Feature - March 10, 1999
The Highest Art
For alumni who teach in public schools, the pay is low but the rewards are real
By Tom Krattenmaker
Every year, Susan Dabney Agriopoulos '84 and the other teachers are assured that they'll finally be getting those computers -- next year. The dampness in her basement classroom blisters the paint and slimes the books on the shelf with mildew. The school library has few books relevant and accessible to her streetwise 13- and 14-year-olds, so she has assembled an informal library of her own for lending. The obstacles make it all the more satisfying when last year's seventh graders display their improved grammar in eighth grade, or when a Robert Frost poem lights their imaginations. Still, when she thinks of classmates fetching salaries in the upper six digits, Agriopoulos sometimes asks herself: What's a Princeton graduate like me doing in a place like Mount Vernon Avenue School?
Located in Irvington, New Jersey, just west of Newark, Mount Vernon is in a school district that belongs to the New Jersey "Dirty Thirty" -- so dubbed for those districts' reputations for corruption and lack of resources and standards. Agriopoulos teaches language arts to kids whose families are saddled with many of the factors known to thwart academic achievement, such as poor English proficiency, the presence of only one parent, racial minority status, low income, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence. On bad days, as she sees more of the well-intentioned kids sliding closer to the low-achievement crowd, Agriopoulos wonders if their school attendance isn't counter-productive. But she has spent her entire teaching career in schools like this, by choice. And she keeps coming back, day after day.
"You have to keep coming. You owe it to the kids," she says matter-of-factly. "If you don't come in, there will be a substitute in your chair, with spitballs and airplanes flying through the air, and good kids sitting there practically in tears because they can't learn that day."
Someone does have to teach the children. While it is hardly a common career choice of Princetonians over the decades, several hundred are at work in America's public schools carrying out one version of Princeton in the nation's service. Their experiences are as varied as the thousands of communities across the country. Some teach in upper-income suburbs rich in resources and community support, where students vie for the Ivy League. Some work in poorly funded urban schools where little -- not even basic reading skills and safety -- can be taken for granted. Some teach the three R's to elementary school children; others lead high school seniors in discussions of Hawthorne and Thoreau and the intricacies of calculus. Some knew even before Princeton that they wanted to be teachers; others happened upon their calling later in life. But however wide-ranging their stories and settings, Princeton's school-teaching alumni share a commitment to young people, an enjoyment of the classroom, and a belief that salary is not the only form of compensation.
Margaret Frisbie '87 teaches math at her alma mater, Bartow High School in Bartow, Florida. "It's almost like the profession chose me," she says. "It sounds corny, but I still remember the day in eighth grade when I was walking down the hall, thinking about what I would do when I grew up, and it came to me that I should be a high school math teacher. Of course, I dismissed it many times after that as a stupid idea, considering that it doesn't pay any money. But over the years, I couldn't find anything else that appealed to me the same way teaching did."
An economics major, Frisbie was a strong student at Princeton and appeared headed for an academic career. She decided to put off graduate school and give teaching a try. "I thought that if I tried teaching, I could always go back to graduate school later. I told myself I would give it three years. The first year was terrible, but by the third year it was great. So here I am." Frisbie is now a fixture at Bartow High and coach of its "Brain Bowl" team, which competes in interscholastic academic tournaments. Among her former students is a newly elected Florida state representative. "I don't see any reason why I wouldn't be here another 30 years," Frisbie says.
Curtis Washington '72 (shown at left) followed a less direct route to the classroom. A well-paid business management consultant at the time, he was reexamining his life 10 years ago when he decided to make the dramatic career change. An engineering major at Princeton, he teaches science at Mills High School in Millbrae, California, just outside San Francisco. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me," says Washington, who as an African American has a special interest in drawing blacks and other under represented minorities into science and engineering. "If I had kept on doing what I was, I wouldn't be alive today. That other life was so much more stressful and physically damaging. But I did it because I thought I was supposed to make a lot of money and have an impressive title. Now, I feel I'm doing something that represents who I am."
