Sometimes Superman- And Lois Lane- Live Next Door- What We Can Learn About Teaching from the Pruitts of E 168th Street
Dr Mark Naison, Fordham University
Today, I had a chance to spend time with two members of the most amazing family of educators I know, the Pruitt’s of East 168th Street in the Morrisania Section of the Bronx. The Pruitt family, who moved a small row house on 168th Street in the early 1940’s when the neighborhood was mostly Jewish, had five children all of whom became teachers- Harriet ( McFeeters) who worked more than 40 years in the Bronx as a teacher, principal and assistant district superindent James, who taught social studies in Bronx High Schools along with a stint running the Upward Bound Program at Fordham; Bess, who was a gym and dance instructor at Evander Childs High School and founded one of the first dance promotion companies run by a Black woman, and Henry and Janet, who were teachers and school administrators in Englewood and Newark, respectively.
At a time when improving our public schools, especially in poor and working class communities, has become a national obsession, it is astonishing to me that no one in the New York City Department of Education has sought to draw upon the experiences of this remarkable family for clues to how recruit and retain talented teachers Every one of these remarkable individuals spent their entire professional life as teachers and school administrators and achieved remarkable success in inspiring students who worked with them and teachers who worked under their leadership.
But the idea of recruiting lifetime educators seems to have low priority for those guiding America’s school systems. Teach For America, the largest and most prestigious alternate certification program in the nation, actually promotes teaching in poverty schools as a pathway for entering more prestigious careers ( TFA once put up a poster at Fordham explaining how joining TFA could improve one’s chances of getting into Stanford Business School!) and keeps only a fraction of its recruits in the classroom for more than five years. Under the Bloomberg/Klein regime in New York, the Department of Education has made a concerted effort to replace veteran teachers with newcomers from alternative certification programs, many of whom burn out and leave in two or three years. The idea of recruiting people who grew up in working class neighborhoods and giving them first class training so they can return as teachers to the neighborhoods they grew up doesn’t fit in the business models dominating educational policy, which look to maximum flexibility and mobility in the educational workforce
However, when it comes to teaching, flexibility and mobility may not be the traits we are looking for. The best teachers do more than impart skills and subject matter to their students; they build relationships that last a lifetime. I have seen this first hand with the two members of the Pruitt family I know best, Jim Pruitt and Harriet McFeeters.
You cannot go anywhere in the Bronx with these two individuals without running into someone who was one of their students, or their colleagues. Invariably, there are hugs, kisses and comments to me about how the person I was with either changed their life ( if they were a student) or helped them do their job better ( if they were a teacher or principal). But my evidence for this is not just based on individual encounters. I had the privilege of attending the retirement party for Jim Pruitt when he finally left teaching that was attended by more than two hundred people, most of whom were his former students from Morris and Kennedy High Schools. I also, almost every year, drop in on the Fordham Upward Bound Reunion, where more than 50 Black and Latino men who grew up in the Bronx reminisce about the experiences they had under Jim Pruitt’s mentorship.
There are a few things about the Pruitt family history that might provide clues to their success. They grew up in an African American family working class family where learning and public service were held up as ideals irrespective of the wealth one possessed. Each child attended New York City public schools and attended New York public universities. And two members of the family Bess and Harriet, lived in the family house in Morrisania during all the years they worked in the Bronx public schools, years that included an arson and abandonment cycle that decimated many portions of their neighborhood, a fiscal crisis took music, arts and after school programs out of the public schools, and a crack epidemic that destroyed many young people and their families. Through all this, Bess and Harriet remained in their neighborhood and remained in Bronx schools, guiding young people who others gave up on and mentoring new teachers who came in to work for them.
If you are looking for Superheroes, educators whose experience may hold the key to helping young people growing up in poverty embrace education, the best place to look may not be in the Charter Schools of Harlem, but in a little row house on East 168th Street between Prospect and Union Avenues in the Morrisania section of the Bronx.
I know that’s where I go when I’m looking for inspiration, along with a great public school in the Bronx, PS 140, headed by a remarkable principal, Paul Cannon, who grew up only two blocks away from the Pruitts.
Maybe someday, when the people running our schools stop looking to Wall Street or Hearst Publications for guidance, they will turn to the people who have a proven track record for educating inner city youth, and who did it- and are doing it- in the neighborhoods they grew up in.
Mark Naison, December 22 2010