I recently had a visit by a beloved teacher. Below is a thank you note to a friend who brought us together:


Thank you so much for reconnecting me with Chris Douglass. He came over yesterday for brunch and we spent a few hours catching up. They were a magical few hours that I will never forget. I woke up today with one thought: how lucky I was to have had such a brilliant man teaching me English. Blest. All of his students were. The reason we were blest? Chris was a happy teacher. Not only did he love what he was doing; the school encouraged him to do what he loved to do. I will extrapolate and say that that was why many of my teachers in Scarsdale were happy. They were encouraged to pursue their calling. How did Chris get to this nurturing place?  Well, growing up in Tudor City, he probably had some pretty great teachers himself.  Having a family that set him up in a captain’s cottage on Steamboat Road probably helped a little too.  And then there was Camelot: the Peace Corp, which attracted and molded young men like him. But finally, it was the nurturing chemistry at Scarsdale High School that not only attracted him to work there in the first place, but kept him there for nearly forty years. How did it (they) encourage him? By letting him teach a class where his students read pulp fiction and Tennessee Williams side by side to see what makes art art and junk junk.  By allowing him to follow his interests, teach at Palo Alto for a year in a teacher exchange program, and later, when he became department chair, by supporting him so he could do what was right: requiring all teachers, not just the youngest, least experienced ones, to teach the special education students. Imagine: at an affluent school like Scarsdale High, kids who must have felt like lepers, led to believe that they were unable to compete with their Ivy League-bound peers, for them to suddenly have such a teacher in their midst. A Harvard man whose brilliance and passion electrified the classroom. The cool teacher whose office door was always open to anyone who wanted to shoot the breeze. A man who empathized with their struggles but never expected less of them because they were disabled.  He was disabled himself. He taught himself how to read by memorizing words, closing his eyes and picturing them in his mind, building bridges over his disability, detours around it, rewiring his own brain. He could do all of this because he was encouraged to nurture his own genius for teaching, for transforming himself as well as those of us who were lucky enough to be his students.  The lesson of all of this: not only do you get what you pay for (Scarsdale teachers can make more than 100K a year, on top of excellent benefits); you get what you make. If you make your school a place that welcomes brilliance and creativity, brilliance and creativity will come.  If you make it into a prison, criminals will come, like the teacher out here in Los Angeles at Miramonte Elementary, who did such horrendous things to his students. Of course, he was an extreme; most teachers teach because they are devoted to children, some of them, like the ones at the inner city school I teach at, struggle against enormous odds (drill and kill, standardized tests, the poverty that grips their students) to give their kids hope.  No, teachers like that guy at Miramonte are exceptions.  But so are teachers like Chris Douglass, an inspiration that Scarsdale High School attracted, nurtured and retained.  How lucky for students like you and I to have walked into his classroom. May my elementary students walk into one like it someday soon.

 For this and all other instances of your kindness, I shall always be indebted to you.

 My Very Best…



3 Responses to Why All Teachers Should be Treated Like They Teach at Scarsdale High

  1. fran says:

    Chris Douglass changed my life as well. That class with pulp fiction and Tennessee Williams! i must have been in it with you. I was not the most engaged student and Mr. Douglass took a great deal of time with me – teaching me thru my paper on Williams, how to write, step by step. I ended up being a lit major in college and I continue to use all of the techniques he taught me.

    LIving in that same town and raising 3 children, I know there are still extraordinary examples of how a teacher can change a child/young adults life. and yet there are greater pressures now. Everything about school is much more intense than during the times in which you could have World Civ and learn about meditation and Batik. The push to succeed and by that mean get into a specific college shapes the curriculum. This is not just this town but its the other side of schools that can afford to pay what teachers are worth.

    We were lucky to grow up in a time that greater freedom to create curriculum was supported by a culture that mirrored that value.

    I loved reading your blog, it brought back wonderful memories of that class-

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and life on the internet.


  2. Fran, Thank you so much for the unique perspective you bring to this discussion. The pressures your kids face must be staggering. I have to hope, though, that a return to creative curriculum is possible. I also think that the pressure our children are under need not be so great, that with greater economic equality so will someday come a time when there will be greater opportunity and variety in the types of schools our kids attend. Why is there so much pressure? I think it is because the super-rich have denied America the middle ground where, in the past, students (including yours truly; yes, I am an Ivy League reject) have found a place to learn and prepare for life. Once the middle is restored there will be more breathing room for everyone. As my Occupy friends like to say, “We are unstoppable. Another world is possible.”
    Thank you again for your visit. Please chime in at PEEPS United. We need insightful voices like yours.

  3. David says:

    I had the pleasure of working with Chris for 16 years. We shared office space. I taught social studies where i shared an office with an english teacher, and he shared the rest of the suite with our SS chair. He was special, as a teacher, as a department chair, and as a contract negotiator. I mention that because Scarsdale HS can be a model in so many ways for what good teaching in the USA can be. Naysayers will say, well it’s Scarsdale…they can afford good teachers.

    Yes they can, but it is far more than salary scale that brings teachers there. In fact, any district with the brains and soul to do the right thing can. More than anything, what draws teachers to that district is how they are treated as professionals, working collaboratively, autonomously, creatively, with more time to meet with students, plan, and work more professionally than any other district in the USA….and, just like Finnish schools.

    Chris, and the union leaders before him, understood how to work together with a board who represented a population that wanted teachers respected and to be able to work as professionals. Together they created that time, a mentoring program, more creative approaches to staff development, an inspired Teacher Institute that brought in gifted and noted researchers for our benefit, and an evaluative system that was non adversarial.

    In fact, when you read Finnish Lessons, by Pasi Sahlberg, explaining why Finland’s school system ranks at the top, it is because they believe and do just as Scarsdale does. They attract teachers like Chris Douglass by the thousands.

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