Scratching The Surface: Daniel Falcone Interviews Tony Rotondo, author of “Scratch Where it Itches”

Tony Rotondo has taught English in West Chester, Pennsylvania since 1964 at every level ranging from 7th grade to Graduate School. He served as President of the Teachers Association for the West Chester Area School District and left a legacy of worker solidarity while constantly fighting for fair pay, resources and proper treatment of teachers and students. Tony is a decorated master teacher and for years excelled with a disarming sense of humor. In a historic West Chester Schools strike of 2003, Rotondo bravely articulated that “the contract year has been a shift from reason and compromise to intimidation and ultimatum.” The news media called his tone, “defiant.” Rotondo would happily agree. Rotondo is currently a teacher preparation professor at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pennsylvania.

Falcone: Can you discuss your own education and how it impacted your teaching career?

Rotondo: I was stuck with a number of mediocre teachers when I was a kid. But stuff came to me easily, so they moved me from 4th to 5th grade, a move that wreaked havoc on my mathematical abilities. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school that I met a teacher who changed my life forever. She was the teacher I wanted to be, the one I fashioned my career on for almost a half century. Her name was Dr. Leah Jordan and I’m ashamed to say she passed away before I got a chance to tell her.

Falcone: Can you comment on the title of your book, Scratch Where it Itches, what is the significance of that title? What does it mean?

Rotondo: I thought I created the title. Turns out the Duchess of Windsor did. Who knew? The title is simple – tell the truth, unadorned and devoid of bullshit. The narrator of my book thinks public education sucks. I happen to agree with him.

Falcone: What do you see as the role of the school administrator? Do they have a legitimate role in your view?

Rotondo: School administrators should be THE support system in a school. It wouldn’t hurt if they were master teachers as well. They should take seriously the bromide: We’re all in this together. Instead, most fall victim to amnesia the moment they become administrators. Being a teacher is the last thing they want to be. After all, don’t we consider it a promotion when they move from the classroom to the boardroom?

Falcone: What are your thoughts on teacher unions? Do they have trouble with agreeing on common interests? What should be their common interests?

Rotondo: I was a charter member of the AFT back in the sixties when it was a tad more popular to be a member of the NEA. I edited an underground newsletter titled AFTerthoughts. I regularly shed light on the rival union in power and hurled brickbats at the ensconced administration. Over the years it became apparent that if I was going to make any difference, change any minds, I’d have to join the PSEA. I did, working my way up from Building Rep to President, an office I held for eight years.=

It’s easy to form a love/hate relationship with unions, the folks who brought us the weekend and child labor laws. There are those who say they are no longer needed, kind of like your little toe. Salaries are higher and classes are smaller…that’s what disgruntled politicians will say…that and you get the summers off. Taxpayers jump all over that one. They don’t mind if teachers are comfortable; they just don’t want them to be well-to-do.

Our common interest should be to level the playing field, giving each kid a reasonable shot at the “American Dream.” Our philosophy should be to move the kid from Point A to Point B…and beyond. That’s what we should agree on, and that should be the guiding light. Instead, those of us in unions must defend ourselves from political vitriol that heaps scorn on teachers, blaming us for everything from increasing drop-out rates to obesity. Instead of No Child Left Behind it’s become No Child with a Fat Behind.

There are those who say we wouldn’t have lousy teachers without unions. They’re the same folks who think teachers should fire themselves – not unlike Mitt Romney’s wanting illegals to deport themselves.

Falcone: Today it seems we have more and more of the business model of education creeping into our schools. What is the problem with the business model of education?

Rotondo: “Having spent years in business, I cringe at blindly applying business models to education.” That’s what Diane Ravitch says. “The best approach to education is there is no single approach to education. Students are individuals and human. Not data points in a multi-level statistical model. Teachers know this. Will anybody else listen?” Of course the answer is no. Teachers are the first blamed, but the last asked. It’s the politics of education – that’s the rotten apple in the barrel.

