Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Portrait of a Principal

When I entered Edward R. Murrow High School after 22 years of teaching English and journalism at another Brooklyn high school, I entered a different world. No bells rang to begin and end periods. No hallway passes required; to go to the bathroom during class, students simply left the classroom without asking permission. In the hallways no adult ever asked, "Where do you belong?"

Where was I? In college?

First-time visitors to Murrow were taken aback to see students congregating in corridors throughout the school day, sitting with their backs against a hallway wall or cozily ensconced in a niche between two rooms. They were viewing a Murrow tradition built into every student's program, the free period called an OPTA, for optional time activity. Students had two OPTA's programmed into their day, during which they could use the library, rehearse, assist in a lab or school office, give or receive tutoring or have lunch in the school cafeteria. Or hang out in the halls.

The class schedule was different every day. Classes met four times a week, two of them for 45 minutes and two for an hour. Murrow's September to June school year was divided into four cycles, each one about nine weeks long, allowing for classes like "Shakespeare – The Tragic Vision," "American Diplomatic History," "Psychology of the Criminal Mind," and "Plant Parenthood," a botany class held in Murrow's greenhouse. Electives, and seemingly novelties, they added up in the aggregate to four years of the same solid subject content as students received elsewhere in semester-long classes with drab titles like "English 6."

All of this — the absence of bells, bathroom passes and most regimentation, the college-like atmosphere, the subject titles — and the effect it would have on students' lives, now and long after high school, existed because Saul Bruckner, Murrow's principal, believed in the dignity of young people and the need to treat them with respect, understanding and compassion. Bruckner, who opened the school in 1974 and presided over it until he retired in 2004, died last May at the age of 76.

"In most schools," Bruckner said in a New York Times interview in 2001, "there is an emphasis on order. Here the emphasis is on freedom."

"He understood what it was like to be a teenager," wrote former Murrow art department chair, Laurel Danowitz Gerges, in a Web site tribute after his death.

Although attendance was strictly taken in home rooms and subject classes, and students called to the deans' offices for cutting, the siren call of Murrow's hall life was too strong for some, leading to failed classes, and, sometimes a transfer to another school. Bruckner always maintained, though, that Murrow's cutting rate was no higher than other schools'.

Bruckner was familiar with every student's face and knew hundreds of kids by name. He greeted them and their teachers at the school's front door each morning — after teaching a junior year American History class at 7:30 a.m. — and for a large part of the day walked its hallways, stopping to ask whether a difficult class was getting easier, how an ill parent was feeling, or how a sibling was doing in college.

He bantered with them, too. Encountering one of the school's top students, who was sitting cross-legged against a wall, gabbing with friends, I heard him say one day, in a subdued tone and with a straight face, "Mr. Cooper, I see you're preparing for your final exams."

"I'm trying," the student said, "but it's hard to concentrate amid this chaos." Bruckner smiled wryly and moved on.

"The more he joked with you, the more you knew he liked you," Danowitz Gerges wrote in her tribute.

He joshed with students, but he was always aware that within Murrow's relaxed space were many who were, in his words, "pressured, worried and anything but relaxed," competing for high grades to get into competitive colleges, holding after-school jobs, preparing for auditions, meeting publications deadlines. And coming to school each day leaving behind who knows what difficulties at home.

Sheila Hanley, a former Murrow colleague of mine whom I asked to contribute to this article, and now a high school principal herself, said, "Bruckner believed we were all there to assist our 'youngsters,' to develop their minds, personalities and self-esteem. He would kneel in Murrow's halls to talk to individual students about their class or answer a question. Once I heard a staff member berating a young male student, unaware that Mr. Bruckner heard the tongue lashing and was not happy about it. It never happened again. He expected all members of the school community to respect students and each other, even when our buttons were pushed to the limit."

Bruckner's respect for teenagers was exemplified in a memo we found in our mailboxes one January morning. A student walkout had been planned to protest city budget cuts that might mean a loss of Murrow teachers. Advising the faculty to maintain normal school routines in the event the walkout occurred, Bruckner wrote: "In times such as these our students need adults who can understand their concerns and help them deal with those concerns. We are those adults and it is our responsibility to listen to and speak to our students in a compassionate and fair-minded manner."

Bruckner's walks around the school included quick classroom visits. Suddenly, there he'd be at your open door, leaning against the doorjamb with folded arms, casually observing your lesson. Although not formal observations, his little drop-ins made new teachers and teachers new to the school tremble with self-doubt. It wasn't just that he was the principal, it was his reputation as a master teacher who saw every nuance of a lesson and, therefore, every flaw, every improvable piece. You tried not to be rattled as he stood there, but wondered as you taught: "What am I doing wrong?" "What's he seeing?" "What's he going to say later?" Often he said nothing later except thank you for the visit. When he did have something to point out it took the form of a helpful hallway chat.

Bruckner's ideal way of teaching was the "developmental" lesson, which took students from a "motivational" question that aroused their interest, through a series of "pivotal" questions that made them think and respond, to the teacher's final objective.

"As a young teacher," I aspired to teach a lesson 'Bruckner-style,' where the students were the stars and I was there in a supporting role," said Georgia Scurletis, who began teaching at Murrow in her early twenties and is currently the director of curriculum development for the Visual Thesaurus. "He always expected a well thought-out lesson, but his idea of a 'lesson' was one in which you provided the prompts and guidance, but the students generated the 'Aha!' moments of discovery. He loved nothing more than to enter a classroom and see the students taking charge of their learning."

