|All interviews were taped and documented. They are available through the Reference Department of the Teaneck Public Library. The Library is not responsible for the accuracy of the statements nor does it necessarily endorse the opinions expressed.|
|NARRATOR:||A. Spencer Denham|
|DATE OF INTERVIEW:||September 25, 1984|
|TRANSCRIBER:||Jackie Kinney (4/3/1985)|
(I) After Dubuque, tell me about your job experiences.
(N) I had several offers to stay in the midwest to teach in Dubuque was one place, Evanston, Illinois was another place, but I heard about a possible position back in Teaneck and after four years of the midwest, I guess the calling to come back home was very, very strong. Fortunately, one of the ninth grade history teachers at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School who had a, was selected to become an administrator in another district which created a vacancy and I had an interview with Mr. Howard Dimmit who was my assistant principal at Benjamin Franklin when I attended that school so it was like old home week, coming back to work for Mr. Dimmit at Thomas Jefferson so that's where I began my teaching career in 1969 at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School teaching ninth grade world history. After that, I applied for the administrative assistant position under Aubrey Sher in 1976 and became his administrative assistant and then in 1981, the assistant superintendent of schools position opened up and fortunately enough, I applied for it and went through the interview process and was selected by the Board to become the assistant superintendent in 81 so here I am.
(N) There is quite a gap there. When you came to Thomas Jefferson in 1969, how many other black teachers were there at that time?
(I) At that time, there were four black teachers in the school. One had been there for three or four years, Catherine Epps, who was the home economics teacher and Barbara Rhoda was the science teacher and came in with me in 1969 and we had one other person in guidance who was a minority there at that particular time so there were four black people at that time.
(N) Do you recall, when you were going through the school system, having had any black teachers at all in any of your schools?
(I) The only black teacher I remember having was my tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Smith.
(N) This was high school.
(N) High school, right. I don't remember having any black teachers at Bryant or Benjamin Franklin to be honest with you.
(I) Were any on the staff as you recall?
(N) There were two on the staff at Bryant. At Benjamin Franklin at that time I really remember, I don't remember any at Benjamin Franklin to be perfectly honest with you.
(I) What about the configuration of the student body at Thomas Jefferson when you got there in 1969 and during your stay there?
(I) It had begun to change. I guess the population when I was coming up through school, it was predominantly a white student body. When I began to teach there, it began to be a more cross section, more minorities, black students were attending, we were having more Hispanic students attending Thomas Jefferson and a sprinkling of oriental students began to enter into the school so it was getting a more diverse population as the years went on from 69 on to when I finally left in 76. You really had a cross section of students in that particular building even though it was predominantly white, we still had I would say, probably about a 40% black population, 8 to 10% Hispanic population and then the oriental and the Asian probably made up the last 7 to 10%.
(N) What about the attitudes of the staff during this period. Were there any discernible change in their approach to their classrooms?
(I) Not really. I mean I really think that that is something you really need to take a look at. The children of the 50s and 60s are not the students of today and we really can't use the same teaching techniques that we used twenty or thirty years ago and expect it to work in the classroom and I think it really behooves us in education to really set up some sort of training for our teachers to find out the right techniques to use with the young people today. And it is not just because we have different types of people moving in the community. I think kids are much different, they are much more knowledgeable, there is more pressure placed upon them so I think really we just can't go in there and teach to the middle and feel that everyone is going to grasp something. I think we have to be a little bit more creative in the classroom and I really think we have to show the teachers new techniques to use so that all 20/30, whatever number of students that are assigned to that class, get a challenging experience, an experience that they will be able to carry on and build upon in the future.
I) Were you encouraged at Thomas Jefferson to do your own things in the classroom?
N) Basically yes. Probably one of the other things that I feel that we do that is not very good education is that we are very stingy. What I mean is that if you have a good idea, if something works for you, you really should get out and share it with the other colleagues. Too often I stayed in my classroom and did my thing; the other social studies teacher in the ninth grade did her thing; the other ones did their things; and we really never had time to sit down and say, listen, well this is going good. You say listen, I had this lesson on Greek mythology that really, the kids loved it - here's some ideas on how to really make it exciting. And I could say, well listen I did this in this unit - why don't you try it - it's really great. We are trying to do it more by having common planning periods but people are very leery about sharing. You know everyone is very protective of what's their own and I think the kids are the ones who are losing out. They are supposed to be the ones who we are here for. But they are losing out because things are kept in one little class or one little cubbyhole and never let out and I think we have to do a lot more sharing, a lot more discussing what goes on. More grade level meetings. So that the fourth grade teachers at one school can get together fourth grade teacher in the other school and say, listen, what's going on? Are your kids coming in knowing these skills or what are you doing about it to get them on the right level. There really is a failure to communicate, a lack of communication, and I think that's something we really have to take a look at because as I say, the kids are the losers and it's not right and you are absolutely right, we were allowed to really do our own thing and we had some very good things we were doing but it wasn't getting out to the other people to take hold of and build upon.