However fulfilling, it is not making him rich. Teachers in the United States earned an average of $37,685 in 1995-96, according to the most recent teacher salary report from the National Education Association. (An individual teacher's pay can range considerably above and below that average, depending on such factors as location, seniority, and postbaccalaureate education and training credentials.)
Robert Walker '54, who at 66 is one of the oldest alumni still active in the public school classroom, long ago became philosophically comfortable with his teacher's pay. "When you go into teaching, there's a sacrifice involved," says Walker, who teaches English at Weston High School in affluent Weston, Massachusetts. "But we don't lack for anything we want in life. It may just take us a little longer to budget for something. If I see parents with 50-dollar ties, I go to Filene's Basement and get three for 10 dollars. Why would I need a thousand-dollar stereo system? It goes back to Thoreau: Simplify, simplify, simplify."
Perhaps the hardest thing to accept is society's apparent willingness to consign education and its practitioners to low-priority status. Maria Munoz '80, a special-education teacher at Union Avenue Elementary School in a predominantly Latino area of Los Angeles, echoes the common view when she says that she and her colleagues feel underappreciated. "Relative to where I grew up, I do O.K.," says Munoz, who, like Frisbie, teaches in the community where she was raised. "But when you compare our teachers' salaries to those of lawyers and corporate executives, it's clear we don't get the same respect as other professions."
As measured by the number of Princeton students completing the university's Teacher Preparation Program, the popularity of teaching has swung like a pendulum in the three decades of the program's existence. "Chalk it up to the changing values of the undergraduate psyche," says program director Marue Walizer. The social-action-oriented 1970s produced 442 program graduates. But just 109 earned the teaching credential through the program in the 1980s. There has been a resurgence in the 1990s, with 178 undergraduates completing the program through last fall semester and a projected total of 211 graduates for the decade.
KEEPING AN OPEN MIND
Three-dozen honor students dressed mainly in T-shirts and baggy jeans huddle around the gadgetry set up in the corner of Jeff Davis '65's classroom. Davis, an earth sciences teacher at Minisink Valley Middle School in the southwest corner of New York State, is ready to give another lesson in science and life.
Wearing khaki trousers and a short-sleeved shirt with a pen in the pocket, Davis stands behind a vacuum pump attached by a rubber hose to a four-foot-high glass straw. There's a dollop of liquid mercury at the bottom. Objective: Make the mercury rise. "When this vacuum pump is through doing its thing, the air is what?" Davis asks. Everyone blurts out the answer. "Right, it's gone." For chuckles, Davis places the end of the hose in his mouth and sucks. Given the toxic properties of mercury, Davis warns the kids not to try this at home. But he's in no danger of this mercury getting anywhere close to him. It barely moves. "I'm going to need something with a little more juice, aren't I?" The students nod in assent.
With the hose now attached, he activates the pump, and everyone watches the mercury steadily rise. But just before reaching the top, it stalls. Davis shuts the pump off, and the mercury hangs suspended. He feigns disappointment, as if the experiment failed. Some of the students, wise to his playfulness, giggle. "Wouldn't you know," he sighs. "After all that, it didn't work."
Let the air back in, one student suggests. Davis obliges, and the mercury plummets. They try the experiment again, but the result is the same: the mercury doesn't quite reach the top. "Why does the mercury go up?" Davis asks. "If we can figure that out, maybe we can also understand why it keeps stopping."
One girl thinks it's obvious: The mercury rises because the vacuum pulls it up. But they've already established that a vacuum creates nothing, Davis notes. How can "nothing" pull something? After some puzzling, the kids agree that pushing, not pulling, must be the nature of this phenomenon. The key is figuring out the source of the pressure. "Come on," Davis exhorts, "where's the push?" A few pupils brave guesses. It must be something outside the tube, one suggests. "Do you mean air?" Davis wonders. "Does air have the pressure to do that?" No one is quite sure.
He looks at one of the girls in the huddle. "Amanda, would the weight of a Mack truck kill you?" Of course, she replies. "What if you were on top of it?" This challenge to their conception of reality clears the way for the breakthrough. Yes, something as seemingly insubstantial as air does have some heft to it. "That's right, it's the atmosphere pushing on the mercury that makes it go up," Davis declares. The room fills with murmurs and nodding heads. The students now understand the nature of a vacuum, not to mention the basic methodology for gauging barometric pressure.