Falcone: How do school boards, school administrators and politicians utilize class warfare in an attempt to undermine education?

Rotondo: They redistrict. You get more votes for your side that way; too bad that a kid’s ZIP code determines the quality of his education.

Falcone: Do you think teachers are more vulnerable than ever with the advent of social media? What are your thoughts on teachers living in the 21st century cyber world while maintaining a 19thFalcone: century moralistic identity? Are society’s expectations of teachers realistic or warranted?

Rotondo: Teachers are as vulnerable now as they were in the “good ol’ days.” Society is right to have great expectations for teachers who in turn are right to have great expectations for kids. Don’t get me started on that 21st century cyber world bullshit. From blackboards to SmartBoards from slates to iPads, many teachers are still cranking out stultifying dull lessons that cause kids’ eyes to glaze over or cross in frustration. We need excellent college courses in teacher training that are taught by teachers active in the field, not in the library.

We need a cadre of mentors in each building who share their expertise with colleagues. And we need teachers willing to give up a planning period or two to watch and learn from those mentors. And we need those mentors to pull down the highest salaries. Yeah, I know. That sounds like merit pay. I say HELL YES; Merit pay for all. Look at all the money that could be saved on Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard alone? How about merit pay for them?

But move on to another question, Dan. That last one put me in the agita zone. Capishe?

Falcone: We see a very inefficient Congress getting raises and unlimited terms while teachers are being stuck with wage stagnation and increased monitoring. Do we need an educational revolution in this country? What would that entail in your mind?

Rotondo: Only whale shit is lower than Congress…and that’s at the bottom of the ocean! How about merit pay for them?

Falcone: You have indicated the West Chester Schools’ troubled history over race. Can you shed some insight on that past and also comment on the naming of the third high school after the Civil Rights organizer Bayard Rustin?

Rotondo: Until the Sixties, de facto segregation existed in West Chester and after school consolidation and re-districting, the schools represented the population at large. There were protests and heated debates. A black was elected to the Board for the first time in history. I campaigned heavily for that guy. And my reward was a series of anonymous notes stuck in my mailbox and under my windshield wipers. Here’s one I saved and included in my book:

You’re just another liberal wop,

Cluttering up our educational shop.

You’re trying to make our school budget bigger,

To help another worthless nigger.

Well, the mean-spirited folks in West Chester got over that in time, but then that new high school came along. What to name it? When Bayard Rustin’s name came up, so did his sexual orientation. His civil rights achievements were relegated to the back burner. But surprisingly, saner minds prevailed and the school was so named.

Falcone: Philadelphia and Chicago are two cities where the educational stakes are quite high and the issues run very deep. Are the answers to worker control problems also difficult for local suburban schools and their associations? Can we learn anything form these models in regards to instruction, politics, wages, and benefits? Do we get far too complicated answers to such questions?

Rotondo: I’m a fan of short answers.In promulgating my esoteric cogitations, I am reminded to beware of platitudinous ponderosities. That’s my motto. Teaching is the greatest job on earth. Don’t let the politicians screw it up for you. Work your butt off and the kids will love you. Make sure you have sense enough to love them right back.

Falcone: Can you comment on the local media’s treatment of you and other teachers when negotiations were going back and forth over the course of your career? It seemed that the school district always tried to play the role of the calm honest broker and the teacher as the hostile, greedy taker. How can this meme be countered? How deeply embedded in this misconception?

Rotondo: The media is too much with us – late and soon. They want a story and conflict is a story. Teachers are revered when they know their place and stay in it. When they clamor for smaller classes and larger salaries, they are fair game for the pillory.

Grazing at the public trough – that’s what they say about the folks that spend 7 hours a day with their kids; greedy incompetents who get the summers off – that’s what they say over and over again.

If you can’t DO, try teaching. That’s what they always say, decade after decade. Teachers are blamed for almost everything even though they control almost nothing.

ALMOST, Dan, ALMOST. Because when teachers get into that classroom and close that door, the possibility of miracles grows exponentially.