Ch. 5: Learning to collaborate

col·lab·o·rate verb
/kəˈlabəˌrāt/
work jointly on an activity, especially to produce or create something

I don’t remember the details of the conversation.

I only remember that the three of us were sitting in a small conference room adjacent to a teacher workroom. We were planning lessons for the upcoming week for the 10 or more sections of the psychology course we collectively taught.

I had been intuitively drawn to this high school because of the opportunity it provided for the flexibility of modular scheduling and the collaboration of team teaching, although I knew little about either.

Modular scheduling involved teaching different groupings of students on different days for different purposes. That meant we worked with various sized groups across a weekly schedule.

Team teaching simply meant that two or more teachers who taught the same subject would together plan lessons, design tests, review the progress we were making, and share teaching responsibility when our sections of 30 or so students were combined for weekly large-group lectures.

Teachers’ offices were in the Social Studies Resource Center where students could come for source materials and individualized assistance.

Unfortunately, I had not experienced team teaching nor modular scheduling as a student, and I had not learned about navigating their unique challenges in my undergraduate teacher preparation courses. 

My high school required that new teachers teach in a traditional way their first semester to get their teaching feet beneath them before adding the complexity of team teaching and working with various-sized groups.

From that semester onward for the next 10 years I never worked alone, which meant I never experienced the professional isolation that is a part of many teachers’ work lives.

And because from the beginning of my career I worked closely with others in the give-and-take relationships that team teaching required, I never feared the loss of autonomy that many teachers associate with such cooperative arrangements.

Teacher evaluation at that time involved an annual visit by the principal or assistant principal who had had no prior experience with the unique challenges of team teaching and modular scheduling, which meant we were assessed by a traditional checklist during the lessons we taught individually to our own sections of the course. In addition, because our evaluators had little understanding of the subject matter we were teaching, the observation and resulting conversation were superficial and generally unhelpful.

To a large extent my first years of teaching required learning to work in productive ways with colleagues and students and becoming more fluent with the content that I taught.

And, too soon, I had to learn to work with controversy within the broader political context of the late 1960s, a responsibility for which I felt particularly ill prepared.

As a beginning teacher, did you work alone or closely with others? What were the benefits and drawbacks of how you learned to teach and work with others?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 4: Learning the basics

ba·sics noun
/ˈbāsik/
the essential facts or principles of a subject or skill

In my August 1968 new-teacher orientation I learned that the suburban Detroit high school in which I would soon begin teaching enrolled more than 2,000 students with a faculty and staff of over a 100, which meant there would be more people in the school than in the Western Michigan village where I grew up.

I remember feeling intimated by the seeming poise and confidence of new and veteran teachers alike.

And I felt frightened knowing that the psychology course I would be teaching was limited to seniors, which meant that as a 21 year-old I would be more like an older brother than a teacher to my students who would be just 3 or 4 years younger than me.

Like new teachers everywhere my career began with the day-to-day and hour-to-hour challenges of managing students, planning and teaching lessons, preparing tests, and working with colleagues who were new to me.

In addition, like families and society in general, school faculties, including my own, were often divided into opposing corners by diverging views about the pressing social and educational issues of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Most of what I recall about the first year or two of teaching are in images or shards of memory:

• I remember the pride and sense of ownership I felt in “my” classroom, one I was fortunate to have because many new teachers had to “float” among classrooms throughout the day.

• I remember that when confronted with what were relatively minor behavior problems (students talking rather than listening to me or others) I had only two basic strategies in my behavior-management repertoire—reprimanding students, and when that didn’t work, reprimanding them in a louder voice. Fortunately, one of the two was almost always sufficient. And, fortunately, I became more adept through trial and error and by observing colleagues with whom I would soon be team teaching.

• I remember “running off” tests on “mimeo machines,” and that paper for those machines was rationed by a secretary as were other classroom supplies like notepads and pens. Those tests were typed on manual typewriters whose errors had to be corrected with razor blades which erased the mistakes.

• I remember the perennial problem of students smoking in bathrooms and around the outside of the school. I also remember the problem of teachers smoking. The latter problem was resolved when one of the two teacher workrooms was designated as non-smoking. For whatever reasons, though, most teachers, including non-smokers, congregated in the smoking room, perhaps because many non-smokers seemed to prefer the company of smokers.

• I remember that the psychology course I taught had a textbook, but no syllabus. That meant week by week, and even hour by hour, I was required to invent the curriculum based on what I remembered from my college classes, adapting it to student interests and current events.

