It was January of 1973 and I had just reached the half-way point of a three-year program at Boston University Law School. I was enjoying the rigors of legal training, but I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to be a lawyer. I needed time to reflect and consider my path before I became further invested. I took a semester’s leave, deciding to use that time to complete my master’s degree in elementary education at Lesley College in Cambridge, MA. I had taken a few masters level education courses at NYU during two years of elementary school teaching in Manhattan, and I calculated that if I took a heavy load of courses in the spring semester I could finish the masters degree over the summer term and be ready to go back to law school in the fall, if that was what I chose to do.
Intended for practitioners, the masters level courses were scheduled in the late afternoon and evening, which left my days open. I decided to put my name in to substitute teach, and I immediately began getting calls from Boston schools. Most of these schools were tough schools in tough neighborhoods—not great places for kids or adults. Some of the schools were really awful, and I got the feeling that teachers in those schools took every “mental health” day allotted to them, hence the heavy need for substitutes. My previous teaching experience in New York had somewhat familiarized me with the challenges of urban education, and I regularly brought my own bag of lessons and activities “just in case.” They kept calling and I kept coming.
In the first week of February, 1973, I received a call to substitute at the William M. Trotter School in Dorchester. The principal, Archibald McDonald, welcomed me into his office and told me a little bit about the school; it was a “magnet” school with 50% of the students bussed in from the suburbs and 50% from the immediate neighborhood. He explained that the class I had been called to cover was a multi-age grade three/four which had “lost its way” when the original classroom teacher left on maternity leave in November. Since then, three other teachers had been assigned to the position, but all had quit primarily due to the disorderly nature of the students. Each teaching change further contributed to a downward spiral in student attitude and cooperation causing the class to lose all sense of organization and productiveness. Even the “good” kids were misbehaving. Many of the furnishings and supplies typically associated with an elementary classroom had been removed from the room, including most chairs, because they were being improperly used, broken, and tossed around. The only consistent adult presence in the class was Mrs. Foley, the teaching assistant, and she was hanging in there despite having numerous black and blue marks on her legs from being kicked. With rising apprehension I asked Principal McDonald how long this substitute placement was for, and he replied, “That depends on you Mr. Cooper.”
Apparently in their search for a teacher, my name had come up as someone who regularly accepted substitute jobs in the districts’ more difficult schools and at this point they were desperate. The principal accompanied me to the room where we found about twenty students, some standing at tables, others sitting on the floor relatively focused on simple tasks like coloring, doing worksheets, etc., with Mrs. Foley the teaching assistant, looking anxious but busily directing activities, trying to keep everyone occupied. After a few minutes we went back to his office. I told him it sounded like the class had been through a very difficult time and I was interested but I just didn’t know enough about the kids or the dynamics in the room to decide whether or not to accept “the mission.” I proposed spending the day in the classroom observing, getting to know the students, while deferring to Mrs. Foley to actually run the class. If that was OK with him, I’d let him know at the end of the day if I might give this a go.
I returned to the classroom and without any fanfare planted myself on the floor, back against the wall, and there I sat as a curio without anyone talking to me for about 20 minutes. Finally a brave nine year old young lady came over and spoke to me, “You a visitor?” she asked. “Yes’” I said, “I’m a visitor.” Then a few more students came by and we just talked and I listened while they talked to each other. At some point the question came up as to whether I was their new teacher—and I replied “No, just a visitor.” Their response was “That’s good because you wouldn’t want to be our teacher; no one wants to be our teacher. We are bad kids.” This was said not with bravado, but with what appeared to be resolution and some sadness. There were silent nods from the other students. Whatever they had done and gone through had convinced them that the adults had basically given up on them and for good reason. But there was something in the way they presented themselves; maybe it was the absence of real meanness, which made me think that many of them might be tired of this “game.” I spent the day in the room, getting to know the students, chatting with those who chose to join me on the floor, doing some of the assignments with them, and watching. At the end of the day I said a friendly goodbye to the kids, walked down to the office and took the job.
