Recently, one of my students from Midlothian High School began posting photos, including old yearbook candids, from her high school days. Since I was very active with student organizations, I showed up in quite a few.
I particularly enjoyed pictures from the many projects run by the Key Club, which I sponsored. A favorite is of myself, thirty years younger, in a black T-shirt and cut-offs, fronting for a kid band at our annual, all-day stadium rock festival – “Midstock.”
There’s also a shot of me in my patented “Nerd Day” get-up during Spirit Week. The picture’s great, but it can’t convey the full effect – the high-pitched, nasal Jerry Lewis voice; the shirt-tail caught in the zipper of my high-water chinos; or the strip of toilet paper trailing from the sole of my shoe.
It’s fun remembering those days, and being back in touch with so many of my former students – most of them now in their mid-40s, which makes them nearly a decade older than I was when I taught them.
I was at Midlothian from 1982 – 1989, the glory years of that remarkable school. It’s still a fine school, by all accounts, though – burdened by the absurdity of mandatory standardized testing – it could never be what it was in the ‘80s.
In those days, we had a faculty to rival that of a good, private, liberal arts college. That fact was made possible by our principal, Frank Poates, one of those rare leaders who understood that his function was not to tell his teachers what to do, or how to do it – but to empower us to do our jobs as professionals.
Mr. Poates did everything in his power to hire the best – and the only times he failed to do so occurred when the School Board bureaucracy took so long processing the paperwork that we lost good candidates to more efficient localities.
When he occasionally ended up with a substandard teacher, Mr. Poates had a way of gently easing them out. I don’t remember anyone actually being fired, but somehow, when late August faculty meetings began, we’d often notice that a weak teacher was no longer among us.
Mr. Poates made us feel safe doing our jobs. Near the end of my time at Midlothian, an assistant principal confided to me how often Mr. Poates would meet with an unhappy parent, hear that parent out, and send him or her away satisfied.
But he seldom told his teachers about parental complaints – lest we become defensive, safe, and boring.
I left Midlothian in 1989, to pursued a graduate degree in Educational Leadership at UVA. In doing so, I had one goal – to become the sort of principal Mr. Poates was.
It was only as a graduate student that I learned how the growing bureaucratization of education was making it nearly impossible for new principals to become that sort of leader.
When I think of the things that made Midlothian remarkable, they seem to be the precise opposite of the nonsense our politicians and educational bureaucrats now urge in the name of “reform.”
Take, for example, the idea of “incentive pay” – the notion that teachers will do a better job if there’s a bonus of a couple of thousand dollars in it for those whose students do especially well on tests.
I expect that might work with some teachers – the sort who go into education for the money. But, as my father used to say, if you know someone who’s teaching because it’s the best-paying job they can get – they’re probably too dumb to be a good teacher.
Given the pay, great teachers are almost never in it for the money.
At Midlothian, in the ‘80s, there was plenty of competition – but not for bonuses. We competed from a sense of pride and professionalism.
For example, I knew that many of the men and women in my own department were so excellent that – unless I did my best, every day – I’d never come up to the mark.
The Social Studies Department knew that other departments – English and Foreign Languages and Fine Arts – were so outstanding that we were constantly challenged to hold our own.
And every day, I had kids coming into class excited by what they’d done last period in Latin, Art, Drama, English, or Science. I didn’t want my class to seem easy or boring by comparison.
This was competition of the highest and noblest sort – not for year-end bonuses or “teacher of the year” plaques – but a daily striving to come up to the standard of the best of your colleagues.
Midlothian, in those days, was what a school ought to be. Today, American education is moving as rapidly as possible in the opposite direction.
I’m glad I taught when I did, and with whom I did.
And I’m satisfied to be out of it now.