Career development and lasting relationships
I met Dr. Rohde at a seminar my wife, Barb, attended and I tagged along. As assistant superintendent of the sponsoring school district, Dr. Rohde introduced the speakers, left the podium, and approached me standing in the lobby.
“Not interested in accounting?”
“Not much beyond balancing our checkbook, and my wife doesn’t even trust me with that.” Why are you here? penetrated the ether between us. “My wife had a class at the University of Wisconsin with the head of your business department.”
“Harold Bisel.” He nodded. “Damn good teacher.”
“Actually, Barb and I are both just wrapping up our Masters of Art programs along with Harold.”
“In business and…?”
After an embarrassing blank stare, I responded, “I teach high school English in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.” A not-so-subtle hint, “We’re considering a move back to Minnesota.”
“An English teacher. Don’t have any openings in the business department for Barb, but why don’t you give Larry Cozad a call? He’s looking for a couple of English teachers in his building.”
I joined Barb at the social gathering following the business sessions, and approached Harold about my informal discussion with his boss.
His response, “Facilitator. There are no bosses at our school. Fred doesn’t bother teachers if they do their jobs.” He faced Barb. “I wish we had an opening in my department. No policy against husband and wife working in the same building.”
“Hold on. Dr. Rohde didn’t offer me a contract.”
“If Fred likes you…. Sparks fly if he doesn’t.”
Larry Cozad’s secretary interrupted his meeting to announce my arrival. He stepped out of the room to shake my hand. “My schedule kind of got tangled, but I believe we settled quite a bit over the phone last week. I Fred is available.”
He cued his secretary with a nod, and she gave my shoulder a gentle nudge. “This way.” Half way around a ring of office doors, the inner core of the administrative circle, she peered into a room and announced, “Mr. Storkamp is here to see you.”
With his back to a cluttered desk, Fred faced a table spread with papers and half a dozen sharpened pencils, his trademark posture. He pointed the stem of his unlit pipe at a chair where I assumed he wanted me to sit. “I’m glad you decided to join us.”
Astounded, I probably mumbled some favorable observations about the school and the two teachers I had known through Barb’s class.
“We’ve got a regular English position available.” He leaned forward. “Not much chance to distinguish yourself. But, the other one…”
Dumbfounded, I responded to his implied suggestion. “Larry told me a bit about the school-within-a-school concept.”
“Look.” He brushed his arm across the table, papers fluttering. “Mod scheduling needs some tweaking if it’s to survive.” He realigned the strewn papers and stared at them. “About two hundred kids got lost in the shuffle last year. They never attended any of their classes, and we can’t let them wreck it for the other two thousand. That assignment would put you at the cutting edge of one of the premier movements in education today.”
In one fell swoop I’d been hired, offered a choice of two teaching positions, and had one taken away.
From the desktop behind him, he grabbed a salary schedule and laid it in front of me. “How many years of experience do you have?”
“Four—three in Wisconsin and one at the St Cloud State Reformatory.”
He perked up. “Why’d you quit the reformatory job?”
“To get my master’s degree in Wisconsin.” I didn’t mention being turned down at St. Cloud State University because of my grades.
He nodded and put an ‘x’ on Master’s step plus four years experience. “Any credits beyond your degree?”
“Twelve quarter credits.”
He checked the plus fifteen credit category and glanced at his watch. “Come with me.”
From the administrative circle we proceeded to the academic wing, a much larger circle of classrooms, and entered the media area—library—at its center. He located a projector and packet of film strips. “View these and take the self correcting test. It’s worth three graduate credits.”
He jotted an address on a scrap of paper. “Stop at my house when you’re done, and I’ll sign that you’ve completed the course. Before you leave, check with my secretary to see what documents she needs to prepare a contract for the board to approve.”
Larry Cozad, principal, appointed me leader of our team of four teachers and two interns, but Fred remained my mentor and, as it turned out, my protector. A month or two into the school year, half a dozen teachers requested a meeting with him to vent their frustrations with my program. Fred had me sit in. Obviously caught off guard by my presence, they hesitated.
Fred began, “Roger’s sitting right here. Tell him your concerns.”
Ed, an English teacher who’d rather teach Latin, said, “Your team is doing a good job under the circumstances.”
Fred said, “I agree, but I don’t think that’s what’s bugging you.”
