Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 1999 Issue »

    Book Review - Kate Rousmaniere's City Teachers: Teaching and School Reform in Historical Perspective

    Kathleen Murphey
    City Teachers: Teaching and School Reform in Historical Perspective
    by Kate Rousmaniere.
    New York: Teachers College Press, 1997. 192 pp. $40.00, $20.95 (paper).

    Kate Rousmaniere’s book, City Teachers: Teaching and School Reform in Historical Perspective, speaks to what Rousmaniere describes as a “Historical Silence on Teachers’ Work” (pp. 5–7). For this book, Rousmaniere interviewed teachers who taught in New York City during the 1920s, at the height of a burgeoning school system that boasted the newest reforms in educational efficiency and workplace democracy — reforms initiated by the newly centralized ranks of administrators. Resources from the archives of Teachers College at Columbia University on the context of teachers’ work lives augment Rousmaniere’s interviews.

    Rousmaniere’s work is important because educational historians have too often ignored teachers. Feminist scholars of women’s work have been more interested in non-traditional arenas of work for women, such as law and medicine; labor historians have viewed teachers as white-collar workers (and thus not “real” workers); and historians of teachers’ organizations have addressed only a narrow range of teachers’ workplace concerns. City Teachers provides a vivid portrait of teachers’ work culture in the 1920s, as well as teachers’ varied reactions, accommodations, and resistance to it. This history speaks strongly to teachers, as well as to those interested in understanding the complex environment of the school and of teachers’ work, and the relationship of each to school reform. Readers will be led to reflect on the enduring dimensions of teachers’ work, for Rousmaniere has captured a past that resonates in the reform-minded present. Teachers especially will gain a new respect for history and a fresh perspective on their current work environments as they encounter themselves, or not, in the experiences of these New York City teachers.

    Teacher activism in New York City and other large U.S. cities had collapsed by the 1920s. In that respect, teachers’ labor history paralleled that of the wider labor movement. According to Rousmaniere, teachers “were too weak to fight for their vision of an efficient workplace” (p. 27). They had been divided by the centralized organizational structure that spawned competing teacher interest groups, dismayed by the political repression of teacher activists over issues of loyalty during the 1920s Red Scare, and weakened by the ideology of professionalism that promoted administratively controlled teacher councils to counter unionization. It is within this context of “Disunity and Dissolution” (p. 10) that these former New York City teachers discuss their work.

    Rousmaniere writes that most collective teacher portraits are of teacher organizations, which, in fact, attracted only a small percentage of teachers. Her volume, in contrast, seeks to describe the work experience of individuals, not of organizations. In effect, Rousmaniere’s book shows that because individual teachers experienced conditions differently from one another, they were incapable of seriously considering collective responses to their working conditions. Moreover, they often felt alienated from the newest, highly touted educational reforms.

    The immigration, economic, and social history of New York City helped determine who became teachers in the 1920s. Contemporary rhetoric about the “professional” teacher encouraged the entrance of some new immigrant groups into teaching, while increased requirements for teacher training beyond a high school diploma limited access for others. Those who did pass the new standards — including women and men, both married and single, elementary and high school teachers, the politically radical and the politically conservative, Jews and Catholics — were all widely different in their social histories, pay, and workplace experiences. The varied social, economic, and political histories of the groups that comprised the expanding professional teacher labor force created a stratified workplace culture that often divided teachers from one another. A White teacher thus describes her perception of the one black teacher at a junior high school in Brooklyn:

    We didn’t know black people. I don’t think we had a single black student. She was the only black person and she was strange to the children and she was strange to the adults. We liked her but she had very little to do with us. . . . I don’t think many accepted her, although they recognized that she was a ladylike person with charm. But they were not accustomed and they didn’t know what to say or do. She was a stranger. (p. 52)

    Several themes about teachers’ work in the 1920s emerge through Rousmaniere’s interviews. One is the intensification of work. As the curriculum diversified to meet the needs of a more diverse student population — which often meant students with a broader range of social, economic, health, behavioral, and academic problems — teachers’ roles expanded to include certain aspects of social work. As early as 1918, the first woman president of the Brooklyn Teachers’ Association lamented the many roles teachers were expected to fulfill:

    We are expected to be an arithmetician, a historian, a grammarian, a disciplinarian, a librarian, a sociologist, a penman, an artist, a musician, a model, a moralist, an attendance officer, a clerk, a nurse, a banker, an athlete, a dancer, a supervisor of play and recreation, an engineer, a community-center worker, a farmer, a housekeeper, a medical and sanitary inspector, a host or hostess. We are expected to discover the mentally deficient, the deaf, the feeble-minded, the exceptional and a few more just such. Besides the three R’s we are expected to teach thrift, self-government, [and] sex hygiene. . . . We must be resourceful, display initiative, have confidence in ourselves, make our teaching attractive. . . . In fact the demand is so great, teachers hardly know what to slur or what to stress in teaching. (p. 54)

    Standardized tests, introduced into schools as part of the new efficiency reforms, also demanded more of students’ time to take and teachers’ time to administer, evaluate, and record. As teachers’ roles multiplied and paperwork mounted, teachers faced increasingly difficult choices among competing demands. Rousmaniere concludes, however, that “teachers who complained about the intensification of their work or who requested salary increases to compensate for increased work were excoriated for selfishly thinking about themselves rather than their students’ needs” (p. 74).

