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Volunteer teacher takes on the unions

Bill Corrow is the kind of teacher many students experience only once or twice in a lifetime. Junior Laura McLam echoes the sentiments of a number of Corrow students when she says, "This is the best and the hardest class I've ever taken in my life."

But despite rave reviews from his students, Mr. Corrow's reentry into the classroom after an absence of some decades has been anything but smooth. The retired Air Force colonel finds himself at the center of a dispute over who belongs in the classroom - and with what credentials and under what conditions.

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These questions have a new sense of urgency as large numbers of baby boomers prepare to retire and the US stands on the brink of a serious teacher shortage, with an estimated 2.2 million new teachers needed in the next decade.

For the past three years Corrow has taught a demanding social-studies elective called "Conflict in the 20th Century" at Williamstown (Vt.) High School. After a career spent working and living throughout Europe and Africa, Corrow brings to the classroom a breadth of knowledge and experience that few career teachers can rival. Add that as a retiree he works for free, and the arrangement would seem to be guaranteed to please all.

But the local teachers' union is anything but happy. They've protested Corrow's presence, first, because he wasn't properly certified (he now is), and more recently because he's also a school-board member and has never signed a contract.

Corrow became interested in teaching when he moved back to Vermont, and his daughter -who had spent her life overseas -enrolled at Williamstown High. Concerned about the school's resources and that his daughter wasn't being sufficiently challenged, Corrow began tutoring students on a volunteer basis. He was soon asked to help develop new curriculum, a step that quickly led to his current position, teaching one course a year.

A class like Corrow's is badly needed in a small school like Williamstown High, where few advanced-placement courses are offered, say some students. "We don't have much in the way of inspirational teaching," says Bri Trottier, a Corrow student, adding, "This is the best class I've ever taken in high school."

"The seniors from last year say it really helped them a lot for college," adds classmate Gaib Owen.

The union's efforts to remove Corrow have not been popular. Many community members have been quick to accuse the group of self-interest and professional jealousy in trying to remove the well-liked teacher who is providing college-bound students with a challenging elective.

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To some observers, this particular fight is emblematic of a larger pattern of union intransigence. "The unions have never changed their tune," says Jeanne Allen, executive director of the Center for Education Reform in Washington. "All the talk about reform and changing their ways was just that - talk. [The Corrow case] is just another blow for the status quo."

Yet the situation is more complex than that. The union first complained that although Corrow taught high school in Vermont from 1969 to 1970, his license and certification had long since lapsed by the time he retired from the military and moved back in 1994. (Corrow says only the certification had expired and that he had it renewed after the union raised the issue.)

Both sides agree that, today, Corrow is fully licensed and certified. But the union continues to be troubled by his status as a school-board member. Corrow points out that he receives no pay for his work, a circumstance that exempts him from the stipulation that no employee of the school system may serve on the board.

Union officials, however, remain unconvinced that Corrow's volunteer status resolves the potential conflict of interest. "How can you evaluate a school-board member in the classroom?" asks Angelo Dorta, president of the Vermont National Education Association (NEA), the state branch of the teachers' union. While it's true that he's not an employee, says Mr. Dorta, "there's spirit to the law and that's to prevent a school-board member from abusing his power."

But he points to something that concerns him more. Corrow - who has never signed a contract - holds a choice position under ideal conditions. He is allowed to teach a small number of pre-selected students a course of his own creation, and he is able to do so free of the burden of other duties at the school.

"Does the school district have a contractual obligation to give its other teachers a right to teach this course?" Dorta asks. He says the risk is of becoming too casual about determining who can come into the classroom and what qualifications he or she must have. "We have to ask ourselves: Is this a profession or a pseudo-profession?"

Dorta says he's never met Corrow, but has no reason to doubt reports that he's a gifted teacher. "The issue is not Bill Corrow," Dorta insists. "It's the person who may come after Bill Corrow who might not have his qualifications and his generous intent."

The school board and administrators in Williamstown say they question the validity of such union concerns. The local union has applied to a professional arbitration firm for help in resolving the case, but H. Clif Randolph, superintendent for the Orange North Supervisory Union, which oversees the Williamstown schools, says he's keeping Corrow on the staff in the meantime and plans to pursue the matter up to the state supreme court if necessary.

The issue is not simply a local dispute, he says. "We clearly are on the brink of major educational reform. The NEA has to decide: Are they going to be part of it or block it?" he asks. He also likes the idea of bringing talented community members like Corrow into the classroom.

"We need creative solutions to [the teacher shortage]," he says, although he points out that Corrow is not replacing a salaried teacher, and says he has no intent of replacing any salaried positions with volunteers. Corrow says he's not leaving his classroom for anything less than an order to do so from the Vermont Supreme Court.

In the meantime, his students - who read through the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and Plato's Republic this summer in preparation for his class - will continue hear his lectures on the fall of the Roman Empire and to wrestle with his challenging assignments.

For Corrow, staying on has become a matter of principle. "I don't like dictatorships, left or right wing," he says. "That's why I'm not going to back down on this. What would that teach the kids if the NEA were able to run me out?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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