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My View: Making my way as a student teacher

By Dan Schwartz

I was assigned two different cooperating teachers, one each in English and social studies, as I pursued a career path that included dual certification in order to make me more marketable in the mid-1970s.

Enrollments were down. School districts were cutting back. Kenmore schools, for example, were cutting back by cutting teachers with less than 15 years’ experience.

At the University at Buffalo, we were given the choice of selecting “urban” “suburban or “rural’ for our training and teaching placements. We were herded like cattle into old Diefendorf Hall and told to sit in the section designated for our choice.

Although I had trained for urban, the mad rush to that section by classmates who wanted to live in a city or perhaps save the world by working with disadvantaged youth, made me rethink my career plan and gravitate to the more sparsely populated “rural.” I soon learned impoverished city dwellers had a lot in common with their rural counterparts.

Lewiston-Porter, Clarence and Pembroke were considered rural school districts, although they’d be largely suburban today. Time marches on. Mike and I were told to go to Clarence to meet our cooperating teachers. I had long hair in those days and Mike was the spitting image of Karl Marx. The chair of the English Department took one look at us and shrieked, “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO TEACH SOUL ON ICE HERE!” She then spun around on her toe and stomped off.

I asked Mike if he intended to teach Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s book in Clarence, and he said he didn’t. I said I hadn’t planned on it either.

Dan Schwartz. (News file photo)

“So what do we do now?” asked Mike.

I said, “One of the other cooperating school districts was 15 minutes down the road. Maybe they’re desperate enough to take us.”

It was a combination junior-senior high school. It was divided into a junior house and a senior house. We introduced ourselves to the secretary of the senior house and then waited in a couple of chairs facing an aquarium with a couple of dead fish in it.

When she returned, I said, “Not much of a swim team.”

Kathy laughed and said, “Well, we’ve just got to have you,” and ushered me over to meet her then-husband, Paul Stachowski, a Yale graduate and a high school English teacher’s English teacher. He was also the dean of the Junior House which meant he spent much of his day disciplining kids who had been written up or thrown out their classes.

My first day, Paul threw a textbook to me and said, “I’ve got a parent coming in for a conference. You’ll have to teach 'The Red Badge of Courage' first period. I recall having students read and discuss passages. Not altogether pleased with the situation, I asked why he had he’d thrown me into the fire.

“If we'd waited,” he reasoned, “it’d probably just make you more nervous.” Each day thereafter, we’d briefly go over what I’d do, and he would occasionally stop in and observe.

Soon I was teaching all of his classes and learning a lot about the limited choices teachers and administrators have when trying enforce rules and change student behavior.

I look back on it as the perfect student teaching experience except for perhaps the last day, when three young women completing their junior year tried to press me against the green board and kiss me. I thought it would cost me a possible job, but luckily Paul was passing by and extricated me from that unlikely occupational hazard.

Gee, thanks, Paul.

Dan Schwartz, Ph.D., teaches at SUNY Buffalo State.
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