Monday, November 24, 2014

Thirty Years An Educator

Thirty years ago today, I walked into York Preparatory School on New York's Upper East Side for my first day as a high school history teacher. I had no formal training as a teacher except for my degree in History from Syracuse University. I had been working in advertising for a Madison Avenue firm that no longer exists using the other major I completed at Syracuse, in Telecommunications Management from the Newhouse School of Public Communications. I liked the work, liked the atmosphere, liked the potential for advancement and economic gain.

And yet.

From the time I was about 15 or 16, I had thought about teaching and knew that I could be successful at it, but I didn't pursue it for all of the logical reasons: low pay, lack of societal respect, and low pay. I loved history, and obviously still do, and had fun taking courses. I went into acting and stand-up comedy, worked in television in New Jersey and advertising in New York. The turn to teaching came, as many great things in life, by happenstance.

I had a friend from college who was a teacher and she told me there was an opening at the private school where she taught, and she also said that you didn't need a teaching certificate to teach in private schools. I called and was able to schedule an interview. Turns out the headmaster went to graduate school with my father. He was a nice guy. The head of the history department wanted someone with more experience. I figured I had come to the end of the string.

Four months later, a different headmaster called me and said he'd gotten my name from this other headmaster, who happened to be his brother-in-law. It turned out that one of the teachers wasn't working out and was I interested in teaching? I interviewed. The headmaster was a very nice guy, and so was the department chair. We talked history for an hour. They hired me.

I wore a three piece suit with Allen Edmonds wing tips on the first day. Reported at 8:00, while my first class wasn't until 11:30. During that crucial three hour stretch, I received my teaching degree from the Ronald P. Klein School of Teacher Preparedness. Ron was a fellow history teacher and over the four years I was at York Prep we became very good friends. They were probably the most productive hours in teacher training I've ever spent. He told me to focus on classroom management and to engage the students at every turn. He said to be respectful, but not to smile before January. He said to make students think and write, write, write. It was terrific advice. I still follow it, except maybe for the smiling part.

But the best part was that I loved it, as I thought I would. Loved being with the students studying history. Loved the energy and inquisitiveness that most of the students exhibited. Loved the atmosphere. Loved the schedule. Loved it.

And I still do. Yes, I have written over the years about how teachers aren't as respected in American society as they need to be, and I don't see that changing any time soon. And yes, pay increases are not keeping up with the cost of living in New Jersey, and many teachers are actually taking home less pay despite some salary increases because they are paying more for their health and pension benefits.

Oh, and then there is the constant, cyclical adoption of trendy educational ideas that are supposed to guarantee student success in the classroom and in life. Back-to-basic education, Whole Language instruction, Reading in Context, Cooperative Education, Differentiation, Phonics, New Math, Self-Esteem, Learning Clusters, and now Common Core Standards. I've missed many, but they're all fads including the new teacher evaluation system in many of the states. These too will be replaced soon because they don't do what they promise to do, and that's to improve both teacher and student performance.

What will guarantee education excellence is to have excellent teachers in the classrooms. So far we've done a good job of that, but we need to do more to ensure that the next generation of teachers is more widely respected, paid according to their societal worth and make sure phony politicians have as little to do with what happens in schools as possible.

I consider myself lucky to be able to say that I still enjoy getting up at 5:30am to teach history. Still enjoy being in the classroom interacting with students. Still enjoy the give-and-take of academic discourse. Still enjoy the positive comments I receive about the work I've done.

Have a great day, and Happy Thanksgiving.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest   

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Let the Underestimation Begin...Again

We've seen so many patterns develop over the course or Barack Obama's presidency, from the rise of the Tea Party and their attendant obstinacy and insistence that the president is an illegal alien who's usurped the office and ruled illegally, to foreign leaders who see Obama as weak and unable to guarantee that efforts to change world events will pass muster in the US Congress, to liberals who are disturbed that he hasn't closed Guantanamo and continues to try and negotiate or compromise with a Republican party that will not do either, and then will turn around and accuse him of not negotiating or compromising. (That was all one sentence. Breathe.)

But now both right and left will make their third, and final, mistake, when it comes to the Obama presidency: underestimating him.

The GOP has made underestimating the president, and overestimating its own power and influence, an industry worthy of investment by the one-percent. They didn't think he'd be able to get things done in his first two years, then they thought that health reform was dead when Scott Brown was elected Senator. They then believed that they could stall his agenda long enough to stall the economy, then defeat him in 2012. Finally, they thought that the results of the elections two weeks ago would mean the effective end of his term, and that he would suddenly respect their power so much that he will now support the XL pipeline, slash taxes to the wealthy, militarize the southern border, and convince two Supreme Court justices to resign so he could appoint both Koch brothers to the bench.

So what does the president do? Signs a major climate agreement with China. Signs a trade agreement with China. Talks about sending more military reinforcements to Syria. And this week he will sign executive orders that will give up to 5 million immigrants the ability to obtain Social Security cards, driver's licenses and the peace of mind to know that families with illegal or undocumented parents will not be broken up. Meanwhile, people who try to cross the border will be stopped and deported, and not one immigrant will get legal status or citizenship, despite the GOP's interpretation.

Looks like this lame duck is roaring like a lion and stalking like a tiger.

Let the final underestimation begin.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest  

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Left Lost. It's Temporary. Move On.

Democratic hand-wringing continues over last week's election results, but really, I don't understand the angst. The party ran a message-less campaign, didn't allow it's most valuable asset, the president, to defend his record, ran away from its soul  and against better GOP candidates, and was fighting ages-old historical tides that pointed to losses as far back as the spring. The polls were way off in terms of victory margins and many Democrats practiced what Republicans perfected in 2012: fiddling with the numbers until they said what they wanted them to say.

I, for one, am not surprised at the outcome, nor am I devastated by the turn of power in the Senate and the loss of more House seats. This was going to happen. The point now is to figure out how to regroup for 2016.

The Republicans made great strides in their technology and that helped them this fall. They also ran candidates who were slightly less conservative than the Tea Party folk who stuck large shoes in their mouths in 2010 and 2014. And their voters showed up at the polls. How can you beat that?

Voter turnout for this election was abysmal in many states, so the real issue for me is how to get more people to become engaged in the political process. People who vote are more likely to be active in their communities and to care more about issues. Young people came out in better numbers in 2008 and 2012, but they stayed home this year. It's up to all of us to try and get them, and other constituencies, to vote in all elections.

There is some talk about younger people not supporting Democrats as they did in the past, but mostly because these youngsters believe that the culture wars are over and the Republicans lost. That means they can vote for GOP candidates based on their free-market values. We'll see how long that lasts, especially if the Republicans continue to deny climate change and support anti-choice legislation.

As for the president, he is clearly moving at his own pace, and the climate deal with China, along with his promised executive orders on immigration are the latest signs that he's not going to back down. This clearly bothers Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, but I think they're bothered simply because Barack Obama is president. Anything he does just produces bonus disgust.

Reason enough for me to feel better.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest