Years ago, I got to interview Richard Herrmann for his thoughts on how to avoid burnout. He was the perfect interview as he had far more than 40 years teaching and was still going strong.
Finally this year, after thousands of students and 52 years, he’s retiring as head of the Valley Stream Teachers Association. He retired from teaching English at Central High School last June. He stayed on to lead the association for the 2012-13 school year after a special membership referendum was overwhelming approved to keep him as president.
“No, I didn’t finally get burned out but got a (pensionable) incentive instead and a touching rendition of “To Sir With Love” from the student chorus,” he wrote to me when I e-mailed him with a “what’s this I hear?”
Here’s a link to a June 13 article from the Valley Stream Herald. Please take the time to read it, as it weaves classroom strategies in with union history to present a fabric of his career. Here are a few more union facts.
When Herrmann steps down, effective July 1, he will have led the Valley Stream TA for 39 years. During that time, the union more than doubled its membership and enrolled 100 percent of eligible members. During that time, he worked with 21 different superintendents. He has also served as chairman of the Long Island President’s Council and has been on SED’s list of tenure panelists as an employee advocate for 3021-a Part 83 hearings.
Given his successful tenure, here are his thoughts on a few additional topics. Considering that NYSUT hosts the New Local Presidents Conference this week, I specifically asked him for advice for new union leaders.
New teachers and new local leaders have much in common, Herrmann said. Both need to have a lot of patience, understanding, empathy and a genuine sense of humor. Each role requires a great deal of hard work and long hours, as well as the ability to communicate precisely through writing and speaking. Teachers and union leaders also need a sense of urgency and be able to pay close attention to details. They also need to know their subject matter thoroughly and to be able to explain topics. For union leaders, that subject matter includes the local’s contract and constitution as well as school district policies, regulations, past-practices, traditions and the law.
“An effective teacher, or leader, makes complex topics seem simple,” Herrmann said.
Advice to new teachers and new local leaders is two-fold:
- “Work hard to earn the respect of those you serve.”
- Always remember, whenever a student or a union colleague has a problem, “no matter how minor it may seem to you, it feels major to them.”
More than five decades in the classrooms means he has seen a number of changes, (sometimes called pendulum swings) in education. His biggest concern is when a change is driven by “people with very limited or no experience as a classroom teacher.” As to the current obsession with standardized testing, he sees it as more concerned with politics than education and “it is turning a nice profit for the testing industry.”
He’s also concerned that he is seeing fewer male teachers in the classrooms. He sees a need for male role models in general and for teaching as a career.
If he were “in charge,” Herrmann said all administrators would be required to teach a part of every day in the classroom.
“Doing so would set a good example of leadership,” he said. “It would also be a constant reminder of what their teachers do and have the additional benefit of lowering instructional costs to a district.”
His view on salaries is that teachers should be paid as much as administrators because, in his half-century in the classroom, he’s known many excellent teachers who had to leave the classroom and become administrators to provide for their families.
“It’s unfortunate when people have to leave teaching solely motivated by financial reasons,” he said.
Given the attacks on teachers and their unions, those are refreshing and valuable views indeed.