Harvard Educational Review
  1. Teacher with a Heart

    Reflections on Leonard Covello and Community

    By Vito Perrone

    New York: Teachers College Press, 1998. 145 pp. $19.95 (paper)

    Teacher with a Heart: Reflections on Leonard Covello and Community is the first of a new series of books from Teachers College Press called “Between Teacher and Text.” Series editor Herbert Kohl asks educators to “choose a person whose work has been important to them and enter into dialog with that work and by extension with that person” (p. vii). In this first volume, Vito Perrone, a senior faculty member at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, reflects on the life of Leonard Covello, who was a teacher and principal in the New York City schools for most of the first half of this century. The book’s unique structure gives readers a window into the experiences and thinking of two great educators. The first half of the book, written by Perrone, is an interweaving of his own autobiography, his thinking about Covello, and the history readers may need to fully appreciate the context of Covello’s life. The second half of the book is an extended excerpt from Covello’s autobiography, The Heart Is the Teacher. Perrone begins his reflection by explaining his choice of Covello. He writes:

    Covello’s story should be brought back into the educational discourse, not only for its social content related to the education of immigrant students and inspiring educational stance regarding the diverse cultures and social dilemmas of East Harlem but as a reminder that our work as educators is not without a history; that many of the problems we currently struggle with were faced by others before us, sometimes confronted differently, oftentimes more intelligently. (p. 1)

    Perrone tells the story of his own discovery of Covello. Attracted to Covello’s metaphors and philosophy, Perrone saw some of himself in Covello’s experiences. He writes, “I was also drawn to Covello’s work because he was Italian, a person who had struggled with the immigrant experience, something I understood well as the son of Italian immigrants” (p. 2). Drawing for his readers the outline of Covello’s story, Perrone also tells us some of his own. Readers are introduced to Perrone’s parents as they leave Italy, see the struggles of growing up the only Italian family in a Michigan town, and watch Perrone find his own path as a teacher. Throughout his reflection on both his own experience and Covello’s, Perrone also makes clear his educational philosophy. Obvious is his dismay at the way schools often misunderstand immigrant students, his continuing wish that schools would work more closely with communities, his hope that teachers could try harder to understand the cultures and histories of their students. Perrone’s background as a historian is apparent, too, as he explores the context of Covello’s life, and as he draws connections between immigration and schooling at the beginning of the twentieth century and now at the beginning of a new millennium.

    Perrone reminds us that “race, language, and cultural matters, alongside severe problems of housing, health care, and discrimination certainly dominated life in and around Covello’s schools.” He goes on to ask, “Can we really believe that the barriers that now exist, that keep us from achieving the democratic ideals, the social justice, the economic progress that we hold out in our public discourse, will ever fall away without confronting more directly matters of race in the schools and in the society? How many more generations of silence can we endure?” (p. 48). He connects present and past to show that Covello “has provided a working model for those of us who still struggle with a vision of possibility, who understand that America needs the best our youth can provide, who continue to believe that our newest arrivals give promise for a better America” (p. 74).

    The second half of the book gives Covello’s perspective and story. We see his history as a young boy leaving Italy, his family’s struggle in the tenements of New York City, his early school experiences. Against the harsh odds of the day, Covello made his way to Columbia University and into the workplace, where he eventually became a teacher and, finally, a principal. Covello did not confine his community-building work to just the schools in East Harlem; he was also deeply involved in the activities of the community, helping to create spaces for children and adults to gather and work and play and learn together. He worked closely with immigrant students from all over the world and had a strong belief that students from any background can succeed and that the responsibility of schools is to make that success possible. He writes, “My many years at Franklin made me believe more firmly than ever in . . . the opportunity for boys to pursue their education far beyond the limitations sometimes imposed upon them because of the character of the neighborhood in which they happen to be born” (p. 138).

    Perrone and Covello offer stories of challenge and hope. Their joint accounts point toward the possibilities of more just and fair schools. More than the stories of two individuals, Teacher with a Heart is a book for anyone who cares deeply about schools and children and who believes that more work could be done in our schools to improve society in general. Covello closes his autobiography with his deepest discoveries of his forty-five years in the New York City schools. He writes, “The teacher is the heart of the educational process and he must be given the opportunity to teach — to devote himself whole-heartedly to his job under the best circumstances. Half a century as a teacher leads me to the conclusion that the battle for a better world will be won or lost in our schools” (p. 144). All who hold such ideas to be true — or who would like to believe in the possibility of greater promise for our schools and communities — would benefit from this book.

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    Book Notes

    Teacher with a Heart
    By Vito Perrone

    Political Correctness
    By Stanley Fish

    School Leadership
    By Kathleen Sernak

    The Students Are Watching
    By Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer

    Black Power/White Power in Public Education
    By Ralph Edwards and Charles V. Willie

    Learning in the Field
    By Gretchen B. Rossman and Sharon F. Rallis