(I) Why did you decide to go into administration?
(N) I guess hopefully to make a change in the things that I just talked about. It was very frustrating to try and get people to change. Change is very difficult for people to accept. I see it every year in this position when I transfer people to a new school or - god forbid - a new grade level.
People feel that if they're a third grade teacher and they are doing a good job, they are a third grade teacher from now until they hand in their resignation and I don't believe that. You know, I feel people should grow and have new experiences and I feel that if you do the same thing over and over again then you get very stagnant and I've had people in my office who are crying and people who are screaming and doing all kind of things to get me convinced that they shouldn't be changed but that's my belief and as long as I'm still here, that's going to be my philosophy that there is a time for people to have to be moved and I would say that 90% of them come back after a month of being in this new experience and say it's the greatest thing that ever happened to them. They think it is great and they thank me up and down that I did that, I forced them into that situation, but I guess I had a very good experience.
I guess in the beginning I was torn as to what to do. I didn't want to stay in teaching for the rest of my life and I said what should I do - should I go into guidance, should I go into administration - I really didn't know whether to go back to get my masters and I guess it was the summer of 74, I was getting ready to go to California on vacation to visit some friends out there, some fraternity brothers I had out there, and I got a call from Vic Klein who was the principal of summer school and he said Skip, I talked to Jerry Dick who was the custodian and Howard Dimitt and the summer school is much larger than we anticipated and I need some help, he said, and they highly recommended you and I just want to know if you are available to come in and serve as my assistant principal. So I said, hey, you know, I've been toying about what to do and this will give me a little taste of what administration is like and I can make a decision.
Well, Dick was a very good principal and a very good administrator and I had a good time with him during the summer. He gave me a lot of rope to hang myself with and really laid it out for me, what to do and how to handle certain problems, and he said, go to it. And I tripped over a few rocks on the road but it really was a great experience with staff members and also dealing with parents and dealing with students in the role of a disciplinarian and also the administration part of it too.
And after I got my little taste of it in my mouth, I really enjoyed it and I signed up for the next semester to go to Pace University and get my masters in administration and supervision and that was another very good experience, working with predominantly New York City administrators and teachers and seeing that angle because we feel that we have problems out here in Teaneck but if you ever go to New York City, you have Utopia out here. We talk about teachers complaining that they have too many kids or whatever it is in their class and you to into some of those schools where the classes are 30 and 35 kids and even more in some cases and it gets down to the point where it all depends on who's up front, you know.
A good teacher, I say, you can put 35 kids in a room if you have a teacher, a dedicated professional up there, those kids will get something out of that experience. You can take a teacher, a marginal teacher, and put ten kids in the room and nothing is going to happen so it really depends on that adult that is up there if it is going to make it work or it is not going to make it work so that experience in the summer school was really the experience that turned me towards administration and getting involved in a course and going down to Pace. I met some very, very good people down there that were very helpful and a very practical type of experience. You know, you learn, you got to do a lot of reading outside but they really got you into the buildings and gave you case studies to do with actual experiences
(I) And you had field work right there.
(N) So it was a very, very good experience and I think it really has helped me formulate my whole philosophy on administration.
(I) Was it difficult to move up in this school system into an administrative position. I mean, how does that occur?
(N) I guess I was very fortunate because of the fact, once again going back to the minority situation, I guess at that particular time, Aubrey Sher was encouraging minority candidates
(I) Now Aubrey was the superintendent at that time.