• I remember that because a good share of my own education through university required memorization, at which I was not particularly good, I often did not have a deep understanding of the content I was teaching. As a result, I was challenged and frustrated whenever students asked me to explain something in a different way or to provide an example, or worse yet, several examples.

Not only was I a poor memorizer, I was not a particularly disciplined or successful student until I neared the end of high school. As a result, I tended to gravitate toward students who were struggling with school as I had and who were sometimes held in low regard by other teachers.

• I remember that I often thought the best part of the school day was the quiet before students arrived and after they left, which was perhaps the first obvious sign of my introversion.

• I remember department and school faculty meetings. Both seemed to have more than their share of complaints about decisions made by school or system administrators, with a great deal of time given to what seemed like trivial, but emotionally-charged, issues.

How and when did you learn the “basics” of teaching?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Are our memories trustworthy?

I have spent much of my life being drawn forward by goals and plans.

Then I decided it was time to look back in time to solve the mystery of my father’s family which was to a large extent invisible to me as a child. A few months of investigation revealed that they had been hiding in plain sight, both geographically and genealogically.

I hoped to link what I was learning about my family from documents with what I recalled from childhood experiences and recollections of conversations from decades ago. 

But it didn’t take long for me to become suspicious of my early memories, often finding myself wondering whether others would confirm or alter what I claimed to be true. 

Later, as I reflected on my career, many of the memories I was attempting to retrieve were more than 50 years old.

Was what I remembered accurate, or did it only feel true?

Or, was my memory simply the story I had repeated many times to myself and to others, a story that has supplanted the actual experience?

When I could, I checked for accuracy with others who were involved, but more often than not they had no memory of the event or conversation. 

I quickly concluded that it was possible for something to feel true without necessarily being accurate, that is, if accuracy means that the memories are faithful to the “reality” that would have been captured by, say, a video recorder, had they existed half a century ago. 

Seth Godin labels this phenomena “memories of memories”:

“That’s most of what we’ve got,” he writes.

“We don’t actually remember much of what happens. Instead, we get what we’ve rehearsed.

“If we fail to rehearse, the memory will fade.

“And if the memory isn’t serving us, we can work to stop rehearsing it.

“Choosing what we rehearse is a way of choosing who we will become.”

I believe two things about my memories—that they serve me by helping me make sense of my life, and that the meaning I draw from those memories will likely affect my future.

While I’ve done my best in these posts to accurately describe the experiences that have shaped my career, I know that I have likely fallen short of that goal.

But I am heartened to know that those memories, as Godin points out, can serve the future as well as recall the past.

Do you trust your memories? How have they served you, and how might they affect the future?

Ch. 3: An alternative to fighting in a war

al·ter·na·tive noun
/ôlˈtərnədiv/
one of two or more available possibilities

“The eastern world it is explodin’, violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’?” 

“Eve of Destruction”

I began teaching in the fall of 1968 at a time not unlike our own.

Social and political turmoil drove Americans to opposing corners and divided families, including my own, on issues like the Vietnam War and Civil Rights.

The 1960s saw the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.

The chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention that selected Hubert Humphrey as its presidential candidate had occurred just a month before I reported to my school to begin teaching.

Richard Nixon, who would later resign in disgrace, was elected president that fall. 

These issues divided the generations, and the disruption created by those events did not stop at the schoolhouse or classroom door, as I was soon to learn.

For reasons that were inexplicable to me then and now, in the 1960s the Selective Service System granted college students deferments from the Vietnam-era draft that exempted them from military service during the period of their deferments.

That was one of the many loopholes that enabled some students to postpone or completely avoid military service while others, primarily poor and minority, saw the majority of Vietnam-era fighting.

Some young men burned their draft cards in protest. Others did not seek deferments or surrendered them in recognition of the inherent unfairness of the system. Still others enlisted based on that same principle.

I’m not proud to say that I did none of those things.

Like others I was deferred throughout college until the spring of my senior year when a few months before graduation my local draft board reclassified me “1A,” which meant upon graduation I would immediately be eligible for the draft.

During several months of emotional turmoil I carefully considered the options available to me if called for military service.

A friend who would be attending a divinity school that fall suggested I talk with a college chaplain who told me that enrolling in a seminary would defer me from the draft. I said that I was not a Christian, and he said that he believed that God worked in mysterious ways. He also suggested a couple of liberal seminaries that I might find compatible with my views.

