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Learning to Love Learning—Part 2


Way back in June of last year, we at LOKL published Part One of this interview with Lisa Fischman, Principal of the Hillcrest School, and Dr. Anne Mucci, Superintendent of Schools in the Morris School District. That article, which you can read HERE, is in Q&A form; this one continues the discussion as narrative creative nonfiction. Enjoy!



A Challenge for the Teacher


A life without adversity has its appeal. But any story worth reading finds its thread in the challenges, the unexpected, and perhaps even the occasional moment of doubt.


In talking to Lisa Fischman, principal of the Hillcrest School, and Dr. Anne Mucci, superintendent of schools in Morris School District, I discovered some of the specific challenges that accompany the admirable but unenviable drive to become a teacher.


Lisa’s mother, Judy, was a teacher in Newark, but she never wanted to stand in her shadow. Judy worked mainly in the North Ward, so Lisa intentionally aimed for jobs in the South Ward. 

Lisa Fischman, Principal at Morris School District

This placed her square in the middle of the inner city. “I had to make sure I approached where I was appropriately, recognizing that I was this tall, white, Jewish woman in a predominantly African-American community, and it takes a lot of time for people to trust you.”


Many classrooms lacked basic resources, so Lisa found herself paying out-of-pocket for many items like books, writing utensils, and a place for students to hang their jackets in winter.


“I wanted my students to have the same level of access as any other student in New Jersey.” This went a long way in building that trust, she explains, but Lisa still experienced the frustration of not being able to move fast enough.


“On the first day of school, you remind yourself that you’re only one person; you can’t do everything at once. You learn to avoid comparing yourself to other teachers and focus on making sure the students are safe, and then start to build your craft in little chunks.”


These chunks included the routines and procedures of day-to-day school life. As adults, we might roll our eyes when we think back to things like morning greetings or fire drills. But Lisa recognized that establishing these rituals actually demonstrated to her students that she wasn’t going to be like so many other adults in these students’ lives.


“You’re building relationships with them; you have to think about the starting line and taking little steps,” she explains, and this is actually how a teacher can position themselves as a mentor, as someone who cares, so they should care. “And they often did.”


I can hear the smile in her voice.


“But it takes a long time to get there.”


My other interviewee, Dr. Anne Mucci, was the first female superintendent of Morris District in its long history. I asked Dr. Mucci to describe her main challenge.


Dr. Anne Mucci, Superintendent of Morris School District

Although up to 77% of teachers are female according to the Department of Education, when it came to becoming superintendent of an entire school district, “[the main challenge] was definitely being a woman. There was a tremendous feeling that women can’t run high schools, that you need, you know, a man to do it.”


Even high school principalships were rare for women at the time. “When I was a high school principal, it was just me and the nun from Villa Walsh who were female high school principals. In the entire district!”


Even when women achieved positions of administrative prominence, they were often still relegated to “the nurturing end, in the Pre-K to 5th-grade setting.” Positions for women were still defined by the perceived limitations of women as a gender. 


“I saw stereotypes about how women handle crises or understanding business and numbers. I’ve been talked down to a lot at conferences, especially if something deals with facilities management.”


In the face of disparagement and discrimination, one’s grip on a dream often loosens, only to be released into the stream of the past. But Dr. Mucci sought a different way forward. 


“I just really leaned into it. For example, I was like, well, if they think I can’t [understand facilities management], I’ll show them! And I learned more about unit ventilators, roofing, asphalt, and curbs than anybody else. I just became an expert.”


Ingrid Harpaul, Teacher

And then, when someone talked down to her, she shut them up good.


Not only that, but “I ended up finding out that I also really enjoy it.”


This enjoyment aspect seems to be pretty important, not only to turning a good educator into a great one, but also to longevity within the profession. “Learning to love learning” is the paradigm, coined by Lisa earlier in the interview. Both Dr. Mucci and Lisa enjoyed “playing teacher” as children, instructing a class of stuffed animals (or semi-willing cousins, as the case may be) about the times-tables, reading, or the geography of China.


And they ended up becoming lifelong educators. 


I wanted to know what else makes a good teacher. I asked Lisa first; I could tell she had something to say.


“A good human. That’s always my instinct in response to that question.” So many philosophical inquiries popped into my head like bubbles in a fountain, but I held off so she could elaborate. Some rather hard truth followed.


The thing is, “you can help someone become a better teacher and get better at their craft but you can’t teach them how to care, how to work hard, how to develop relationships, not just with the children but also stakeholders, their colleagues, the parents, you can’t teach people how to do those things.”


