Charlie’s Wake

This is the real challenge; the one below it is a hint.

 

A couple of years into my decade of teaching economics at Tulsa Junior (now Community) College a couple of us decided to organize a men’s (late 1970s) faculty softball team and enter the City’s park and rec league. There were ten positions and you had to buy your position so there was no coaching and no subs during games. We called ourselves the Pedants (look it up, I had to).  I played mostly outfield for three years till I tired of the lousy schedules we got being in the lowest league and the rest of my life, like coaching youth soccer and politics picked up.  We included a couple of ringers, one named Charlie came to us by way of his neighbor Danney Goble, gifted member of the history faculty and published author (see Onward to the Past), but more a wannabe ball player like the rest of us than the real deal.  Charlie, though more than a decade older than the rest of us, was the real deal having played for a baseball state championship as a student at Tulsa Central (I think they won).  Charlie taught mathematics at a local junior high school and we welcomed him as a polished player at any position who quietly led by example and consistency, and he could suffer us fools.   Here is a photo of gifts he welded for each of us.

 

Our softball friendship evolved into four of us Pedants playing doubles tennis year ’round every Saturday morning for about 15 years at the courts by Hillcrest Hospital.  Charlie was not then a tennis payer but had accepted my challenge and beat me (I had played off and on since junior high) with steady defense the first time, and every time, we played singles.  He was savvy and a good athlete.  He was my partner all those years against our shortstop and first baseman, the Mikes.  

Over the years we shared many conversations and experiences off the court as our children grew up and some left home.  Our Saturday matches ended when Charlie and one Mike could no longer play hard court tennis without pain so they focused on golf while the other Mike and I continued with tennis by joining a USTA league and settling in with new tennis friends.  As happens when common interests end Charlie and I just didn’t stay in touch except through reports by mutual friends.  I did visit him last December and planned to do so again.  He died in July.  

My first job out of college was teaching secondary mathematics for the School District of Philadelphia.  I had scholarship offers to study for a PhD in economics at UCLA and Wisconsin (my preference) but a 1A draft status and the Vietnam War (Plan C for us losers who didnt have bone spurs or other medical disqualification) derailed my plan A.  Plan B presented itself when the Philadelphia recruiters came on campus looking for math and science teachers.  My minor in mathematics qualified me so they got a two year commitment from a certifiable, though wholly unprepared, math teacher and I got an occupational deferment from the state of Pennsylvania; my time in Philly lasted four years and every day I was grateful for the deferment my education provided me and knew that otherwise I could be one of the thousands of my less fortunate contemporaries.   

In reality I was a poor recruit to teach in the Philadelphia schools.  True I knew math, would easily get emergency certification followed by standard certification in one year, and I was highly motivated by the evening news to stay employed, but I had no experience and no training to be a teacher.  Regardless, I had a contract to teach; the only question was at what school. The best secondary positions were in the high schools simply because the students are calmer at that age and many of the hardest to manage had dropped out.    Many junior high teachers, if they had high school subject certifications, would put in for transfers that were often awarded based on seniority.  So I was first assigned to a north Philly junior high, went for the interview, and the principal wisely passed, opting instead for his uncertified long term sub on whom he knew he could rely to last year after year, unlike us newbies who had a 60+% no show rate the second year. 

The principal at my second assigned north Philly junior high either didn’t care or figured he was stuck with me so I reported there the first day with the other faculty for my teaching assignment, as did an experienced teacher from the Catholic diocese schools. He had taken the job for higher pay and the pension, not the working conditions.  Yes, the District Office bureaucracy had assigned two of us to the same position.  He pulled out his union book and cited something that said since he was there first he would get the assignment; I didn’t object assuming I’d have a job somewhere since they’d signed a contract with me.  He spent the day in teacher meetings while I sat in the office.  At some point the District Office acknowledged their error and determined I would be assigned to West Philadelphia High School which happened to be a pleasant one mile walk from our apartment near the University of Pennsylvania.  The next four years were challenging to say the least, but I know my work life would have been much harder but for this lucky accident.  Here is West Philly High.

 

Working hands on as a classroom teacher those four years in Philly, then two at Wilson Junior High in Tulsa, followed by eleven at Tulsa Junior College, left me with several observations.

1.  Not much good is going to happen in your classroom for students if you don’t have disciplinary control.  Individually my students at West Philly were as sweet and fun as anywhere else, but there were enough who couldn’t sit still, goofballs, that maintaining discipline my first year was impossible and very challenging the other three.  Lower class sizes definitely help.

2.  Some people have a natural or acquired teaching charisma that students respond to; most of us do not.  These “naturals” are special and every student deserves to be taught and inspired by one or more each year.  The rest of us can be good teachers if we follow the well-established teaching rubrics that are tried and true and that most teachers are exposed to in their college instruction.  Simply stated:  review prior, introduce new, practice new, evaluate, then use evaluation to guide next session, i.e. review, etc.

3.  The best teachers are in K-12 schools; not colleges and universities.  College and university teachers look good because they start with self-disciplined students who are motivated to please the teacher—how can you fail to look good.  But many of them haven’t a clue how to really teach and wouldn’t last a semester at the schools where Charlie and I taught.

4.  In real world K-12 schools a strong, effective building leader makes a huge difference.  This fact was driven home to me when, after several days on the picket line in West Philadelphia a judge ordered my union, the American Federation of Teachers, back to work.  After a day of reflection, I went back to work; most did not.  With the teachers available the District established “Senior Centers” so the high school seniors could stay on track for graduation.  I was assigned to Bartram High School in southwest Philly where the principal was a well-organized, highly visible, leader.  Unlike my school where the school office was the center of chaos and the principal (his name was Walter Scott, I kid you not) rarely left his office, if he was in the building at all, the Bartram principal and school administration functioned and had your back which the students figured out.  It was like night and day.

So, in my opinion, if you want K-12 schools to function properly hire all the natural teachers you can recruit, be sure the rest follow a sound teaching rubric, give every building a strong, knowledgeable leader who will stay several years, and then get out of their way.  The best resource for understanding how this works is the Effective Schools movement; I was lucky as a school board member in Tulsa to hear its founder, Ron Edmonds, speak a few years before his passing.  Here’s what makes effective schools:  have strong building leadership, an orderly environment (discipline), high expectations for student success, focus on instructional time, and frequent monitoring of student progress using results to adapt instruction.  At one time Tulsa Public Schools had a School Effectiveness policy, I know because I introduced it; a policy isn’t needed, it’s just what I could do as a board member, but having educators committed to these strategies that are known to work is essential. 

I don’t know if Charlie was a good teacher because I was never in his classroom and never talked with one of his students.  I do know that he showed up for work every day, that he worked hard and that he cared about his students.  I know this because that is how he approached every endeavor we shared—he showed up, worked hard and cared about the people he was with.  With the right educational leadership in our state, in our school districts, in each school, and with the committed educators we have, the many more we need in our classrooms and lots of Charlies, children in all parts of Oklahoma can learn, thrive and help our state become a better place to live for us all.  What’s stopping us is state political leadership, bolstered with the shoddy cookie-cutter policy work done by Limited Thinkers at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and its echo tank the 1889 Institute, that sees only what public education costs our state with no attention to the lasting benefits it produces or to financing proven strategies that will make our schools more effective. 

As always lunch is on me (13 free lunches so far) to the first to ID each photo location.

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