A Few Reflections on Good Teaching and Life

Published in the Delaware County Daily Times

Delaware County’s Daily Newspaper            December 30, 2019

By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist

When I was graduated from La Salle College (not then a university), I was filled with idealism. I wanted to change the world by being the best teacher I could be.

But no school district wanted me.  In fact, more than 20 school districts, many in Delaware County, rejected my applications. Out of desperation, I crossed the bridge into New Jersey in search of a job.

And so, my career as an educator began in the mid 1960’s in what the great American author Jonathan Kozol had described as “the most dangerous city in the USA.”

So, how to survive in the Camden (New Jersey) Public Schools was now the issue!   Many people told me to start out tough in the classroom and it would pay dividends later on. I wasn’t exactly sure whether or not to follow that strategy. But after experiencing my first workday, I was convinced that this was good advice.

When I had my initial meeting with a group of eight graders in my homeroom, there was a commotion in the hallway. An elderly female teacher was chasing two student ruffians who had just pulled her wig from her head.  I stepped outside my classroom door and put out my right leg and tripped the lead gangster.  You had to think fast in Camden. The perp went flying one way and the wig went flying in another direction.

The two bad kids then scattered into the building catacombs. I returned the wig to the distraught and humiliated woman and she was very grateful.  Welcome to teaching in Camden.

This was a no-brainer.  I immediately assumed the demeanor of Attila the Hun and went back into my homeroom and struck fear into the hearts of my pupils. From that threshold moment forward, I orchestrated every opening of school with the same dictatorial authority.  It worked well with students who were awestruck if not plain scared.  I was the strictest and most demanding teacher any of them had ever seen …but only for about four weeks…. just enough time to get the kids under my hypnotic therapy.

People are often amazed when I tell them that my six years of teaching in Camden were a truly fulfilling experience. I explain that my urban students were energetic, bright, full of life and fun-loving! We got on famously. Maybe it was our common roots because these Camden kids were a lot like me growing up in Philly. I liked them and they knew it.

In my first teaching assignment (English and Reading), the classroom teacher next door was Merritt who taught science. We became close friends and Merritt became a superb mentor who shared tons of his wisdom about the techniques and psychology and strategies of handing urban pupils.

Merritt was the first black friend I ever had. We had great times together. Merritt had a hyena laugh which made me laugh so hard that sometimes I cried. On a more serious note, we often sipped martinis in a Camden bar where I was often the only white person and where we philosophized about what is “good teaching”.

And so, with Merritt’s professional advice, I worked my Camden students like dogs …but they never knew it. I walked on top of desks, performed “stand-up” comedy, acted out, and did outrageous things. Learning became fun for my students and we were always laughing together. And, in the midst of all of this, when the kids weren’t looking. I made them do a new writing assignment almost every day during classroom time (because these assignments would never have been done at home).

I then spent numerous hours each evening at home tirelessly reading each student’s paper, sprinkling each of them with constructive suggestions, and most importantly, always awarding an overly generous grade (known in teaching circles as positive reinforcement). Not surprisingly, my students and I were soon on a wonderful academic pathway. My kids were learning to write and many of them became very good at it.

About a year after I met Merritt, I dragged him to a wedding of a teacher colleague in Scranton, PA. Merritt was very reluctant about attending, but I was persistent. Nevertheless, at that time, a black guy and a white guy traveling together and eating in restaurants and sharing a motel room turned lots of heads.

In addition, the wedding reception was being held in a very exclusive country club.  Merritt had premonitions of the Klu Klux Klan objecting to his attendance. So, I told Merritt that the Klan had best not mess with us…we were from Camden!!!!

Anyway, Merritt and I survived the wedding celebration without incident. And incredibly, both of us could not wait to get back to Camden.  Country clubs and rich white people were not our thing. We missed our Camden kids.  It was where we both belonged.

Teaching in Camden was joyful and exhilarating for me. Beyond academics, I became a confidant to some kids, sometimes just a listener, at other times a supporter and empathizer, and often an adviser. I spent lots of time on Camden’s streets after school. I chased kids off corners. I also coached basketball. And I took small groups of kids on a myriad of unauthorized field trips for enrichment experiences.

Being an effective teacher is so much more than directing the learning activities of students as a subject matter expert. The great teachers are role models, surrogate parents, counselors, disciplinarians, and frequently, missionaries…and their influence matters very much!_____________________________________________

Joseph Batory is a past superintendent in the Upper Darby School District.

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