Maybe it’s his full beard and slightly unkempt hair. Or perhaps it’s his brightly colored suspenders and tie, or his book-lined office at the United Federation of Teachers’ headquarters on Lower Broadway. Or could it be all of the above, combined with his measured tone and his ease talking about ideas?
Casey, as it happened, completed his doctoral dissertation in political philosophy even after a career change took him into a different type of teaching.
It was, he said, about “Rousseau, Hegel and Marx, and the problem of the authoritarian state and democratic theory.”
So a reporter was hardly surprised with some of the terms that Casey, a vice-president of the UFT, used to critique Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s educational reforms. They amounted, he said, to a “revolution from above” that “denigrates the importance of public purpose and public control.”
That grounding in political philosophy was put to good use when at the beginning of his 5th year as a full-time teacher at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn he undertook to train his 12th grade class for a national competition on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
In the 10 years up to 1998, when he left to work for the UFT, his charges took on the best public schools in the city, state and nation with very impressive results.
Such success has helped inform his approach to New York’s reforms, which he said are designed by “corporate lawyers” with no actual classroom experience.
Some educationalists share that skepticism about City Hall’s approach. Norm Fruchter, of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, argued that waves of reform in New York City over almost 40 years have not altered the correlations between socio-economic background and academic achievement. Fruchter told the Echo: “It takes more than superficial reforms to reduce the effects of the structural inequalities that shape, and limit, the abilities and capacities of far too many of our city’s students.”
As for the “no classroom experience” charge, the union’s top officials don’t live in glass houses. They are required to continue teaching and by the time Casey gets to the office each day, he’s already given a class on global studies at nearby Bard High School.
That means that Casey, who was born into a “big Irish-Catholic family” in Brooklyn, has had a quarter-century experience working in and with New York City’s high schools.
“I started teaching just thinking it would be a temporary job,” Casey said. Then he fell in love with his students and the job.
In one respect, as least, it was an obvious choice. Both Casey’s parents were New York public school teachers. His father, who was originally a sheet-metal worker, became a vocational teacher in the city’s system after World War II. The UFT vice-president pointed to a framed decades-old teacher’s identity card they found in his wallet after he died in 1992 at age 90.
His mother, who had French-Canadian roots, began her career teaching in a one-room school in upstate New York, and later worked in an elementary school in Brooklyn. She died in 2002.
As it turned out, four of Casey’s five siblings also became educators. An older sister, for instance, is a member of a religious order, while his only brother is a professor of theology at the University of Scranton.
“We were brought up with this sense of the importance of public service and doing some good with your life,” he said.
In early adulthood, that found expression in political organizing for the Democratic Socialists of America. Indeed, Casey suspended work on his doctorate to go full time with that leftwing group, which was associated with Michael Harrington, a fellow Irish Catholic whose seminal work “The Other America: Poverty in the United States” influenced the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ policies in the 1960s.
When, after 18 months, Casey opted for a more conventional job, he didn’t realize quite what he’d signed up for.
“I had this illusion that the teacher’s day was done at 3 o’clock,” he remembered. “You know, I would go home and finish my dissertation.
“I quickly discovered that to be really good at teaching requires really intensive amounts of work, particularly in those first three years.
“It was clearly much more complicated and much more difficult than I’d ever imagined,” he said.
After his apprenticeship, he was confident enough and committed enough to spend the extra time needed to prepare one of his five classes – which were comprised entirely of students from working-class African-American or African-Caribbean families – for the “We The People” civics competition.
Remarkably, Clara Barton HS won the city competition for 10 consecutive years. In four of those years, it came first at the state level, and in two of them was placed 4th in the national championships.
That success, Casey recalled, was achieved through the students’ hard work – starting early in the morning, staying late in the afternoon, and doing practice on the weekend.
His believes his time and the students’ sheer force of will compensated for what’s structurally lacking because of a socially and economically unjust system.
The UFT vice-president added: “It’s not something that you can just replicate across the board.
“The amount of sacrifices in your personal life to be able to that for students are really quite immense,” said Casey, who with his Jamaican-born partner has helped raise her three girls over the past 10 years.
The inequities are built into the system, Casey argued, even before a child enters a school’s gates for the first time. And test scores can’t do anything about the asthma epidemic or the fact that disadvantaged children start out with a much less rich vocabulary than those from more privileged backgrounds.
On the former issue, the UFT has advocated a more integrated approach to social services.
More generally, to truly “leave no child behind,” Casey said, society and elected officials would have to give much more support to education.
“One of the lessons of this course I taught was that those students need to work twice as hard to fight their way out of a limited life of opportunity; but the message also was that it was possible,” he said.
“He’s the most memorable teacher I ever had,” said Tamika Edwards, a lawyer who is director of law-related education at Legal Outreach.
Recalled another former pupil Tamara Simpson, now herself a public school teacher in Brooklyn: “He really taught us the importance of voting.”
As part of their “classroom in the world” course work, she said, the students had to volunteer to work in a public representative’s office or with a grassroots organization that dealt with politics. “As high school students, we wouldn’t have known that these places existed in the community,” she said.
“It was real-world experience,” Simpson added, and an excellent learning environment “because you remember where you’ve gone.”
“The students they were competing with from Long Island, or from Stuyvesant, were [those] who, 20 years down the road, would be in the room where important decisions would be made about people’s lives,” Casey said, “and I wanted my students to be in the same room and to have some influence on those decisions.”
“He challenged us to think outside the box. To be analytical,” said Edwards “That’s when I learnt to apply the law to a set of facts and to think critically.
“His approach to teaching intrigued me,” she added. In her view, the focus on test scores means less emphasis on creativity.
Said Edwards: “Kids aren’t challenged enough.”
Casey said the union is not entirely against test scores but opposes City Hall’s “business model” approach.
He said young teachers are “set up to fail,” which explains why half drop out after five years.
The union stresses “things as simple as having a good experienced accomplished teacher as a mentor to meet with them, to give them advice, tell them that teaching is really hard to learn, that they need to give themselves the time and space to do it.”
“The educational research is completely clear – if you have strong mentors, it makes a big difference,” he said.
But the Department of Education leaves that up to principals. And the harried principals are thinking about a short-term issue – test scores.
Nonetheless teachers persevere, many of them convinced that they are doing good despite the obstacles.
“You have to believe you can make a difference,” Casey said, “or you couldn’t do that work.”