Teaching: the first twenty years



Although I posted this cartoon  on FB and I always enjoyed longer Christmas breaks — longer any vacation, including summer — it’s not totally true.  I usually looked forward to the return to school, it was an opportunity to start again, a new notebook, a clean blackboard, sometimes it was the start of new courses, new classes.  Good teachers; effective teachers — like classrooms, maybe as much as vacations.

My first experience as a classroom teacher was in Peace Corps training in 1969.  Diane and I were in Bisbee, AZ training to be TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) instructors in Libya.  Ron Swartz, from the Modern Language Association’s DC office, was in charge of teacher training.  Ron was amazing, always moving, orchestrating, pushing us to creative teaching.  Dozens of courses and thousands of dollars later, I would often say I learned how to teach in the PC in Bisbee.

Daily we would take a bus into Mexico.  Elementary students came to school in the summer to learn English (remember TEFL).   Most of us didn’t speak Spanish; and the kids didn’t speak English.  They pushed small desks around the room, birds and bats flew in and out, we produced our posters, games, linguistic exercises in an attempt to keep them engaged.  “Be careful, don’t fall into one of the large holes in the floor.” Sitting in the back of the room observing were other volunteers, maybe Ron Swartz. But it was so much fun.

It was January 1970.   The Gandafi Revolution ended our Libyan assignment and we didn’t have a new posting.  The draft was at my back.  So I  became a seventh grade teacher at Saint Michael’s in Levittown.   I would teach English, American History, a few minor subjects. I recall sharing some apprehension with the principal (an older nun).  “Just tell them about the PC.” She said.  And I did for several days, weeks.  In a month the kids knew as much Arabic as I did.


I spent several years at Saint Michael’s.  I was one of two male teachers in the school. One  summer I made five small square tables that could be turned on end to save space.  I also made 2 science lab benches on wheels. As much as possible, class was small group and hands on — unlike the stock photo above.  I monitored my first field trip — a bus to Valley Forge.  Other memories: I ivolved kids in “movie” making, planted  a Christmas tree, had a class vegetable garden, repaired small gasoline engines.

Diane was teaching Special Education students in a private school — this was before federal legislation.  I realized that similar students were in my classes.  In 1972 or 73,  I worked with Sister Margaret to establish a class of “special education” students.  They were segregated for Reading, English and Mathematics but mainstreamed for other subjects.

 It’s  amazing when I think about it today but these  students participated in a summer program at our canal side house in Yardley.  I transported them in my car, no insurance.  Mornings were academics, afternoons were crafts and field trips — canoe or car trips.  About 15 years ago one of my Saint Michael’s classes had a reunion.  One of the girls in the special class attended.  She looked at a picture of kids boarding a school bus, “the Prep kids” was the caption.  She was so proud.  I took them to Holy Ghost Prep for an weekly afternoon of tutoring.

In 1972, the war in Vietnam Nam was winding down.  The draft was a lottery (no more teacher deferments). I had a low number and it was low.   For the third time I appealed a draft induction.  I got letters from the parents of the special class, testimony from my principal and parish priest. A State review board heard my case, “I was not just “a” teacher, I was “the” teacher and could not be replaced.”  I had taught the specials in 7th grade, in a summer camp, and I was scheduled to teach them in eighth grade.  I was given a deferment.

By 1974 the war and draft ended.  I quit Saint Mike’s and within a week Father Hanley, the Headmaster, offered me a job at Holy Ghost Prep.  I was to become the school Librarian and teach Junior English (3 sections).  Kids were tracked according to math ability and there was virtually no movement between tracks.  If you started in Freshman 1, you probably graduated in Senior 1 — the Honors track.  The 3rd section reminded me of the TV show, “Welcome Back Kotter” — very non academic.

 There was no specified curriculum for English classes; just “Junior English,” you taught what you wanted.  John Buettler taught Seniors and liked theatre, so Senior English was  Drama class.  My Junior course could have been titled “Communications.”  I lectured about Marshall McLuhan (“the media is the message”).  Kids did projects using photography, video (equipment borrowed through the IU), radio show production.  I established a darkroom and an audio lab.

