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Schooling Administrators: Sheldon Marcus Retires After More Than a Half-Century at GSE

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After 52 years, more than 160 doctoral supervisees, and seven books, Sheldon “Shelly” Marcus, Ed.D., hung up his teaching hat and retired on June 30. In his time at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), Marcus mentored scores of students who went on to become teachers, principals, and superintendents.

“I’m still in contact with some of the youngsters and they retired before I did,” he said.

Having taught in the South Bronx through most of the 1960s at a school populated with Black, Puerto Rican, and newly emigrated students from China and Cuba, as well as the Irish and Jewish populations he grew up with, Marcus understood the borough’s classrooms as few others could.

“I tried to bring the reality of the South Bronx to future teachers,” he said. “Most important I taught them to not stereotype kids on the basis of reading and math scores—every kid is smart.”

Later, as an assistant principal at a junior high, he observed that administrators and teachers who create a nurturing atmosphere, like an extension of the child’s home, gained the trust of the students and the parents. And he noted that both parents and kids could “sniff out” when they were being disrespected.

He started teaching at GSE in 1968 at Fordham’s old campus at 302 Broadway, just before the school moved to its new home on the Lincoln Center campus.  He was one of about five in the faculty of 40 still pursuing a doctorate. It was a tumultuous time, he said; Fordham was in the red financially and socially there was “tremendous unrest.”

Fordham’s reputation, he said, was one of a convenient commuter school. There were other schools that were nationally recognized, but Fordham’s new campus and low profile encouraged a nimble approach that allowed the school to develop innovative programs that thrive to this day.

By the time he graduated with his doctorate in 1970, the school had introduced a doctoral program through a newly formed Department of Urban Education spearheaded by then-GSE Dean Harry N. Rivlin, Ph.D. Today, it’s the Educational Leadership, Administration, and Policy Division.

With a substantial grant from the Ford Foundation, the team developed a leadership program focused on training Black and Latino educators to become principals. At the time, there were very few people of color in leadership positions in New York City schools.

Rivlin, a noted reformer, asked Marcus to become the acting chair of the new department, which surprised him. Marcus said he always felt like a “third-rate citizen” as a doctoral student because of his background as a teacher, not as an academic. But he knew he had something substantial to give.

“At the time, there was an atmosphere where all knowledge came from the professor, and I knew that I knew more because of my experience,” he said.

He was reluctant to accept the new role, but Rivlin convinced him with a smile and one line.

“He said, ‘Why not take it on the acting basis, this way can you get a chance to treat students the way you wanted to be treated,’” he recalled Rivlin saying. He accepted the post in 1970, the same year he and Rivlin published Conflicts in Urban Education (Basic Books).

Marcus went on to serve as chair for two terms, from 1970 to 1976, before becoming associate dean of GSE’s Marymount division, housed at Marymount College from 1976 to 1993. (Fordham acquired Marymount in 2000.)

Dealing with Bigotry

In the decades that followed, Marcus related to all his students, except one.

“He walked into my office and said, ‘Get out of that chair, Jew,’” he recalled. “I was stunned.”

He said he began to understand that bigotry created both anger and fear. With support from Fordham’s administration, the GSE team worked to ensure that the Manhattan-based school consciously became more inclusive and that the curriculum reflected the communities that they served.

“If someone picked up the catalog, they should not need to look at the cover and wonder if you were in Manhattan, Kansas, and not in Manhattan, New York,” he said, referring to diversity in student photos.

By the mid-1970s, GSE administrators began a significant shift from teaching theory to melding it with practice.

“The schools are the primary educator; that’s truly where you learn to be a teacher,” he said.

Marcus surmises that he’s taught thousands of students over the years, to say nothing of the scores of doctoral graduates. Toby Tetenbaum, Ph.D., a friend and recently retired colleague of Marcus for more than 40 years, observed that he didn’t simply teach by examples from his past. She said his reading list was exhaustive.

“A lot of professors don’t update their bibliography,” said Tetenbaum. “Shelly is a voracious reader and he had one of the best bibliographies for his course that he updated continuously. If someone wanted a broad-based education curriculum, there are very few seminal books that weren’t on his list.”

In addition to reading, Marcus contributed his own titles to the academic canon. He co-authored several books on schools and teaching. In a departure from education, he published Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower (Little Brown, 1973), which explored the life of the famed “radio priest” who was a known anti-Semite and fascist.

Marcus said his love of the academic literature always retained a practical element: It made him a better teacher. And he said his favorite part of the job has always been working with the students.

‘He Teaches with His Heart’

Gloria Rosario-Wallace, Ed.D., is now senior director at the New York City Department of Education’s Anti-Bias and School Support Team in the Office of Equity and Access. She works to ensure that New York City students receive a quality education regardless of their background.

“He will always be the best teacher I’ve ever had because he teaches with his heart,” she said of Marcus.

Rosario-Wallace came close to not finishing her degree after her sister passed away from sickle cell disease. As a teacher and a school principal, she spent much of her career convincing kids to finish school. But with the death of her sister, she reached her own roadblock.

“I wanted to drop out of everything; I was lost until Dr. Marcus called me in his office and said, ‘What are you doing?’” she recalled. “I let it out, cried, and he was so loving and patient. He said, ‘Yeah, this is hard, but you still have to finish and we’re going to do it together.’”

On reflection, Marcus said that mentoring administrators, as well as teachers, leaves an indelible mark.

“We all try to impact youngsters for many years to come and I can pass that along and that’s something I take great comfort in: By treating students the way you want to be treated they will, in turn, treat other students how they wanted to be treated and that is your legacy.”

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