The next five months were among the busiest of my life. I was taking more than a full course load in my masters program, and now I was the teacher in a class that needed rescuing. Not just any class mind you, a multi-age class, which meant that the spectrum of academic skills and developmental levels would be “double-wide” compared to a typical single grade class. No bowling down the middle here—I needed to tailor my lessons to meet a wide range of needs, which meant preparing multiple lesson plans, especially in math and language arts. Moreover, there was the issue of class climate and culture and how to get it “back on track.” When I came back that second day and the kids found out I was now their new teacher, I could see that many were pleased and excited, and others, not so much. Noncompliance had become a habit and the inertia of disobedience surfaced immediately. I needed to quickly establish a balance that would set clear limits and fix boundaries, but in a way that encouraged the kids to work with me. I told them that I would come prepared each day to teach them, but that I would insist that no one in the room interfered with anyone’s learning, and that no one wasted my time or their own time. I also told them that I was there to stay.
My initial efforts were not well balanced. I came on so strong at first that, unbeknownst to me, several kids were going home with stomach aches. I found this out when a group of parents met with me to complain. They had a point. My course work was piling up, I wasn’t getting enough sleep, and I was running low on stamina. I was pretty stressed, and this wasn’t the most productive mindset to have when entering an already stress-filled classroom environment. I thanked the parents for coming to see me, acknowledged the problem, promised that I would rebalance, and then told them that I could use all the help I could get. I invited them to come in and volunteer—and some did. I was struggling, but the days were going by.
Gradually, perceptible more in retrospect than while we were experiencing it, the new routines became “normal,” the tone became more positive and respectful, and the number of daily disruptive or confrontational incidents dwindled to where they were no longer the main focus. I had organized an instructional approach that was working in terms of meeting the varying needs in the room, and I started planning learning activities to take us beyond the baseline and provide “extras” and positive experiences. Several of my fellow Lesley students came in and helped. We took fieldtrips. I figured that if any class deserved a little bit of fun mixed in with their learning it was this one. And then somewhere toward the end of April, we (me, the class, the parents) collectively began to realize that the class, despite the awful nature of their experience in the first part of the year, had turned a corner, both in their learning behaviors and in their individual and group self-concept, and would likely end the year on a high note.
By this point the level of tension in the room had gone way down and the classroom was a pretty positive place to be. More and more parents were volunteering and Mrs. Foley was smiling. The kids were working hard and had finally learned (pretty much) how to get along with each other. Despite this positiveness, I remained uncertain as to whether I had the personal energies to finish the year. The daily grind required to sustain my work at Lesley, along with my responsibility to the class, was an all-consuming and totally draining combination. But as we got closer to the end of the year, something strange and unexpected occurred. During the last weeks when I apprehensively foresaw being completely overwhelmed by exhaustion, I was struck by a powerful wave of satisfaction, which evolved into a type of exhilaration that swept away the negatives and relegated my weariness to almost a nuisance status. At some level I was aware of being exhausted—or at least thinking that I should be feeling exhausted— but it wasn’t bothering me. We had done it! We as a classroom community had succeeded in finding a positive way forward. We ended the year in a collective celebratory tone that reflected a joy that no one could have anticipated five months earlier.
My cup should have been completely empty. Instead, I had the greatest sense of accomplishment and my cup and my heart were filled to overflowing. The role of educator had drawn from me all the positive energies I had within me to offer. This was not an intellectual decision to “work hard.” I just couldn’t help it. Something about teaching made me want to do everything I could to succeed—my energy spigot had been stuck full open during these months. I also had not anticipated the immense personal gratification I was to receive from our success—these had blindsided me.
I never went back to law school. The role of educator had so fully engaged me that I couldn’t imagine anything else drawing out the same energies and providing the same level of satisfaction that I had experienced in teaching that class.
I taught for several more years both at the elementary and at the college level, and then became an elementary school principal. Some years later I met Nels and Joe. Using the process explained in our book, I began once again to experience the special kind of satisfaction I had experienced in that Trotter School classroom—only this time with an entire school’s worth of teachers, staff, students, and parents.
P.S. In 2005, thirty-two years after the events described above, one of my third grade students from the class at the Trotter School, took the time to track me down. In his email he attributed many of the positives in his life, including his sense of self-esteem and self-awareness, as the legacy of the time we spent together in 1973. It was the most wonderful letter. He thanked me and explained how much the experience had meant to him and how much he appreciated my becoming his teacher that year. There are not many things in a person’s work life that can top receiving a letter like that.
Joe's Story Nels' Story