Marty Shollenberger Swaim could be accused of living her life backward.
First, in 1968, she served on the D.C. Board of Education when members of that panel were elected in the District for the first time. She spent six years telling teachers how they should do their jobs. Then, in 1984, after a few years as a caterer, she became a teacher in Arlington County--and discovered just how little school board members, including herself, understand about educators' working lives.
Swaim is the first to admit how much she has learned since. "If I knew then what I know now, empowering teachers and administrators to use their knowledge would be my only focus as a school board member," she said.
As a rather strenuous form of penance, she and her husband, economist Stephen C. Swaim, have written and just published a book, "Teacher Time." It warns parents, superintendents, school board members and anyone else who will listen how often teacher time is wasted and uncompensated and how much that hurts children.
In her classroom at Arlington's Jefferson Middle School, where she teaches social studies, Swaim pulls books out of boxes and offers an instant example of what she means. It is exactly two weeks before the first day of school, and yet, she points out, at least half of Jefferson's teachers are at work organizing their classrooms.
"This week's work is all unpaid time," she said. "Paid time begins next week." She and the other teachers will be there every day until the opening to make sure their students begin in the right way. It's just one example, she said, of the enormous burden that has been dumped on public school teachers with little discussion or consideration, other than the occasional joke about their getting the whole summer off.
She points out that most academic subject teachers spend another five or six hours in preparation for every day of class and that few of the parents whose children they teach go home with such heavy briefcases. Arguments that this is what professionals do, she said, are not going to attract a new generation of teachers in the numbers and quality that school systems want.
"In order to provide even a small amount of time for each student, teachers of academic subjects must work 60-hour weeks," the Swaims write in "Teacher Time," which is subtitled "Why Teacher Workload and School Management Matter to Each Student in Our Public Schools."
"America needs to adopt and pay for the model used for public schools elsewhere in the world and in U.S. nonsectarian private schools," they write, "one which provides more teacher time by having smaller classes, fewer classes for each teacher per day, and more work time for teachers to plan what they teach and to evaluate the work of individual students."
The Swaims have lived in an old, white frame house in the Lyon Park section of central Arlington since 1978, four years after Marty Swaim left the school board and lost a race for a D.C. Council seat. In the District, she said, "our kids were no longer thriving in the public schools, and as we had four kids, we could not see paying for private school for all of them."
The couple still feel part of D.C. life. At least once a month they take a two-hour walk from their house, over Memorial Bridge and up to their favorite Capitol Hill bar, the Dubliner.
"Usually we take a taxi back," said Swaim, who turned 60 in March.
She still follows with great interest the downs and ups of D.C. schools and the school board on which she once spent so much time.
When she ran for the board in 1968, Swaim was 29, full of excess energy and intensely interested in the political process. She had written her master's thesis at Howard University on the desegregation of the D.C. schools.
"My father had been active in reform ward politics in Reading, Pennsylvania, in the '50s, throwing the bums out," she said, "so I knew that politics was what you did if you wanted change."
She spent $500 on her campaign and served six years. She said some progress was made but never enough to satisfy her.
"We tried to figure out ways to make the bureaucracy accessible to parents, and for us that included parent participation in principal selection," she said. But "we made the mistake of including the practice of board members sitting in on interviews for principalships in their wards."
It was a very bad idea, since abandoned: It "politicized administration appointments, leading to no end of trouble," she said.
As for why the school board she served on failed to meet expectations, Swaim said: "It is hard to make change in an institution unless the board has the advice and counsel of a superintendent who shares your assumption that this school system can be transformed into a good-to-excellent system and a superintendent who understands how to get employees in a big organization to change their work behavior."
That mix of desire and competence never came about, she said. Her board "was interested in cutting out the middle management, giving classroom teachers authority and holding them accountable, but that was too radical an idea."
When asked about the current D.C. school board, and whether it should be allowed to regain full control of the school system in June, Swaim speaks like the practical politician who won two races and lost one before going on to other lines of work.
"I believe that elected boards are the best guarantee of accountability, because they can function as the CEO of this school system on behalf of students," she said. "The fact that this board is dysfunctional simply reflects on the community that produced the candidates. You do not always get what you work for in politics, but the community has to encourage and work for risk-takers and good candidates, in order to elect a good board."
Still, Swaim said: "Some excellent people have served on the D.C. board: Julius Hobson, Anita Allen, Mattie Taylor, Hilda Mason, Ray Kemp, Virginia Morris. I am sure some of the people on it now are good."
CAPTION: Teacher Marty Shollenberger Swaim, a former member of the D.C. school board, published a book with her husband called "Teacher Time."
CAPTION: Marty Swaim, in her room at Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, says teachers need more time to prepare and to interact with students.