electricity. I asked the kids to write down their questions about electricity. We compiled a master list, and I assigned responsibility for finding the answers to the students. “Call the electric company,” I recommended. The class and I reached consensus on what would be expected, and I provided content. My job became supplying them with materials and showing them how to use them.

Remembering How to Teach

I must be slow, but it took me a while to figure out that the more I took myself out of the process, the more the students assumed ownership of it. As the curriculum became theirs, discipline fell into place. Kids began to work together and depend on the expertise of one another. The “richness and texture” began to come through. I began to sense scope and sequence; I began to sense success.
As the year progressed, we hit a rhythm and flow. Our rapport was such that I was able to interject skills and technical information at appropriate points. I remembered how to meet the individual needs of the kids by watching them closely. Their knowledge base and their thinking skills improved, if for no other reason than that I would always throw their questions back to them. “We know,” they would say, “call the electric company.” They had learned ways to find the answers, and the learning had become theirs.
From my year in that 5th grade classroom, I remembered how to teach and how to get kids to take responsibility for their own learning and like doing it. I practiced using whole language techniques and cooperative learning. I remembered that kids are kids and that we need to tap their natural curiosity. And I vowed that if I ever returned to administration, I'd make sure teachers had easy access to a phone! Most important, I learned in a personal way that the philosophies and methodologies I'd been talking about as an administrator for the past 10 years were valid and can serve as important tools for the success of our students.

Tomm J. Elliott has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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