If your lesson or style was untraditional, that was all right, too, as long as it made students think. When Bruckner dropped into Katherine Schulten's English class in the mid-1980s it was engaged in process writing, students discussing each other's first drafts in small groups and Schulten conferencing with individuals quietly at her desk. "It was a new idea for Murrow," she said, and something no other English teacher was doing at the time.

Afterwards, said Schulten, currently the senior producer of The New York Times Learning Network, "Mr. Bruckner grilled me on what I was doing and why, playing devil's advocate throughout our post-observation conference. I could tell, though, that my arguments interested him. It was a typical interaction with Bruckner: He'd challenge you on something, but if he thought what you were doing served kids well, he'd completely support it thereafter — even if it was not something he would ever do in a classroom himself. It was that kind of intelligence, open-mindedness, and trust in his teachers that made working for him so wonderful. You wanted him to approve of you, and you were aware he set a high bar for that, but you were also aware that he was fundamentally in your corner and would let you experiment."

Social studies teacher Sheila Hanley was far from a novice at Murrow when she struggled to create a lesson on the recent collapse of the Soviet Union. She had hoped it would "provide insight, stimulate debate and draw amazing predictions from students concerning the future of the former USSR," she told me recently. She also hoped that Bruckner wouldn't show up that day because she knew she lacked a "clear focus to the lesson."

But show up he did, and for a full-period observation.

"Never have I been so nervous and unsure of myself as I was at that moment," Hanley said. "I provided a stellar motivation that fell flat and didn't produce a focus to the lesson, then threw anything on the board as an aim, and robotically went through the lesson."

She knew her lesson was a bomb, and when Bruckner approached her as her class was leaving she was ready to accept her first "U rated" observation.

"Well, Mrs. Hanley," she remembers him asking, with genuine inquiry and without admonishment, "what do you think about your lesson?"

It was horrible, she told him, "because I didn't have a focus."

Bruckner smiled and asked her to follow him. Fearing the worst, she was led not to his office but to the library, where, she said, "he walked me through New York Times headlines concerning the Soviet Union and Gorbachev" and challenged her concept of the lesson, stimulating her to consider a different perspective. "It would have been easy for him to destroy my self-confidence," she said, "but instead he taught me that failure was O.K. as long as we learned from that failure." It's a lesson, she says, that she has passed on many times herself, as teacher, chairperson and principal.

Bruckner lacked expertise in only one area of teaching, said Anna K. Marcus, a special education teacher at Murrow from 1986 through 2009. "While he was a master of the teaching methods and content of every subject class," she said, "he was always a learner in special education. He'd ask a question, then listen, then ask another question as he thought about what you had said."

And he had many questions, for 10 percent of Murrow's kids were special ed students, the largest percentage of any New York public high school. Most of them were mainstreamed, and in my English classes I had deaf, blind and wheelchair-bound students, usually accompanied by an assistant but sometimes not, like Angel Rodriguez, who was blind and came to class unaccompanied, no dog, no cane.

The mixing of special ed and regular students at Murrow reached a high point when the theater department produced Children of a Lesser God, with deaf students playing the deaf characters, and hearing students required to learn American sign language to be in the play.

What other schools spent on athletics, Murrow, which had no sports teams, spent on its TV production department and its theater program, the latter its shining light, with eight theater classes and three major plays each year; dramas and musicals as close to professional as I've ever seen in a high school. Bruckner attended all of them — not just one of each production but every performance of every production.

Robert Ellman, who directed many of the shows, said Bruckner considered them vital to the education of their hundreds of performers, designers, backstage crew and musicians, and was thrilled, not just with their quality, but with the huge size of their casts and the many freshmen and sophomores cast in them. As a result, though Bruckner had to beg, borrow and steal the funds necessary to put on high quality shows, Ellman said, he gave him most of the things he asked for because "it would benefit the students."

Like the good parent, the good teacher, the good boss anywhere, Bruckner did what good principals do everywhere — help young people, and their teachers, become the best they can be.

Note: For those of you unfamiliar with New York City's thoroughfares, there is an actual Bruckner Expressway. The sign behind Saul Bruckner is a replica of the real thing and I am proud to say that I gave it to him as a gift some years before he retired, suggesting it be placed in the Murrow corridor that leads to his office. It's still there.

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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 14th 2010, 2:46 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
Murrow High School, a rehearsal hall.
Bruckner-- a class act!
Thursday October 14th 2010, 7:26 AM
Comment by: Ruth W. (Reservoir Australia)
I really enjoyed this article, I had not heard of Murrow High or Saul Bruckner before. I love learning about people like Bruckner who are so dedicated to their students. He was clearly an inspiring and inspired individual. Just an aside, I tried to post my vote as 5 stars however I wasn't sure where to press (using an iPad) and I ended up registering 2 stars. I hope you can alter this to reflect my true appreciation of the article.
Thursday October 14th 2010, 7:53 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
Isn't every school a sort of rehearsal hall? Gives pause, therefore. Bob Greenman's celebration of Saul Bruckner's life and work was a joy to read, the sort of praise educators dream of hearing. It reminds us that "education" should not be an abstract noun or a meaningless exercise (English 6), but defined by real human beings passing along real ideas to real human beings. And LISTENING. Thank you.
Saturday October 16th 2010, 9:05 AM
Comment by: Katherine F. (Dallas, TX)
My heart goes out to kids and teachers everyday. Our most precious commodities need OUR attention & support. The kind of support this amazing man seems to have given in his life to ensure each teacher and child had. Imagine if every school was like this (or even better, individually a home for the quest of learning). Imagine if our focus allowed this kind of critical thought process, responsibility, and decision making in every public school. What an amazing Achievement and Legacy for Bruckner, and what a great example of how one person can truly Change the world.

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