Headmaster’s Thoughts – August 2005

All educators should raise a cheer for J. K. Rowling. Thanks to her “Harry Potter” series, teaching is becoming sexy again. We’ve been the underdog profession for so many years that it certainly is nice to get some positive public relations. And in the world of Harry Potter, teachers are as important as they should be. Ms. Rowling, bless her heart, writes about the enormous impact teachers have on their students. She may even go somewhat overboard on the subject because, in her wizard universe, the teachers at Hogwarts affect the future of the world. We’ll take it! Let her go overboard!

I wonder how teaching lost so much respect as a profession in the 30 years or so before the blessed Ms. Rowling came along. Jayme and I started York Prep in 1969, a year far more propitious for starting a private school in Manhattan than we realized. This was because, the year before, Albert Shanker had walked the New York City public school teachers out on strike. I suspect that the strike was the beginning (in New York) of the loss of awe by students for their teachers.

Arriving in New York from London where we had lived during the strike, we had no idea of the impact of that strike until we received as many applications as we did for our new school. In hindsight, it may explain why we started a brand new school with 131 students. At the time, we were naïve enough to think it had something to do with us. We were wrong; the public schools had changed—and for the worse.

After the teachers strike, not only did public schools decline but teaching in them became less pleasant. Students returned to the system with a whole different attitude towards their teachers. Whereas before they were trusted friends and mentors, now they were regarded with more suspicion. After all, a friend doesn’t go on strike and risk the education of students they are mentoring. This attitude enabled students to experiment with more disruptive behavior. Simultaneously, the stronger and older teachers left the system. The result was that the school atmosphere sadly deteriorated.

These last thirty years have been a time of growth for private schools, yet their faculties were still affected by the change in the public perception of teachers. As other career opportunities have grown in prestige and financial reward, teaching in private schools is sometimes seen as a quaint and old fashioned profession, certainly more respected as a way of life than teaching in the hurly burly of the public school system, but not one deserving of awe. So welcome Ms. Rowling! Welcome to a world, albeit fictional, where teachers are seen as larger than life characters that stride through the halls of Hogwarts with the authority of effortless leadership.

Admittedly, one series of books is not going to undo thirty years of decline. And the recent increased difficulty of getting into private schools has helped improve the way our faculties are seen. But it is nice, every once in a while, to get such readable public relations as the Harry Potter books and to get a peek into a world in which teachers can indeed save their students from the eternal clutches of pure evil.

Compared with the Harry Potter series, York Prep’s goal of having a meaningful and lasting positive effect on our students seems almost modest. So let us again praise Ms. Rowling and hope that our students read her books.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org