    Teacher isolation and stress caused by the physical design of the workplace characterize a second theme in Rousmaniere’s book. Expansion of the student population led to overcrowding, which was then relieved by the construction of makeshift annex buildings. When new schools were built, however, their massive size created additional problems. Teachers, who were previously isolated from one another in separate buildings, now found themselves isolated by floor in schools built for thousands of students. Many older women, for example, taught on the fifth floor of an elementary school in Queens. One remembers bitterly:

    [You went up the stairs] in the morning and down again at noon, and up again at one o’clock, and down again at three o’clock. But if you had assembly that day, you had to come down again. The assembly was on the first floor. The gym was on the first floor. So if you had gym also, it was up and down, up and down. (p. 86)

    A principal relates that she “grew very thin from dashing from the fourth or fifth floor” to the lunchroom if there was trouble (p. 89). Double sessions compounded the problem. Teachers, who had not been consulted about the changes in school design, pined for the small schools of the past.

    A third theme revolves around ongoing differences between administrators and teachers over what constituted order in the schools. Administrators observed and evaluated teachers with new “scientific” rating scales designed to professionalize teaching and improve efficiency. However, the rating scales, according to teachers, often reflected the most petty of social norms regarding compliant behavior, including dress codes and ways of speaking. Increased paperwork requirements also antagonized many teachers. One teacher asks, for example, “Why must everything, even the ordering of a needle, be done in duplicate and triplicate? Why should a high-priced teacher, supposedly an expert in her field, have to spend at least two-fifths of her time as a clerk?” (p. 109). Required lesson plans also antagonized many teachers because of the plans’ perceived uselessness and their irregular enforcement. A teacher explains how she learned to alter the format to fit her own needs:

    You were supposed to write in the plan book what you were going to do. But I’d write in good lessons that I just did because maybe it’s something that you can repeat. In the classroom, even if you plan the work, it doesn’t always work out as you plan. Things come up and things develop and it’s an entirely new lesson than you had planned. I’d say: Gee. That turned out so good, it’s going in the plan book. (p. 106)

    Additionally, Rousmaniere’s interviews show the complexity of teachers’ relationships with students. Many teachers found joy and meaning in these relationships, as did a teacher who still remembers her elation when a non-reader interrupted a fellow student’s oral reading to blurt out

    “I can read!” Just like that, he blurted right out. So the other kid stopped, of course, all the kids stopped — who ever yelled out like that in class? So I said: Well, that’s fine Peter, let’s see you do it. And the other kid sat down and Peter stood up and sure enough, he read. And I said to him: How about the next page, you think you can read the next page? And he turned the page and said, “Yes! Yes I can!” Well, that was such a shock to me and to all the other kids, because here’s this kid sitting here for six weeks not saying a word, but somehow it was like a jigsaw puzzle and he made the connection and the whole thing burst. It was really a very exciting moment and I remember it all these years with such joy. (pp. 129–130)

    Other teachers were challenged by the dilemmas of maintaining classroom control under difficult conditions. Faced with classrooms they could not control, teachers, sometimes proudly, sometimes with embarrassment, made compromises or negotiated deals with students to keep the peace, as this woman teacher did when faced with a class full of unmotivated boys:

    I came into the class and it’s a class full of boys, some of them bigger than I am. . . . They began to show me that they were not there to learn. I discovered that the first morning. . . . One was very tough and he was much bigger than I: he wanted to be noticed, he wanted the attention and not the teacher. I offered him a job as my secretary. I told him: For every day that the class accepts me, I will give you a nickel. To anybody that was out of order he would walk up in that lumbering kind of way and crack his knuckles. (pp. 121–122)

    These dilemmas were exacerbated by the teachers’ intermediate position in the school hierarchy, and by the personal responsibility they were expected to accept for conditions that were often beyond their individual control.

    A fourth theme, and perhaps Rousmaniere’s most provocative insight into teachers’ work culture, is that many teachers did not simply comply with those reforms that they regarded as ill-conceived. Some adapted the reforms to meet their own needs; others resisted completely. In sum, Rousmaniere argues that “city teachers experienced school reform initiatives as confusing and contradictory intrusions into their already stressful workday and that they responded to their chaotic workplace by alternately accommodating, adapting, and resisting certain aspects of their working conditions” (p. 2). So, in spite of the fact that teachers were too divided and fearful of administrative reprisals to collectively organize, individual teachers responded to newly initiated reforms according to their own various standards of effective teaching. If the reforms appeared to contradict good practice, or if reforms in the name of democracy seemed anything but democratic, teachers reinterpreted or disregarded them according to their own standards.