"We'd better bow our heads," Davis says, play-acting again. Expecting this kind of thing from their science teacher, the students go along with it, grinning. "Scientifically speaking, let's bow our heads in memory of a passing thought. There is no such thing as suction. That has to go out the window now. Who would have thunk it? Suction, as we imagine it, doesn't exist."
Davis is suddenly more serious. "I want you to remember how often in life you think you really understand something, but you don't. We grow up prejudging situations. And yes, we have to get through life. But there are times -- many times -- when you must keep your eyes and brains and hearts open to new situations. That is the key here, isn't it? You must keep an open mind and remember that sometimes things need a better explanation."
At Princeton in the early 1960s, Davis, a Bloomfield, New Jersey, native, enjoyed physics and had his sights trained on medical school. But his more artistic side -- he sang in the Glee Club and had a strong interest in drama -- led him to switch his major to English. Then came an even more dramatic shift. His father having died the previous year, Davis, in his junior year, withdrew from Princeton to move home and support his mother. He completed his studies at Columbia in 1967.
Out of college and newly married, Davis was looking for some way "to kill time" and pay bills while he and his wife worked toward their dream of opening a kennel. "I'd always been involved with kids," he says. "I figured I'd teach for a little while."
After two years teaching in West Orange, New Jersey, Davis moved to rural Sussex County in northwest New Jersey. Just across the New York border, he found a little country school whose principal was eager to land an Ivy League graduate for the classroom. "He said, 'If you come to work here, I'll give you anything you want for your lab.' They outfitted a tremendous laboratory for me." Through the steady transformation of the area from rural to suburban, and through a move to a gleaming new building nine years ago, Davis has remained at Minisink Valley. "At the end of every year, I've said, 'Well, I'm still having fun. I'll continue teaching.' One thing that keeps me in this field is this community. It's a good place to be. We have really good kids who are not homicidal, not on drugs. We have a supportive administration and a good working environment."
Employing methods inspired by instructors he had at Princeton, Davis has his students pursuing a myriad of hands-on projects aimed at making science come alive. One team is learning about meteorology by working with a homemade weather machine that records temperature, wind speed, and barometric pressure. In the school basement sits a seismograph given by Princeton's geology department; Davis's students use the device to monitor earthquakes around the world. They chart the quakes on a big map on the hallway wall. "It's a whole different kind of science than we've had before," says Matt Vuolo, one of the students working on the seismology project. "The way Mr. Davis teaches science makes it more interesting."
But Davis's efforts go well beyond science. Reflecting his old interest in drama, he leads the school's "tech crew," a group of a dozen select students he trains to operate the computerized sound and lighting equipment in the school's impressive 700-seat auditorium. And every year, Davis and his students adopt a child in Ecuador through a humanitarian organization called Childreach.
"This guy never eats lunch," says Frank DiMarco, the school's principal. "Instead, he's in the classroom spending extra time with the kids. It's not just about science; it's about life."
In 1996, Davis was selected for inclusion in the education edition of Who's Who, but he says the greatest kind of recognition is from former students. Last December, he received a letter from a man named Ben Barres, whom he taught 32 years ago. Barres now is a researcher at Stanford University Medical School and has won teaching awards for his work with first-year medical students. He wrote to Davis: "There is no doubt that I owe these awards to you, because I always try to teach the way you did -- by trying to convey enthusiasm and love for the subject. ... I wanted to be a scientist since taking your class, and being a scientist has been the greatest thing that ever happened to me."
Adds Davis, "It's been said about our jobs that we have no idea what we've accomplished until 10 or 20 years later. Hearing from Ben was the best Christmas present ever."
FRUSTRATIONS OF THE JOB
Working in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and in a state where Proposition 13 ensures relatively skimpy financial support for public education, Maria Munoz sometimes has to dip into her own pocket to make sure her pupils have adequate supplies at Union Avenue Elementary. She and her colleagues make grim jokes about this occupational hazard. "We say, 'Can you imagine a doctor in a hospital paying out of pocket for a stethoscope?' It doesn't make a lot of sense," Munoz says. "The biggest frustration with being a teacher is seeing how things could be done better if there were more support for the public school system -- more books, more technology."