You can’t teach people to care, I thought to myself. How sad it seems, and yet it needn’t be if the people who do care are the ones at the front of the classroom. I’d ask about this in a moment; for now, I wanted to hear what Dr. Mucci had to say. Playing devil’s advocate, I said, “but as long as a teacher can convey the content, they can be effective, is that wrong?”


Anne was decisive. “The content is secondary in many ways. I don’t mean to sound hokey, but it’s more about someone who is willing to notice that, really, all children are gifted.”


As a parent, Dr. Mucci found that her own children preferred the teachers who had conversations with them about who they were and what they wanted to do. No matter how many AP courses her kids took and aced, or how many spelling tests they got 100 on, the relationship-builders were the teachers they remembered.


Maria Feeney, Teacher

Part of what spurred this interview was Teacher Appreciation Week, held the second week of May. As Dr. Mucci points out earlier, these are hard times to be a teacher, whether due to cultural, financial, or political factors. It is almost as if the importance of teachers is understood intellectually, but not quite believed, perhaps because the reality of teaching is not openly talked about.


“When you talk about teachers,” Lisa began, “what comes to mind is that teaching and education creates all other professions.” My eyes were wide.


“It starts at a very young age, just like with Dr Mucci and I. I don’t think people truly understand the impact and responsibility that teachers have. [Teachers are also] nurses, sometimes they’re moms, psychologists, all in the span of an hour or two a day with each child?” She says it incredulously, as a question, as though it’s impossible to grasp a priori. And yet it must be.


“They are really molding our future. Their work everyday impacts our society and what we do and who we develop in our schools. Unless you’ve worked in education, I definitely don’t think you can really understand what a teacher does.”


Dr. Mucci brings it into even greater clarity. When it comes to the importance of teachers, “I always think about the pandemic and the breakdown and all these safety procedures. If the teachers weren’t there, there wouldn’t be anywhere near enough principals and superintendents and boardmembers or parents to open a school,” or to mastermind masking procedures or social distancing rules. “The teacher is the most powerful resource in the classroom and the most important resource in the district.”


A little voice in my head says, “push back.” A lot of educators I have spoken to feel that many administrators don’t remember what it was like to be teachers. But Dr. Mucci preempts my concern. I’m glad I didn’t embarrass myself.



Even though Dr. Mucci has worked on the administrative side much longer than she was a teacher, she always receives some form of educational coaching to maintain a teacherly mindset. This remains especially important to her now, as “it’s a more challenging job than it’s ever been.’


“The number of platforms [teachers] have to know, the number of decisions...I don’t know any other career where in the span of your day, you’ve got to make 10,000 different decisions using your talent and intuition with all of these watchful eyes, and someone looks at one minute of one second of one decision without any background and says ‘why did you use this turn of phrase?’” 


In an echo of Lisa’s point about only being able to grasp the teacher’s mandate through experience, Dr. Mucci adds, “I don't think people fully appreciate the true scrutiny that teachers are under on a daily basis and how gracefully they handle it.”


Perhaps being willing to subject oneself to this scrutiny does require some deep intrinsic drive to stand in front of young minds—some eager, some aloof, and some, even, recalcitrant—and try to teach a love of learning. Why else would someone choose to be a teacher?


The question becomes, how do we get these people in the classroom, for whom teaching is, unquestionably, a calling?


Dorelly Lozaw, Teacher

“Finding the people that are already here and building them up to that role as teachers is a really good first step,” Lisa offers, “and then looking at how you can support them and remove any barriers to help them be successful.” 


Mentorship is essential, and Morris School District partners with a lot of local colleges and universities to give prospective new teachers the tools they need to succeed. In these situations, Lisa asks herself, “How can I help them? How can I give back? I was very blessed with great mentors so I’m huge on paying it forward.”


In addition, “it’s about removing barriers, and I think we could all do a lot better,” Dr. Mucci says soberingly. “The place we're losing [teachers] is grades 5 through 8.” Why is that? Turns out those are the grades teachers end up teaching when they are newest to the profession. 


So a lot of lost teachers...are new teachers.


The pandemic changed the paradigm of the workplace, but it was already in motion, and not just for teachers but across the board.


“A new teacher might ask themselves, ‘can I see myself doing this for twenty more years?’ And the answer is no.”