The chaplain and I also talked about seeking conscientious objector status, and he said that he would write a letter in support of my application.

There also was fleeing to Canada, a much-publicized option.

And there was another choice. Jail.

During those months I talked with my parents about what I might do. I remember one particularly emotional conversation with my father, a World War II infantry veteran, during which he said that he would rather I die in Vietnam than be a coward. That was probably the low point of our gradually-deteriorating relationship.

Late at night, a few weeks before graduation, I sat alone in a dorm room pondering my future when a deep feeling of serenity overcame me, a feeling that I would be okay no matter what happened. The source of that feeling was unknown to me then and now, although the college chaplain I talked with might have attributed it to God’s mysterious ways.

That spring I had applied for two teaching positions for the 1968-69 school year, and was offered positions in Spring Lake, the small Western Michigan village in which I had grown up, and in Livonia, a Detroit suburb with a reputation for innovation. 

In Livonia I would be teaching psychology to high school seniors, a position I coveted. In Spring Lake I would be teaching various 9-12 social studies classes. For that reason, among others, I wanted to teach in Livonia.

I consulted my draft board to see how it viewed my two offers, and I was told that my draft deferment would continue if I taught in Spring Lake, but not Livonia.

For reasons I cannot recall nor fathom today, I accepted the Livonia position, putting myself at risk of being drafted before the school year would even begin.

I appealed my local board’s decision to the State of Michigan draft board, and when I returned home on the day I graduated from college I received a letter saying that the state board had overturned the local board’s decision, which meant I would be free to teach in Livonia.

I took a job for that summer as a night desk clerk at a local motel which provided generous amounts of time to read.

In August I watched the tumultuous Democratic Convention in Chicago on TV, and later that month packed everything I owned in the back seat of my old Ford sedan to drive east across Michigan to begin my teaching career, a career that would be filled with both unanticipated challenges and opportunities for which I was wholly unprepared.

By what path did you find your first teaching position?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 2: My path to a teaching career was not a straight line

path noun
/paTH/
a way or track laid down for walking or made by continual treading

ca·reer noun
/kəˈrir/
an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress

I am both excited and anxious, mostly anxious, as I enter a large conference room in the suburban Detroit high school in which in just a week’s time I will be a teacher.

I probably was wearing a suit and a narrow tie of the kind that were then fashionable.

More than half a century later I can still visualize the principal and the dozen or so others in the room, most of whom as new teachers like myself were receiving an orientation to the school and to the community with an afternoon bus ride around its neighborhoods.

Everyone looked more poised and confident than I felt.

I had eagerly awaited this late-August day as I planned for my 180-mile move from my family’s home in Western Michigan to the southeast part of the state. 

I was leaving a familiar but limiting small town in which I had also been offered a teaching position for the exciting but unknown experiences of a major American city recently torn by the Detroit “riot” or “rebellion,” depending on one’s point of view.

I was the first in my family to graduate from college and to have a white-collar career.

From the perspective of more than 50 years I can see that in a way my teaching career actually began many years before. 

Like many students I had a few teachers to whom I remain grateful for the quality of their teaching and the welcoming, safe atmosphere they created in their classrooms.

I also had teachers whose teaching methods and treatment of students made both school and learning very unpleasant experiences.

Unknown to me at the time, I was learning how to teach and not to teach from those examples, with both groups of teachers eventually shaping the teacher I wanted to be.

But my career path to teaching was not a straight line. Like many adolescents I was buffeted in many directions.

I was not a motivated or otherwise promising student, so until my last two years in high school my grades were below average.

My father, who worked on a factory assembly line, wanted me to be an engineer like those in his factory who wore white shirts to work and whose jobs were safe from the threat of physical injury that often plague such workplaces.

Although I didn’t know exactly what engineers did nor how to prepare to be one, someone told me that math and science were important in that field so I took almost every class available in my high school, soon discovering that I had little aptitude in those areas.

I would be the first in the Sparks male lineage to graduate from high school, and it was not a foregone conclusion that I would attend college. But when I found myself there in the fall of 1964 and was asked my career goals I inexplicably said “accounting,” perhaps assuming that I would have an easier time with numbers than the advanced math I had taken in high school.

Sometime in the next year or two someone told me that I was a good listener, so I decided I wanted to be a school counselor.