Bill, the phys-ed teacher from whom I felt some empathy, faced me and said, “It’s not fair to the rest of the kids,” leaving the details unstated.
A woman from the science department said, “They’re out of control.”
Fred smirked. “I assume you mean the kids, not the teachers.”
“Well the teachers don’t control them,” a voice from the history department.
The pencil in Fred’s grip snapped in half, and he grabbed another from the array lined up like ammunition.
Ed said, “By coddling those kids we’re depriving them of the chance to experience failure.” He had twisted the prevailing argument in the educational theory of the sixties. Students need to experience failure, but not to the cost of their future.
Fred slammed a second broken pencil on the table. “You guys failed these kids! Roger and his team won’t.” He walked out.
Overwhelmed by embarrassed apologies and clarifications, I chose a conciliatory approach that became my trademark style throughout my career. Soon after Fred called me to his office, but neither of us mentioned our recent encounter with disgruntled staff members. Instead, he handed me a brochure from Nova University in Florida offering a two week seminar on educational games. I admitted it would be more useful than the program on mass media at Fordham University I had requested.
He said, “Since it’ll be summer and we won’t need to hire substitute teachers, the district will cover travel costs and pay for both seminars.”
“Barb and I like to travel light.” He knew Barb from socials his wife, Lois, sponsored at their house for female spouses. “We’ll camp along the way.”
He chuckled, “In New York? I better add a couple hundred dollars for cost of living.”
After three years leading the Core program (an unfortunate title inviting such slams as rotten to the core) I advanced to a leadership role in the new high school as one of four area coordinators replacing multiple department heads. My area, General Ed, adopted the Core program’s open concept with curriculum adapted to mainstream students.
I suspect Fred had a hand in my promotion, but he maintained a low profile delegating Larry Cozad with authority to staff and create curriculum at the new Mariner High School. However, on two occasions Fred helped build my resume. He approved funding for my qualifying to teach Hilda Taba Teaching Strategies, a program offering teachers graduate credit through United States International University in San Diego, California. Over a period of five years, I trained over one hundred teachers, half of them from White Bear Lake. When I applied for a doctorate degree, he agreed to be my dissertation adviser.
Discussing the problem of school drop outs in the faculty lounge with a fellow teacher, he said, “Take it up with your buddy, Fred.”
I felt the rub, and decided to go all in. “By God, I think I will.” I got up from our table, grabbed the faculty phone from its hook, and called Fred’s secretary to set an appointment. Fred answered.
I stammered, “Do you think the school board would be interested in a special program to recapture students after they drop out of school?”
“Write it up and I’ll schedule you to present it at their next meeting.” He paused, and I expected a retraction. Instead, he broadened my tactic. “Share your ideas with George for special education input and Ron for vocational input.”
All that in less than two weeks time! I scheduled the meeting Fred suggested, but neither heads of Special Education nor Vocation Education showed up. The board liked my proposal, but George and Ron stated objections, implying another attempt by Fred to bypass protocol. The board told Fred to resolve the issues by their next meeting.
Fred directed George and Ron to add input, but scheduled me to make the presentation at the June meeting in thirty days. The board approved my plan, appointed me director, and gave resources to start operating that fall. I developed a career-long relationship with Ron, but George held a grudge and became instrumental in Fred’s dismissal.
Ted Cunio, the district’s new superintendent as of the opening of my evening high school, had me sit in on a meeting where George, Director of Special Education, registered a formal complaint against the Assistant Superintendent. This time Fred bit off the stem of his pipe.
After berating Fred, Cunio faced me and threatened, “Any violation of policy and your program will be cancelled. I won’t have to kill it. It’ll just disappear if I don’t support it.”
At his farewell party, Fred told me, “Cunio apologized and claimed inexperience caused his inappropriate handling of an interdepartmental conflict.”
I said, “I feel responsible for your resignation.” I didn’t want to say being fired.
“It’s not your fault. My work is done here. The stage is set for White Bear Lake to become an exceptional suburban school district.”
A final irony, my program and Ted Cunio coexisted for seventeen years. Except for a couple of requests for program evaluations by the board over the years, Ted and I never met face-to-face. I heard through channels that he strongly supported the program, mostly because returning students recaptured state aid. The year he retired, my program evolved into a school with a certified principal in a separate building. I finished the final three years of my career as a classroom teacher in the newly created White Bear Lake Alternate School.