    In City Teachers, Rousmaniere puts the complications of becoming a teacher — accepting new roles, working in a restrictive physical environment, following idiosyncratic leadership, confronting students, and responding to reforms — into historical perspective. By doing so, she broadens the definition of “teacher work” as stated by administrators, and as currently negotiated by teacher unions, to include the full web of interpersonal, social, cultural, political, and institutional relationships that make up teachers’ “work” lives. Her discussion of each of these dimensions makes us realize how little we as yet know about what teachers actually do in schools, both historically and currently. Her interviews also help us to realize how much teachers have to tell us about their work, and how much we’ve missed by not tapping into their memories.

    Finally, this volume shows how administrators and teachers constructed their own separate standards for the professionalization of teaching in the 1920s. Administrators tried to impose a democracy that wasn’t one; teachers resisted with their own version of workplace democracy, a version that usually went undefined and was sometimes characterized by resistance instead of an effective, positive philosophy. Teachers’ spontaneous responses reflected, however, a knowledge about their work that is usually overlooked. Although teachers’ articulation of their vision, as well as their collective consciousness of it, had yet to be developed, Rousmaniere’s interviews reveal that teachers had a sophisticated understanding of their work, which they also acted upon. The resulting struggle between administrators and teachers over who makes and enforces workplace policy is clear in the example of a frustrated teacher who proposed a rotating plan for teachers to monitor students’ movements in the stairwells between classes at a large public school:

    So I walked into the [principal’s] office, and she was very polite, she listened to me until I was finished and then she looked at me with her cold blue eyes and she said: “Miss Smith, I am the principal of this school, and I will decide.” And she tore up this thing I had worked so carefully on. Well! She might have just as well have slapped my face. I was just so shocked that she was so adamant to have her own way, which was not a good way, which was so hard on the teachers. (p. 87)

    One is left, however, with questions. What would have constituted an ideal work environment if teachers could have achieved it? Also, what steps would have been necessary to achieve some degree of solidarity among teachers, so they could collectively improve their working conditions after the 1920s? (Rousmaniere doesn’t hint at how this collective organization eventually came about, though we can infer from her story of the pre-1920s that she thinks it desirable.) What, in other words, did teachers need to do, and how might they have organized themselves, to take collective leadership in defining workplace democracy? And where might the leadership have come from?

    Rousmaniere paints the disorganization and chaos beautifully, especially in an era of “scientific” reform, but she doesn’t discuss how teachers could have developed beyond that stage. We see a dimension of teachers’ work that has been previously unknown — teachers acting according to their own standards for effective teaching. The narrative, however, remains unconnected to the story of collective organizing that followed in the 1930s and later. Such connections are not essential for the effectiveness of this history, but the book’s resonance with today’s issues does invite the reader to contemplate teacher work culture and teacher leadership in the context of current school reform initiatives. Contemporary workplace issues for teachers thus appear even more compelling in light of Rousmaniere’s exploration of their historical precedents. She herself explicitly links the past to the present in the “Epilogue: The Legacy of Teachers’ Experience” by concluding that “school reform needs to be addressed to teachers’ needs, respecting the legacy of their experiences at work” (p. 135).

    City Teachers is timely, especially for teachers, as we are in the midst of yet another era of reform. What needs to be reformed? How do we want that reformed entity to look? And who should lead the reform process? These questions are today, as then, rarely asked of teachers. Perhaps this historical portrait of teachers’ work has the potential to inspire new discussions among policymakers, as well as teachers, about how reform can build on the knowledge, experience, and leadership of teachers. Rousmaniere implies that to ignore teachers and their work culture is to ignore the engine that drives the machine. As in the past, improving the conditions of work, streamlining goals, reducing intensity, upgrading physical plants, and demanding the voice, participation, and leadership of teachers in educational policymaking might help to create a profession that teachers want, an education of quality that reformers demand, and a learning experience that students would value.

    True educational reform has to begin with teachers. That is the lesson of this history. Rousmaniere’s City Teachers breaks the “historical silence,” and thereby opens the door for history to contribute to current discussions about the relationship of teachers to school reform. By sharing her insights and her perspective on teaching and school reform in the 1920s, Rousmaniere deepens our understanding of teacher work, our respect for teachers, and our hope that teacher work and true educational reform can someday become synonymous.

  2. Share

    Summer 1999 Issue


    Hispano Education and the Implications of Autonomy
    Four School Systems in Southern Colorado, 1920–1963
    Ruben Donato
    Modern and Postmodern Racism in Europe
    Dialogic Approach and Anti-Racist Pedagogies
    Ramon Flecha
    Charter Schools as Postmodern Paradox
    Rethinking Social Stratification in an Age of Deregulated School Choice
    Amy Stuart Wells, Alejandra Lopez, Janelle Scott, Jennifer Jellison Holme
    Book Review - Kate Rousmaniere's City Teachers: Teaching and School Reform in Historical Perspective
    Kathleen Murphey

    Book Notes

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.