Just Call Me Mr. Kotter

 Dick Miller   

October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.

© Copyright 2014 by  Dick Miller 

Photo of some of the caracters from the TV show.

You may recall the TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, starring comedian Gabe Kaplan. It aired in the late 1970s and is notable for bringing a young John Travolta to national attention. The premise is that Kaplan, playing Mr. Kotter, returns to teach at the high school he himself attended. He winds up with a class of misfits, nicknamed “sweat hogs” in the show, of whom little is expected except, perhaps, from Mr. Kotter.

So, in fact, did I.

With my newly-minted B. S. in Physics and New York State Certificate as Teacher of Physics and General Science, I was ready to meet the world in 1965. The world, however, seemed to be somewhat unimpressed. I applied to my alma mater for consideration, but the time frame was too short: they had their fall lineup firmly in place. As luck would have it, however, a brand-new Junior High School, with only seventh and eighth grades, was about to open just a few miles away, and was in desperate need of science teachers, even beginners. I suppose it didn’t hurt that my mother, a School Secretary of many years’ experience, was well known and respected by one of the Assistant Principals. I had a job!

After that first year of making all of the mistakes that first-year teachers usually make, and (I hope) learning from them, I had the opportunity to move on to my alma mater, Tottenville High School, the following year. I looked forward to it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I was only a few years older than some of the students I’d be teaching.

Quite a few of my former teachers were now my colleagues. It was kind of a surreal experience to call them by their first names as we met by the time clock or in the teachers’ cafeteria. Just to amplify the experience, my former Biology and Physics teacher, Mr. Breidenbach, was now George, acting Science Department Chairman, my boss and mentor.

Under George’s mentoring and my natural curiosity and ambition, I flourished as a teacher. George was replaced by one of our colleagues, Paul Hirsch, an easygoing and popular fellow, who was officially appointed Assistant Principal for Supervision – Science (big title, no more pay), allowing George to shed the administrative trivia he abhorred and spend full time in the classrooms he loved.

Paul was an innovator, and had big ideas for our Science Department. By this time, we had left the overcrowded building I had attended and were housed in a modern facility designed for 4,000 students and located just a few miles from the old campus. Paul started in by convincing the powers that be that we could do wondrous things by offering a smorgasbord of science electives to tantalize the educational palates of the students. In order to do so, he told all of us, “Dream up whatever course you think will be useful and interesting, and draft an outline for a curriculum. If it looks good, we’ll find some funding somewhere to get you whatever equipment and supplies you need to make it happen.” Along with this, he convinced school authorities to allow one of his teachers to teach half time and write grant proposals half time. It turned out that Joel was very good at proposal writing. Money started flowing in.

We soon had courses offered in such diverse subjects as Advanced Placement Biology, Chemistry, and Physics; Marine Biology; Small Animal Care; Oceanography; and Theory of Electronics. Another grant was funded for a greenhouse in the middle of the atrium of our quadrangular building, and we added Ornamental Horticulture to our offerings. We tried to keep a balance between the college-level and college-prep type course and those geared more toward students who planned to enter the world of work after high school.

But, like most schools, we still struggled to help the kids who looked like they might not make it through high school. I had seen a number of them in my capacity as a science lab assistant at the evening high school, struggling to win a diploma while holding down a full-time job and raising a family. I had nothing but respect for their determination, and wished we could do something earlier in their academic lives to spare them that later burden.

That wish came true, at least for one group of students, in the form of a curriculum funded by the National Science Foundation. They had earlier developed a systems engineering curriculum for high school called Engineering Concepts Curriculum Project that was quite successful for college-bound students. Then some professors at the Polytechnic Institute of New York received funding to adapt the course to an activity-based curriculum. The guidance counselors at Tottenville jumped at the chance. They combed the records and interviewed every bright sophomore who had one foot out the door and the other on a banana peel. Meanwhile, a math teacher, the Math Department Chairman, and I (my Chairman was working on his doctoral dissertation and couldn’t participate) attended an intense three-week summer workshop on the principles and methods of the course.

The students who were chosen were indeed a group of misfits, much like Mr. Kotter’s “sweat hogs.” There were those with substance abuse problems, unwed mothers, parolees, juvenile delinquents, and a variety of other at-risk youth. Remember, though, these kids were smart.

The next September, we were greeted by thirty-odd new faces who didn’t quite understand what to expect. Quite frankly, neither did we. Michelle, the math teacher, taught the group for one period, we team-taught them for one, and I taught them for one. This allowed us to plan activities that lasted for more than just one 45-minute class period, if needed. The students attended their other classes required for graduation in the morning: English, Social Studies, PE, and the like. We had them all afternoon.

The class was very different in nature from what most of the kids had experienced up to this point in their school careers. There were no textbooks to forget or lose. Everything that went on during class time was recorded on individual worksheets, which were kept in a file cabinet in a student’s own personal portfolio of work. Each day’s activity was distinct from the previous day’s activity. In that way, if a student were out on Monday for a parole hearing, she would not be behind the class when she returned on Tuesday.

The activities were fun, both for the students and for the teachers. The students thought we were just playing games when I was actually teaching them to recognize patterns of numbers or letters, figure out the algorithm, and predict the next two members of the set. They thought they were being sanctioned to misbehave when I asked them to design a paper airplane that could fly as straight as possible or as far as possible, but they were actually learning systems thinking, aerodynamics, principles of experimentation, and design principles. And so it went: guerrilla learning. It was understanding masquerading as fun. They loved the activities, and I loved watching them use the long-dormant gifts they had for creativity, understanding, and interacting with one another in positive ways.

After two years, we were quite proud of our students and of our selves. Of the 34 students originally selected for the program, 30 actually attended on a regular basis. Of those, 20 graduated on time with their peers, and another six during the following year. This proved to me that schools can be successful with even the most difficult students. It takes thinking outside the box, adequate resources, and dedicated counselors and teachers. Most of all, it takes students who are willing to learn and adults who are willing to trust them enough to give them one more chance.

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