Steven Weinberg retired in June after a long career in Oakland’s public middle schools. His wife, Georganne Ferrier, also retired from OUSD; she taught English at Oakland High. (True story: They met in 1967, on their first day of student-teaching at McClymonds). Weinberg will share his insights with us, from time to time, as a guest blogger. -Katy
When someone retires after 40 years of teaching, it is only fair to expect that he be able to offer some insight into the changes that have taken place over that period of time. There seems to be a general feeling that things are getting worse in American schools, but when I look back at the really dramatic changes in the past 40 years, all of them have been positive:
When I began teaching in 1969, there were students in my regular eighth grade English classes who could literally (or illiterately) not read 10 words. These were students who entered school before President Johnson’s War on Poverty had set up the Head Start Preschool program and Title One funding for schools in low income areas. Although we still have many students who read far below grade level, the complete non-reader has disappeared from regular classes at the schools where I have worked.
In my early years of teaching, I would have to send students on a daily basis to the nurse’s office to have essence of cloves put on their gums to give them relief from untreated dental problems. Between the fluoridation of water and the Medi-Cal dental program, these problems no longer interfere with students’ abilities to learn.
In the late 60s and early 70s, our school had to call ambulances regularly (certainly several times a month) to take students to the hospital for drug overdoses. This was the golden age of recreational pills, and our students were incredibly careless about what they swallowed. Within a few years, students became more careful, and while drug usage is still a major problem in society, overdoses at school rarely occur.
Speaking of drugs, when I started teaching you could not enter a junior high restroom (or a faculty workroom) without being engulfed in a cloud of smoke. It seemed like half the students were carrying and smoking cigarettes. Health education and higher tobacco taxes have successfully reduced this lethal habit. Today it is very rare to see a middle school student smoking.
When I began teaching, women and non-white administrators were a rarity. The highest levels of administration were closed to them. Obviously, that has changed. I remember early in my career being told by teachers, who otherwise were very liberal, that we could not expect much academically from Hispanic girls, because all they cared about was getting married and starting a family. Now I am very gratified to look at the honor roll of my school and see these young ladies heavily represented.
Of course, we still have many problems to overcome as educators and as a society, but reflecting back on the progress we have made helps us avoid the feeling of helplessness that can sometimes undercut our energy to press forward.