It wasn’t until my third year in college when someone told me that I couldn’t be a counselor unless I was first a teacher.

So, in the second semester of that year I began to take education courses, which concluded with student teaching in the final semester of my college program.

Like many young men in the 1960s there was, however, another matter more urgent than vocational goals and career planning—the escalating Vietnam War and the Selective Service System, better known as “the draft,” without which the war could not have been fought.

It was the first time that I was aware of how much my life and that of others were influenced by forces much larger than ourselves, a lesson that was reinforced many times throughout my career.

But I am getting ahead of my story.

Was your path to teaching (and perhaps leadership) a straight line, or did it take unexpected twists and turns?

(One of the other beginning teachers in that conference room was Dean Schutz with whom I would team teach and later take graduate classes in the process of forming a life-long friendship that has enriched my life.)

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 1: More than I could have imagined

im·ag·ine verb
/iˈmajən/
1. form a mental image or concept of
2. suppose or assume

If someone in early September 1968 had asked me to sum up my first day of teaching, I would have had little to say other than I felt both eager and anxious when it started at 7 AM, and that at its conclusion I was happy to have made it through the day having done little  harm to myself and my students.

But now, 51 years later, my perspective on that day and all that followed is more complex and nuanced.

I think about the ideas, events, and people who influenced me throughout my career.

I think about the expected and the unexpected, the intended and the unintended.

Most of all, I think about what I have learned, the opportunities I’ve been given, and how easily “it might have been otherwise,” to borrow a phrase from Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Otherwise.”

I am a fan of “6-word memoirs,” and the title for mine might be “More than I could have imagined.”

At  the conclusion of that first day of teaching I could not know or even begin to imagine the experiences I would have over the next 50 years from the simple plan, “I want to be a teacher.”

While I don’t believe in predestination, when I look back, much of my career seems inevitable, although at the time the path ahead was far from obvious.

I once read that a miracle is an extremely low probability event, which makes the stories I will tell in the months ahead truly miraculous. 

What would be the title of your 6-word professional memoir?

[This post is the first in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

A professional journey

journey noun

jour·ney | \ ˈjər-nē
journey: something suggesting travel or passage from one place to another
• the journey from youth to maturity
• a journey through time

When we are young, say in our 20s, we have many unanswered questions about the journey ahead, about our careers, marriages, and families.

As we grow older the answers to those questions reveal themselves.

And then as we grow older still we begin to turn to questions concerning the things that remain to be done and to our mortality.

Sometimes, however, we look back, as I did recently.

When I was young I knew little of my father’s family, and what I did know was shrouded in mystery.

So I set out to see what I could learn, and I was stunned to discover that my father’s ancestors (and mine) were Western Michigan pioneers whose mid-19th Century farm was located less than 10 miles from where I grew up along a river I had fished and the fields I had roamed as a child.

As I went back through the generations I learned that I my 9th great grandfather was a Canadian First Nation Mi’kmaq chief and that my 7th great grandfather was a 17th Century French settler of New France who some claim was the illegitimate child of one or more royal parents sent to North America to hide his existence.

I also learned that my 6th great grandfather, Henry Sparks, came from Bristol, England to Boston in 1666 as an indentured servant, later marrying Martha Barrett, who was jailed in Boston for a year in 1691 on suspicion of witchcraft just a few months before the Salem Witch Trials. Although she was from Chelmsford rather than Salem, in the eyes of many historians she was considered the first of the accused witches during that era.

When I completed a memoir based on my discovery of those ancestors and others, I decided to look back at my professional life, which, if nothing else, would be easier for me to research.

My goal was simple—to better understand the social forces and many opportunities that enabled me to have a life that far exceeded my imagination as I was growing up in a village not far from Lake Michigan.

I felt overwhelmed as I approached that task. How could I ever recall and organize the experiences and people who shaped my life for over 50 years?

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could tell my professional life story in just 25 “chapters,” which I will periodically publish here beginning next month, connected by a common theme of “it might have been otherwise,” to borrow a phrase from Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Otherwise.”

While it is hard to tell a personal story without putting myself at the center of it, my hope is that readers will be able to see themselves in my experiences and draw lessons from them that will prove valuable now and in the future.

I look forward to sharing my professional journey and to seeing what memories and insights they evoke in you.

Until then, I welcome you to a new school year, to enriching professional learning and collaboration, and to the annual “new beginning” that is a gift of our profession, a profession that has enriched my life for over 5 decades.


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