Another source of frustration for public school teachers is politics -- local, state, and federal. Todd Samet '78 (shown at left), who taught at private schools in New Jersey and California before moving into public education, teaches at Redwood High School in California's Marin County. He professes great enthusiasm for the job and the students but little patience for the impositions of the state bureaucracy in Sacramento. For example, the education department last year instituted a new set of statewide assessment tests, but there is no approved statewide curriculum to complement them. So, as Samet sees it, the state's teachers are being held accountable for a set of outcomes without the tools necessary to achieve them. Samet also chafes at politicians who criticize teachers for political gain yet stand in the way of any meaningful reforms.
A public school can be a minefield of potential controversies and lawsuits that didn't exist a generation ago. Besides having to be very careful about how they treat religion in classroom discussions and activities, public school teachers contend with new restrictions on their interactions with students. "In the old days, you could hug a student and not worry about getting in trouble," says Beverly Canzater Jacobs '75 (shown at left), a technology-resource teacher at Orchard Middle School in suburban Cleveland. "And if a kid was stranded at school, you'd drive them home. But now there are concerns about liability. A lot of external factors can make the job difficult."
Parents hinder as well as assist. On one end of the spectrum, mothers and fathers with modest educations and low expectations for their children sometimes tacitly encourage underachievement. On the other end, in high-achievement schools like those in which Jacobs and Robert Walker teach, some parents expect too much; their children end up over-stressed, overcompetitive, and underpracticed at relaxing and enjoying the lighter side of their school days. "I try to take them out of the success-at-all-costs mentality," Walker says. "I'm trying to humanize the future stockbrokers and business tycoons who come out of a school like this."
"SHARING" A PRINCETON EDUCATION
Despite the frustration over pay and politics, public school teachers speak of abundant rewards. Jacobs draws her greatest satisfaction from the excitement that registers on a face when one of her new "co-learning" methods clicks with a student who doesn't respond well to the traditional I-lecture-you-listen model of teaching. For example, math students at her school are designing part of a new community center scheduled to open next year; the town mayor and recreational director have pledged to give strong consideration to the students' design elements when they build the real thing. "This is a great opportunity for kids to not only learn what an architect does, but to learn math concepts in a different way," Jacobs says. "After this, they will never confuse area and perimeter. My philosophy is that all kids can learn, but we have to find which buttons to push."
For Munoz, the payoff is being with children and remaining rooted in the Latino community in which she was raised. For Agriopoulos, it's the satisfaction of seeing even the most disadvantaged child respond to a piece of literature, and of knowing she's "in the trenches and doing something useful." For Samet, it's the joy of seeing an obnoxious ninth-grader mature into a likable, well-rounded senior. For all of them, it's the letter or telephone call from former students thanking them for making a difference in their lives when they were young.
Princeton alumni teaching in public schools often meet with raised eyebrows when their colleagues discover their college background. Their students who are familiar with the university sometimes wonder, too: Why isn't someone with a prestigious degree doing something a little more lucrative, and with a little more social cachet, than teaching? Peggy Frisbie likes to reply with a rhetorical question of her own: What better use for a good education than to share it?
That America's public schools need more committed, talented, and well-educated teachers is beyond question. A teacher shortage is developing in the country as large numbers of veteran teachers reach retirement just as the school-age population is booming. The public schools will need 220,000 teachers a year over the next decade, according to U.S. Education Department estimates, in contrast with the 150,000 per year needed in the recent past.
Walker, who in his 40th year is the most senior teacher at Weston High School, plans to keep at it full-time for at least three more years. And he hopes the district will let him teach part-time after his retirement. He says he has no regrets about going into public education, or about opting to remain in the classroom rather than pursue a more lucrative career in administration.
Why teach? Walker finds his best answer in Thoreau.
"To affect the quality of the day," he says, quoting Walden. "That is the highest of arts."
Tom Krattenmaker lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and is the director of public relations at Swarthmore College.
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