The School Administrator October 2009 Number 9, Vol. 66

Guest Column

Go to the Head of the Class


As superintendent previously in the Central Unified School District in Fresno, Calif., I considered it my duty to know as much as possible about what was going on in our schools and classrooms. What better way to do that than to work as a substitute teacher for a day.

An opportunity presented itself when our teacher union representative was asked to attend a state workshop and needed a sub for the day. He was a high school government teacher and often shared with me how much harder teaching has become over the years. He challenged me to take on his classroom while he was away.

Perfect. I would get to spend some quality time with our students and get back to my roots as a teacher. I’d have a context for his persistent reminder about today’s challenges in the classroom. I looked forward to an exciting learning opportunity.

Serious Prep
I pondered how to plan for his senior government course. In preparation, I devoted the majority of my weekend developing a lesson plan that included a PowerPoint presentation, a fun pop quiz and several hands-on cooperative learning activities. I couldn’t kid myself; I knew these lessons had to be interactive.

I didn’t want to take on a class and disappoint these kids. I was heading into a 90-minute block period and needed to be well-prepared.

“These kids are sharp,” the teacher let on, “and they expect nothing but the best.” What a challenge, I thought. Although once a teacher, I hadn’t been in front of the classroom for years. I’ll bring some Halloween candy, I thought, just in case.

I asked the government teacher whether he thought a lesson on school boards and the related governance structure would fit into his curriculum. “Just the thing,” he exclaimed. “That’s covered in our syllabus.”

I wanted students to learn that, although California schools operate as part of a statewide system under the policy direction of the legislature, more local responsibility is granted to school districts than to any other government entity.

Engaging Exercise
During each of the three 90-minute lessons, I attempted to teach students that school board members are elected and have four main jobs as a governing body: (1) create goals for the district; (2) develop policies to meet the goals; (3) be accountable to the public; and (4) involve the community in the school district. I illustrated the point by way of the new policy just approved by the board of education — the voluntary drug-testing program.

Students learned the board had adopted drug testing in response to the Fresno County grand jury’s recommendation to reinforce the state education code on drug-free schools. I had each class divide into groups to weigh the pros and cons of drug testing in a high school.

Their responses were intelligent and thought-provoking. Most seniors thought testing would lessen peer pressure by providing them with a ready-made excuse to say no when offered drugs by their peers. Others thought it would undermine trust between a student and parent. Many students said they expected their parents would sign them up for the program were it offered before they graduated.

One remarked, “I wish I could have had this testing program this year. … My mother constantly hounds me and suspects that I am using drugs. If I was tested, the program would have proven to her that I am telling the truth.”

All concluded that school boards really have a lot of power and must use it appropriately to be accountable to the public.

Generally, the students were conscientious and well-behaved. One class became rambunctious after their break. I was relieved the principal chose to visit the classroom then to observe the students for about 20 minutes. His presence gave me time to collect my thoughts. These kids were much calmer with him in the room.

The students I saw that day were bright, sincere and respectful of one another and me. While they knew as superintendent I was in charge of the whole district, I don’t think it made any difference. They seemed pleased that they had a “special guest” substitute teacher for the day. Students were engaged in the activities, and most seemed to approve of what they were learning.

My substitute teaching assignment fell on a Friday in fall, the day of a big football game. Toward the end of one period, a popular football player asked to leave class early to retrieve his cell phone from the office. I wondered whether he was telling the truth, but in spite of my uncertainty, I nodded consent. The students laughed quietly as he departed.

Whew, I later reflected, 90 minutes is a long time to be “on” for students. I wanted to be actively involved with them for the entire period and didn’t want to lose a minute of face time.

In retrospect, this teaching opportunity has influenced my filter when making decisions as a superintendent, especially concerning high school issues. Teaching is more demanding than I ever remember. The curriculum seemed almost designed for the college level, and students were not as attentive as I remember they once were.

Definitely too many students were packed into one classroom, making it difficult to maneuver through the aisles. Thirty-seven students radiated a lot of heat in one tight area. The air conditioner could not keep pace. What I noticed the most: Students’ demand for my attention was beyond belief.

I must confess I wore the wrong shoes for a full day of teaching. High heels are tough going in today’s teaching world. Furthermore, if a tech-savvy student hadn’t been available in the next room to troubleshoot the projector, my PowerPoint show would have been a complete disaster. I can’t imagine how hard it might be to fill 30 minutes of lesson time on the fly. I was pleased with myself that I had the foresight to bring the candy

The School Administrator February 2009 Number 2 Vol. 66|
Superintendent Gets Taken for a Ride
by Marilou Ryder

As a teenager living in rural upstate New York, I waited patiently each morning in the first light of dawn to ride 45 minutes down country roads to get to my high school.

