Choosing Education:
an Historical Analysis


In the beginning when my parents could finally get me out from under foot and into school, I joined my dad at Harvard. He was in the MBA program and I was in the Harvard nursery school. It was all down hill after that.

Upon my graduation from Harvard, my family moved to West Hartford, Connecticut. I was enrolled in some prestigious school with a long driveway that led to a magnificent building. When I see a World War II movie of Germans working out of some chateau, I see this building. I remember they had a slide, the students used to enter the classroom. I tried to go down it a second time, but was told only once a day. I walked out of that school and walked home. I remember my mom was furious at the school and not at me. As far as I was concerned, I escaped, I snuck out, I as proud of myself. Now upon reflection as a teacher, I understand her anger at the school. I went to another school.

Our next move found us in Westport, Connecticut. Dad was working on Madison Avenue and teaching nights and my mom was teaching full time. I went to a public elementary school. I walked to school and found plenty of mischievous things to do with my new found buddies. I had my first fight over a girl in first grade. After the fight and both sets of parents were called in, Ricky and I became best friends. The girl, I can't remember her name was forgotten about very quickly. Ricky and I got into trouble all the time, in school and out of school. In second grade Ricky and I were separated. That meant we were only in trouble out of school. I remember only one thing from second grade: our female gym teacher used to stand by the shower room and watch us shower. I remember not liking that. Now upon reflection, I realize my instincts were correct. Third grade was the year I hit rock bottom. The first thing I remember was being pulled out of class and going to work with a lady in a separate room. Today we might call it resource room. We worked on reading and answering questions, on writing, and she asked me lots of questions. I especially remember her working on my writing and giving me writing exercises to take home. I was the only kid pulled out of class for this and it made me feel weird. I was different and it wasn't a good different. Or at least that wasn't my feeling on it. My teacher was new, I remember her looking like my babysitter who was in high school. She was strict. If a student spoke out in class, that student had to write 50 times, I will not speak out in class. Well I don't want to tell you how many times I had to write that phrase or one similar to it. Usually these exercises were done after school. However, on one occasion I had to take the exercise home because I had to write it 1000 times. When I first saw "The Simpsons" I had to laugh. Bart became my favorite character. If all of this wasn't bad enough, the worst event of my life, to date, happened in this class. It happened on Valentine's Day. I had a crush on a classmate and wrote her a love note, which I passed to her in class. Well, Ms Acorn, the teacher, intercepted it and read it. She laughed and then read it outloud to the class. Bart Simpson couldn't have devised a more cruel method of death then the one going through my mind then. I was devastated. One particular young man named Wynn Headley was particularly cruel. He was also the biggest kid in class. He later went on to be a local high school football star. Well, in pure self-destruct mode I taunted him with name calling: Wynn "Headless". Well he was sensitive to his intelligence and used to wait after school to beat me up. It was an adventure to get home unscathed each day.

Educationally speaking nothing was happening. My parents pulled me out and sent me to a private school a couple of towns away. It was a new start. My fourth grade teacher was the oldest thing I had ever seen. I heard my first dirty joke in her class. I kissed my first girl in the coat closet of her class. This is the first class for which I can remember doing work. I did a report on the Connecticut River. This was great. Our family made a holiday of it. We took a trip along the river from Old Saybrook, Connecticut up to Hanover, New Hampshire. I took pictures all the way, and gathered information about the river at visitor centers and information booths. When we got home, I remember spending days on assembling the report. I pasted the pictures and brochures into the report. The teacher praised me and posted my report on the class wall. That was the beginning of the best year of schooling I had to date. It was the first time a teacher rewarded me and the first time I felt successful. This carried over to sports too. I was a star on the football and baseball team and I as the only fourth grader playing on any varsity sport and I was on two. The school only went up to sixth grade. Sports became my outlet for success. This was the first of three very happy and successful years. During this time we moved to another house in Westport. Instead of sending me to another private school, my parents decided I should go back to public school. Trouble began immediately upon entering a public junior high. Trouble, of course, came in the form of a female. She was no ordinary female as I was to find out later. She stopped seeing someone else. He was not happy, and we fought after school. No one won, but she became my first wife a number of years later. Her name was Joy. In junior high, I took up with the hoods, went to the YMCA pool hall and became a hustler. Since both my parents were teaching nights, I played pool every night. At 9 pm the phone would ring in the pool hall. I didn't wait to get the message, I put up my stick, grabbed my books and sweater and walked out hearing whoever answered the phone, "Teddy has just left, Mrs Nellen." That was the year they brought "new math" into the schools, I had an English teacher who sprayed when he spoke, we used headphones in a new French lab, I loved mechanical drawing and shop, and hated gym in spite of my previous successes in my previous school, and science. Eighth grade was a washout. I was identified as a problem and was ignored. I wore the same sweater to school every day all year. I was now getting in trouble with the police. It was time for me to skip town. My parents hated this "new math" thing. I was sent to boarding school for the next five years. My first year was great probably because I repeated eigth grade. I was on the honor roll the entire spring term. I was popular, I did well in sports. Things changed the next year. One incident destroyed the rest of my time at that school. At the end of the year I received the most votes from my classmates to be a member of the student council. The faculty, however, denied me that victory, because they didn't think my grades were good enough and I was spending too much time is detention. This was devastating. As I look back on it, that honor may have been the very thing to turn me around. Instead I slept through the rest of the years until graduation. I am proud to say, I graduated last in a class of 125. Since I knew I would probably flunk out of college, I joined the Army, went to Vietnam and educated myself. When I came back I went to Babson for my freshman year, finished first in the class and got married to Joy and transferred to Skidmore College where I graduated with honors.

It must seem obvious why I became a teacher. I was determined that I would not let happen to me happen to another kid, if I could help it. I was damn mad about my own education and the only way I could fix it was to get into it and fix it from within. I went back and eventually taught at the school from which I graduated last in my class. Teaching with my old teachers was scary. So scary I left, but this time on better footing. I also divorced Joy and came to NYC and started teaching in a public high school. The wrongs done me gave me great insight into my students needs. The successes I had had gave me methods to replicate success in others. I didn't learn in schools, I learned outside schools. I don't teach in a traditional manner. All of my academic successes were "constructivist" in nature, though no one called it that. I preferred the Dewey phrase, "Learn by doing." Public school has afforded me the opportunity, the material, the students to ply my craft and play out my vision. I do not teach as I was taught. I am that old lady I had in fourth grade, my prep school Latin teacher, my college English teacher, my Vietnam corresponding teacher. Why am I a teacher? It seems obvious to me, I've got to show them how to do it. Why do I want to be an administrator? Because I have a vision and a way to do a better job, and I have honed some skills. I want to fulfill John Cheever's vision of me. In my first year of teaching, my wife, Joy, and I were having dinner out when she saw an old English teacher of hers, Mary Cheever. When we went over to say hello, Mary introduced us to her husband, John. Well I was overwhelmed since I has just finished Falconer, his latest novel. In fact they were staying in this particular hotel for the week while he autographed thousands of copies of this book. He asked me if I played Backgammon. I did and he invited me to join him everyday at 1 pm for two hours of play. I was honored and accepted. During our last session, after days of conversation and talk of education, he said to me, "I see you as a headmaster or principal of an innovative school doing wonderful things." I laughed, thanked him and told him, I had no desire to head a school. He laughed and I left. And now here I am at Teachers College in an administrative program hoping to make a difference.