I had strong ideas about education and began to share them with Father Hanley. I didn’t like the tracking system; supported faculty independence but thought there should be titled courses, maybe American Literature for Juniors and British Literature for Seniors. I supported and encouraged progressive teaching methods.  HGP tended to be very textbook, lecture orientated.  I wanted to see more hands on.  By the late 1970s, Hanley had made me Assistant Headmaster, charged with scheduling, curriculum and faculty development.  A young lay person in the HGP administration; there was some resentment from a few Spiritans.

Hanley was replaced by Father Jim McNally, who had been one of my math teachers when I attended HGP (class of 1965).  Mac didn’t arrive until mid August.  I remember him plopping down in a chair in my office, “You can remain as Assistant Headmaster for a year and we will see how it works out.”  Mac and I got along great and I served as his assistant (and partner) for 10 years.

I believed that administrators should teach and so I always taught at least one course.  An older Spiritan taught the non-honors Seniors two social studies courses — Problems of Democracy and American History.  He literally read from the textbook and took no responsibility for discipline.  I decided it would be better if I taught one of the courses.  My American Studies as I titled the course was heavy in American Literature (I was a English (i.e. Literature) major at Boston College.  Gradually the course focus became the American response to nature, land, conservation, ecology.  I used a lot of local examples.

My course changed to “Local Studies” after I took a month long National Endowment workshop at the University of Pennsylvania with Walter Licht.  Walter introduced us to the New Social History.  History of the everyday life of average people.  New Social historians were interested in how butchers slaughtered a cow; what a slave ate; the religious beliefs of Italian immigrants.  Traditional history had been about the rich and famous, Kings, Presidents, Generals.  Local History dovetailed nicely with New Social History.

I took the train to Philadelphia for the National Endowment workshop.  Several hours before class, I walked and photographed the city.  A slide show of  my photography was my final project.  We usually had a guest lecturer in the morning and a related field trip in the afternoon.  We visited dozens of historic sites in the Phildelphia area.

For the next ten years, Local Studies became my signature course at HGP.  I read extensively, continued to visit sites, developed two class field trips — one to Center City Philadelphia, another in Bucks County (rural townships, small town boroughs, and automobile suburbs).  Alumni frequently tell me how they now walk city streets looking up, looking down, seeing so much history.

In the 1980s’ Father McNally was replaced as Headmaster.  It was not a friendly transition.  I was also removed from administration.  The next year I applied for a sabbatical.  I had finished all course work but was ABD (all but dissertation).  Initially Temple told me my time had expired.  I no longer had an advisor.  A former dean in the school of education took me on and eventually hooked me up with Ellis Katz who had done research on my topic — educational policy making in Pennsylvania.

In 1990 I graduated with a doctorate in educational leadership and immediately began teaching at LaSalle and Holy Family. College teaching was a new world.  Although I still enjoyed most classes at HGP, I totally enjoyed the transition to college undergraduates and within a few years, graduate students.  Now I could share my beliefs and experience teaching with teachers.


3 thoughts on “Teaching: the first twenty years

  1. Joan Pelc says:

    Dear Vince,
    In looking for information on our PC training in Bisbee, coming in on 50 years, I came across your blog. I am not sure you will remember us, it was a long time ago, but we did see ourselves in some of your photos from Bisbee. In fact, there is one in color of a language class and I may have taken it, as we have the same one and I am pretty sure I was in the class, but not in the photo (I remember everyone’s name except the Libyan teacher). Diane is in that photo. Those Peace Corps photos were awesome. I remember you and Diane well, as we were in the same group as our last names were close and my long term memory is much better than my short term. We even met in down town Philly one evening after our training ended. We are not on Facebook so it is not as easy to hear from folks. You are a prolific writer and I hope to read more of your blog, I just discovered it yesterday. It was so interesting to read your thoughts on our teacher training. I have remembered things a bit differently, but just a bit!
    Please do not feel obligated to reply to this message. I was just happy to find someone we were with in training. But we would love to hear from you if you so choose! There is one couple who we have been in touch with all these years, Jack and Carol Nuzum. Our names are Joan and Ed Pelc and we were in a few of your photos. We have been living in Delaware County all our lives, except for a few years in the Peace Corps and near D.C. while Ed was doing alternative service after Peace Corps in the early 70’s. I hope you get this message!
    Best wishes to you and Diane.
    Joan Pelc

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