(N) In 75 I applied for another position. I did not have my certificate in hand and he wrote me a little note thanking me for coming for the interview and he said you have to understand that you don't have your certificate but go get your certificate because he feels that I would be the type of person that he would want in administration so don't let this one unsuccessful experience get you down. Keep plugging and something will turn up. And sure enough, when the administrative assistant position opened up, I applied and he selected me for the position and working for Aubrey was very, very good. He was a good teacher. He
(I) Now he came up through the
(N) Ranks also. He started off as a teacher and came up as an administrative assistant and became assistant superintendent, then became superintendent so I guess maybe that drew us closer together too. That he said here's somebody else that also is coming through the ranks. We try and keep some of our administrative positions open for in-house people like the subject supervisors because you don't, you want to encourage your own people to strive and that there is something at the end of the line, if you go into administration, there is an opportunity for you. Even this year, the four positions that we did have open, all in-house candidates were selected but all members of the teaching staff were selected. Of course administrators didn't particularly like that. A couple of administrative staff had applied for them but I think the people that were selected were exceptional people. I think it really showed the teachers that when administrative positions open up, they do have a chance for them also and I think that is important because I think we should keep our good people. It is not a closed shop where you have to go outside to get a position. I know some people feel that way that have gotten turned down many times but we still like to encourage them to go back to
(I) One of the criticisms, I guess you know, about the present configuration is that it doesn't show too much on affirmative action and that seems to be a problem that hasn't gone away.
(N) No. It is a problem that shouldn't go away. You're right. To hire four white males in four key positions based upon what Teaneck is all about leaves a lot to be desired. It is something that I guess being a person I am going to have to take a very close look at our whole recruitment process. We have some very good minorities who applied for the position, some very good women who applied for the positions also, especially the science position where some excellent women candidates they came across very well in the interview, the superintendent just felt that this one gentleman was a little bit better and he knew what he was getting into because I made it very clear to him what we were up against, the fact that we had appointed John Cowan previously and what some of the other appointments were that we were going to bring to the Board and how one sided it was. But he feels very confident with the people he selected. He felt that he selected, recommended the best people for the job but on the whole, we have to do a little bit more. Things have been very slow recently because of the fact of the decline in the enrollment. We have been ripping people and it seems like some of the, most of the positions that we have had available, have been open classroom positions on the elementary levels and we have had a tremendous amount of difficulty finding minority open classroom teachers. We have only one on staff right now, Mrs. Griffin, over at Longfellow School. But when other positions open up, in math or science, we really have to make a concerted effort to go out and find some other sources because we are lacking in that area, to be honest with you. Minority teacher population is poor.
(I) It looks like we've gone two steps backwards. Well you have had to be the common denominator in a series of superintendents or changing of the guards so to speak. How do you evaluate all of this from one, well say from Aubrey Sher, since he there have been what, three superintendents.
(N) There's been Richard Holtzman and now Gene Mulcady so there has been two since Aubrey.
(I) Oh yes, that's right.
(N) It's been interesting because they all have had different styles and I guess it has been a very good experience for me to see how three different men operate as a superintendent. It's been a little difficult for me because when they come in, they rely on me to get their feet wet and lead them around and try and point out all the pitfalls or try to give them some backup on the community and what has transpired. It takes me away from what I am supposed to be doing and I know Dr. Mulcady was very concerned about that when he came on board too because he knew the changeover from Aubrey to Dr. Holtzman and now he is there and he tried his best to try and say listen, when you have time come in and work with me but I felt that I owed it to him, that I wanted him to succeed, that you know I would just have to do this on weekends or whatever. But it has been a good experience for me.
I don't think it has been a good experience for Teaneck because of the fact that I think we do need stability up at the top. You know, having the revolving door superintendency is not good because I guess the other administrators get a mind set that hey, you know, in two years or three years this person is going to be gone and so why am I going to worry about what he or she says or does or requires because I'll be here but they won't be. I think we really have to take a good look at trying to find someone who we feel very comfortable with and then making it work and there is a lot to be done on the local level. We say that we have, the students are not doing as much as they should be doing; they are not really grasping the material that we are giving them; and what are you going to do about it. Well you say then we have to do something about the teachers. We have to make sure they are doing their job.
Well how do you make the teachers do their job? Well, the building principals and administrators have to do their job. And the subject supervisors have to make sure that the curriculum stays current and that we are teaching to our new 1980 students and not to our 1950 students. Well, who makes sure that the principals are doing what they are doing. Well that's the assistant superintendent and superintendent. Who's going to make sure they stay on the principal. That's the Board's responsibility. So it really has to start at the top. The Board is going to have to say, listen, these are the goals. We want the kids to do this and this and then it is up to the superintendent to come to me and come to John Cowan, the director of C&I and say, Skip and John, this is what direction we are going. And then we have to carry the ball from there. So we really need to have someone at the top who is going to be there on a regular basis and map out a three year or a five year plan of attack on how we are going to correct some of the deficiencies that we have in the district but when you have, ever two years you have a new plan of attack, you know you kind of like stagger around here and I think that is what we are doing.