But she shows no hint of melancholy. “There was this traditional path to being a teacher, like back when I was pretending with stuffed animals at a chalkboard. That’s maybe not what a good teacher looks like anymore. We have to welcome different people and broaden our perspective. We live in a time when the job market is much more flexible. People are doing different things and changing jobs more readily than their parents or grandparents did.”


“Like maybe teaching is my vocation for now, but not for 25 years.”



So it’s almost as if this pressure, this expectation, makes it harder to retain talent—even those with “the calling,” and perhaps especially them—in the current “flexible” landscape. 


“I don’t think our paths can be traditional,” Dr. Mucci continues. “We have to be more flexible about what school looks like for these students and what teaching and what a good teacher looks like.”


In short, if we want good teachers, we have to reconceptualize what a “good teacher” is. After all, where in the workplace is anyone working the same job for twenty-to-thirty years anymore?



But Dr. Mucci clarifies: “some of the people who leave [teaching] are not dissatisfied. It’s more like ‘okay, I did this, I enjoyed it, and now I want to try something else.’ Especially during the pandemic. We had so much time to be alone, to be with family. You worked your eight or nine or ten hours per day, but then you're spending all this other time thinking about: what is my life going to be?’” 


Most of us can relate. Even if you didn’t have a lot of downtime, the downtime you did have hit differently.


“I think one of the great things that came out of the pandemic was that it caused people to really be reflective about what brings them happiness and joy. And these people could be great teachers. She pauses for a moment and then states her conclusion with just a twinge of heartache.


“...But we lost a lot of teachers after that, because they discovered other passions.”


I’m not even sure if this answered my original question, but it was so interesting, I was a little bowled over. It was also a little sad, almost, yet if these educators found happiness elsewhere, who are we to judge?


David Mawyin, Teacher

But how to move forward? How to put out the call? How to get the best out of teachers and students right now, when it counts, when they’re right here in front of us?


I know my next question is a bit abstract, but Socrates believed that knowledge starts with the abstract and moves towards the specific. Maybe he was on to something. Let’s see.


“What’s one thing that teachers or educators in general need more of to do their jobs?”


Lisa jumps in: “A couple words that come to mind are respect! Support! Monetary support!” 


The laughter is there because the answers are so self-evident, yet still bear repeating. “There’s this stigma around teachers, that they have summers off and they only work a certain amount of hours in a day, but the reality is that they’re working sometimes twenty-four hours, even if it's not the physical, but like the mental thought about the kids in the classrooms or worrying about kids or thinking about a lesson, or just the reflection process.”


I can attest, secondhand. A teacher in Queens I recently spoke to described how she occasionally has nightmares about her students not succeeding in life, amid the smartphones and the TikToks and the vape pens. Yup. Nightmares. Does your job give you nightmares?



Lisa continues: “I’d say respect for the profession” is absolutely essential. “Respect from all the stakeholders, the naysayers, the people who don't believe in the importance of the profession...”


Her voice rises with the severity of her statements. For the umpteenth time, I make sure the recorder is recording.


“You know, in some other countries there’s a lot more respect and admiration for educators, like they recognize the impact, monetarily. We’re very lucky in our district, our teachers are very lucky, they have a very supportive union, but I think there are some places in the United States where teachers are not really paid as much as they should be.”


There it is; there, perhaps, is the problem. Or at least, a problem.


Dr. Mucci agrees, emphasizing the importance of teachers having a voice in their own workplace. “The number-one reason people leave jobs is...that they don’t feel appreciated, they haven’t been consulted, they're not part of a process. One thing we’re committed to in the district is that all stakeholders have a voice, because they're enacting the curriculum every day.” 



So appreciation, as in Teacher Appreciation Week, is important, but it must have a material dimension. That’s how you attract, and recognize, and keep, the teachers with a calling.


As I close out the interview, I ask a question that could receive its own article: “thoughts on A.I.?”


“Just as we're closing,” Dr. Mucci humors me, “I’ll say this: if you’re a teacher assigning homework and A.I. can do your homework and answer your questions, then you’re asking the wrong questions.”


Lisa?


“Completely agree.”


With my mind thoroughly blown, I think to myself: if the ideas of these educators and others like them were to persist and grow, even amid the advent of short attention spans and shorter work contracts, perhaps there is still hope for a world where the love of learning is as second-nature as the love of a parent, because learning is just as vital to the child’s well-being, and to humanity’s.


Story: Mark Ludas @aulos.media

Photos: Peter Stog for LOKL cafe peterstog.com

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