Good Schools are Still Possible

Good Schools are Still Possible

I came to New York City in the fall of 1966, and began teaching in Central Harlem a few months later. Within the next two years the schools were embroiled in two strikes. Parents were organized and vocal; teachers believed their recently won powers to be threatened; the city was divided by race and class. And yet there was a lively sense that the old system was
done for: change of some sort was on the agenda. Decentralization, pedagogical innovations, parent control, teacher empowerment, accountability, public access, increased state and federal monies. These were the slogans of the day.

At their worst, the city’s schools were never bad in quite the way the public imagined. My friends used to marvel that I had the “courage” to teach in a Harlem public school. They imagined schools disorderly and chaotic, filled with violence, knives flashing. Such things could be seen from time to time, but most of us taught in moderately orderly schools, with generally benign, even at times overly docile, though uninterested, children. It was tension rather than actual violence that wore down most school people. Our working conditions were often intolerable, but in ways that seemed either hard to explain or trivial to outsiders.

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Lima