And I think once again we are here for the students but they are the ones getting the short end of the stick again because they are really not getting in my opinion in many cases the challenging experiences that we could give them. I think we are very fortunate to have a fantastic teaching staff but I think we could do a heck of a lot more, curriculum wise and do a lot more creative things in the classroom and do a lot more on improving the techniques the teachers use and weeding out those marginal people that just can't cut it. That costs money, of course, because to get a teacher who has tenure out is a very sizable project moneywise and timewise but it has got to be done. You just can't allow a person to stay there every year whether it is on the elementary level where they influence twenty five or thirty students or whether it is on a secondary level where they meet 150 students a day, you just can't have that. And it is a bad sign to the other staff members and I think in education we have to do more to pat the good teachers on the back and say listen, I wish there was a way that we could throw them a reward in some kind of way because I think we ask so much of our talented teachers by giving them larger classes and giving them the handicapped kids as we mainstream and we stay away from those marginal teachers because we know the kids are not going to be successful in that experience so it is not really fair. Why should I have 35 kids in my classroom because I am a good teacher and Mr. X or Mrs. X who is marginal and only has 20. It pays to be bad. We can't have that outlook in education. We have to really take those good teachers and say, hey, you know, you did good and do something for them. I can't do anything monetarily because the contract prevents us but there are other things that can be done to show them that we appreciate them and that they have done above and beyond what we've asked of them. Something has to be worked out.
(I) Well what about the re-organizational plan? What is the potential of this?
(N) The reorganization plan saves us a tremendous amount of money because we were allowed to consolidate our resources. It put a couple of administrators out of positions which was I guess the other side of the coin but what it did do was that it put more classes on a grade level, especially elementary school I should say, which allows for more diverse teaching techniques to go on - be it team teaching, open class or regular. Once again, it goes back to this communication. Hopefully when you have six third grades, those six teachers will get together and start communicating what's good and what's bad, what skills should be concentrate on, they can group and regroup the kids according to the needs and everything. On the secondary level, reorganization, I think it was good to have the ninth grade up at the high school. I think the ninth graders will do very well up there. The program at the high school, I wish I could go back to high school with some of the course offerings. I think we have to take a look at some of those offerings too. Many of them were created out of the whole mini-course phenomenon that we went through in the 70s and I think we have to take a good look at them. Once again, financially also, because I think it is good to have a variety but we don't want to overdo it. If a course is very popular and we do have enough enrollment to support it continuing, that's fine but just to have a course to say that look at all these wonderful courses we offer in our course study, that's just ridiculous. So we really have to take a look there also and begin to revamp our offerings. The middle school should be a fantastic experience for the students if we get the middle school program off the ground. Right now we are hoping that we get our computers in within the next month or so so we can start the computer program. But that should be the place where we really begin to turn the kids on. It should be a very exciting, hands-on experience for the sixth, seventh and eighth graders and that should really be the springboard to the high school. It will give them a little taste of how it is with departmentalization where they don't have one teacher for everything but it also will give them with the house or cluster plan where they really work with four teachers, it still will give them that little bond of security where instead of having five, six, seven or eight teachers, different teachers, they will have the four core teachers that they will have all the time.
(I) Doesn't that sound familiar? Can you remember Harvey Scribner saying something like that way back in the year 1? I tell you. Tell me, do you have any aspirations of moving up, or out?
(N) Right now I would hope to get back to school and get my doctorate. That's really something. I started a doctoral program over at Fairleigh when Dr. Holtzman came on board and once again, spending so much time with him and doing my work, I had to drop out of the program because it was just not feasible. I probably could have stayed there and whiled through it but I really didn't think I was going to get what I wanted to get out of the program and if I am going to lay out $7,000, you know, I want more than a piece of paper. So now the thing is hopefully with the reorganization we will have to settle down and I want to start probably this summer and try to look around for another program and get back and get my doctorate I will come across a superintendency somewhere, be it Teaneck or someplace. You know, that has to be a logical thought. I also thought about industry. I have some friends who are in IBM and Proctor & Gamble and they always say, come on, come on, go into industry. You know, with your background and everything, you will do very well. So that's something else that's, but I've put everything on the back burner right now and as the months go by, I'll start bringing up a few of the pots and let them boil a little bit.
(I) Well I wish you much success in your continued career and thank you very much for the interview.
(N) Thank you so much.
(END OF TAPE)