Celebrating 52 successful years in the classroom

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:

  1. “Work hard to earn the respect of those you serve.”
  2. 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.

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12 Comments

  1. Tom McMahon June 25, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    What great advice from a long time leader who has been through the proverbial “education cycle” many times throughout the years. It is proof though that effective communication is key for leaders. I would add that so is action. Sometimes the membership needs to see you fight.

    One piece of advice from Herrmann that I believe is paramount is understanding that what may seem small to leaders is big to members. We live and breathe contracts and constitutions every day. It’s part of our life. While it may not be as large a part of our fellow members’ lives, it doesn’t mean they are apathetic or unwilling. Understanding that and addressing issues for members with this knowledge is very valuable.

    Great piece! Unfortunately, given 3012-c, testing and profiteering, I would doubt we see many willing to serve a local this long. Thanks for telling Herrmann’s story.

  2. Don Carlisto June 25, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Inspiring story; inspiring leader. Stories like this give us all hope that the commitment that we make as teachers (and teacher union leaders) truly makes a difference in the lives of those we serve. Congratulations and thank you!

  3. Viri Pettersen June 25, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    Mr. Herrmann’s years of experience as an educator and union activist give him great insight into the evolution of our field over the decades.

    It is wonderful to see someone who has been a practitioner for more than half a century.

    Congratulations!

  4. Lori Atkinson-Griffin June 25, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    Very interesting article! I especially love the part about administration taking a spin in the classroom. It made me chuckle in a sadistic way. It may be kind of hard these days since a lot of administration is so far removed from real teaching. In fact, in my district, one administrator never taught AT ALL and the other two never experienced true heterogeneous teaching and assessments (physical education–no assessments when he taught and chemistry–no special ed). I would love to finally have them understand what I keep trying to tell them about teaching all kids in this new Common core world of standardized testing.

    The other thing I loved in this article is his reference to having a “genuine sense of humor”. I live by that motto and can’t understand why grumpy people become teachers (i have had a few and worked with a few). No matter what the state throws at me I will always love my kids and find new ways to make them laugh while they learn. This year it was a little rougher since my daughter was in my class and did not appreciate my humorous attempts and various “voices” when I read certain characters. However, I reminded her that my job as mom is to embarrass her and it meshes nicely with my job as teacher which is to teach her that sometimes with knowledge comes pain.

    Congratulations Richard Herrmann!! Thanks for the article Betsy!

  5. Joi Chimera June 25, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

    What a great article-thank you for sharing Mr. Herrmann’s story and words of wisdom. It is truly inspiring to hear about a long and dedicated career both in the classroom and as a union leader.
    Congratulations on his retirement!

  6. Jim MacFawn June 25, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

    What an amazing article about an educator who has paved the way for half a century. Thank you NYSUT for allowing him a voice to tell his history in this ever-changing field. His 2 fold advice is spot on. I encourage him to pursue his retirement in the same manner as his passion for education. Well deserved.

    Congratulations!!

    In Solidarity

  7. M DeVit June 25, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    Amazing man, teacher and unionist. Congrats on a long career. Thanks for the advice.

  8. Greg McCrea June 25, 2013 at 11:16 pm #

    Great teachers tirelessly serve the greater good. Thank you for your years of dedication to the Valley Stream school community. You are a true inspiration and model of rank and file leadership in our union.

  9. Chris Foley Pilsner June 26, 2013 at 6:15 am #

    Thank you so much. I received your blog from my dad- another great educator. I was Mr. Herrmann’s student in the 10th grade, 1988-89. Phenomenal teacher and he provided me with some of my most lasting memories of instruction from Central High School. In addition to outstanding discussion on literature. Mr. Herrmann used to help is prepare for SAT vocabulary by having us highlight words from the NY Times. How smart is that? I still think of him when I look up a word from an article I read that I don’t readily understand. Now that I have been nearly 20 years out of college (I earned a degree in English from Villanova University) I appreciate his resiliency and passion for his career. What an inspiration and I feel fortunate that he was my teacher.

  10. Sabrina June 26, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

    Thank you for these wise words, and your service to the community. Here’s to building a world where talented people in this and future generations can stay long enough to give over 5 decades of their lives to teaching children!

  11. Ron Rini June 27, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    I worked with Dick for 17 years at Central and I have been the treasurer for our local since 2005. Thanks for all your hard word and dedication Dick. It was an honor working with you. Valley Stream is a better place because of you.

  12. Rich Herrmann (Son) June 29, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    He’s as inspirational (and funny) as a Dad also. Thanks for helping to recognize him for the man he is. I’m very proud that so many thousands of kids have gotten the chance to know my father and been influenced by him as well. Thanks, Dad, enjoy your retirement, you deserve it! Love you.

    PS Let’s Go Mets

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