The old yellow school bus made 20 or so stops to pick up my friends. In winter, the good seats could be found near the heaters in the middle of the bus. The year was 1965. I recently learned not much has changed over the years.

Not long ago I met with 40-plus parents who serve on our school district’s parent advisory council. This group makes me pay attention to what’s on their minds and what they’d like improved and allows me to invite suggestions on how they can become part of the solution. The issues they raised included lack of textbooks, a delayed stadium opening, benchmark assessments, inconsistency of the dress code at certain schools, sports and the teaching of phonics.

One issue rose loud and clear above the cacophony of others — student transportation. One concerned parent worried our buses are dangerous and feared her child was not safe. Another reported our buses are too crowded, while another revealed her child must ride the bus for more than an hour. Still another implied all kids fight, our bus drivers have no control and many students must sit on the bus floor.

Finally, parent Julia Shields suggested I, the superintendent, might want to talk in person to some actual kids who ride the buses. “You’ll get the real straight facts from them,” she advised.

Coping With Chaos
I accepted her challenge, taking it one step further. I would ride one of these buses — a 60-minute, 45-mile trip from our East campus on a bus packed with high school students heading home. It was one of the supposedly dangerous routes mentioned by a parent. The most difficult part was locating my bus in the parking lot crammed full of buses coming in from West campus. Kids were jumping off one bus, running to another. What appeared as chaos to me seemed perfectly normal to most, but still it caused me concern.

I climbed on the designated bus and immediately began assessing the situation. Yes, the parents were correct — these kids were big, but only six students sat three to a seat and no one was sitting on the floor. The kids didn’t know why the superintendent was aboard their bus (nor did they appear to care), but they were infinitely curious as to why I had a notepad out.

The bus was really steaming up inside, getting hotter by the minute. Finally, after about five minutes, the bus rolled out of the school lot. All the windows were open, providing some moving air for a little relief. I instantly experienced deafening engine noise, which I imagined was why so many kids were hooked up to music apparatus. Several were swatting at one another lightheartedly, a few appeared miserable and exhausted, but most seemed to be pleased they were on their way home.

During my interviews with several riders, the students were thrilled to declare that 6 a.m. is too darn early to catch a bus and confided the real reason no one on their bus ever come to blows is because, as one put it, “We all like and know one another.” Those sitting three to a seat chose to be with their friends, and everyone spoke highly about bus driver Tammy Reiter. They indicated she is forever friendly, never yells and says goodbye to them when they exit the bus.

Some students wished the bus had a bathroom and most suggested air-conditioning would be wonderful. No one indicated the trip was unbearable and nearly everyone seemed to enjoy being with one another. These were nice kids.

About 30 minutes into the trip, most of the load exited the bus at one stop, but before leaving they closed all the windows (I found out this saves Tammy time at the end of her run). I began to sweat again. Yikes, I still had 20 hot minutes left. On Shaw Avenue, the bus stopped and another student departed. A fast-moving (50 mph) black PT Cruiser was coming toward us, never making any attempt to stop for the flashing red bus lights as required by law. Tammy, quick on the draw, blasted the horn. Luckily, the girl knew enough to look both ways and allowed the car to pass. I became disturbed that a motorist could simply disregard a stopped bus with flashing red lights.

“Anyone get that license number?” I hollered, to which the kids were quick to report this was a common occurrence. I remained angry for awhile thinking about the actual lack of control we have once a child leaves a bus. After composing myself, I took this opportunity to chat with the remaining students about homework, block schedules, AP classes and what they liked about being a student in the Central Unified School District.

Reinforcing Rules
Tammy dropped me off at the district office, and I thanked her for the ride and education. At our next parent advisory meeting, I let parents know that our buses were safe. Yes, the bus ride wasn’t comfortable, but it was safe. Getting off and on the bus was another matter, however. I promised parents I would work with the high school and transportation officials to solve the problem in the East campus parking lot, and that I’ll continue to be on the lookout for that black PT Cruiser.

As community members, we all need to help our students understand not all adults follow the rules of the road and teach our kids to never get comfortable about crosswalks or bus stops. Finally, we must reinforce the simple rule about always looking both ways even when they think it’s safe to cross.

The following week I planned to ride a junior high bus. Someone informed me that may be quite a different ride.