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East High teacher reflects on changes in education after 52 years of teaching

Madison East High School biology teacher Paul du Vair quizzes freshmen Jada White, left, and Ali Saffold on the anatomy of a shark’s digestive system during a dissection in his classroom last month. M.P. KING — State Journal

Paul du Vair promised two things to parents of his students. One, he would be there to catch their kids if they fell through the cracks. And two, if those students refused to improve or accept help, he would honor their right to fail.

Teachers cannot guarantee success for every student, but “we can guarantee the opportunity for success,” du Vair says.

This tough, no-nonsense attitude is emblematic of a more traditional teaching style, du Vair says, which he used and believes to be the most effective. Du Vair began teaching when he was 25 and retired at the age of 77 in 2014 as a biology teacher at East High School. He started his time at MMSD in 1964 teaching at West Junior High School.

Madison East High School biology teacher Paul du Vair shows his students a small, partially digested fish found in the stomach of a shark during a dissection in his classroom at East High. M.P. KING — State Journal

Born to the parents of a college professor and a social worker in France, du Vair grew up in Switzerland and Canada before moving to Madison as a teenager and graduating from

Edgewood High School. He later attended St. Norbert College and receive teaching degrees in science and French from UW-Madison’s Education School.

In the 1970s, du Vair left teaching to serve as president of the state teachers’ union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, but returned to teaching.

Over the course of his 52 years in the classroom, du Vair has witnessed and adapted as a teacher to social, cultural and educational changes.

“The expectations of teachers are very high, but the public doesn’t understand that when it comes to teaching, we don’t set the morals and values of society,” du Vair says. “We are always, always behind.”

The often-thought-of traditional family structure—working father and stay-at-home mother—is no longer the norm, which du Vair says affects students’ work ethic. Families are more diverse, and poverty is more prevalent.

“The problem is poverty,” du Vair says. “That’s the problem that has triggered the breakdown of the family.”

In 2015, 48 percent of students used the Free and Reduced Lunch program compared to 20 percent in 1991, according to data from the Madison school district. As the number of minority students has increased, so has the percentage of students students using the FRL program.

Student population demographics have also changed dramatically since du Vair began teaching. In the 1960s and 1970s, du Vair says it was a rare sight to have a black student in his class. From 1991 to 2015, the number of black students increased from making up 12 percent of the district to about 18 percent. The number of Hispanic and Asian students has also grown over that time.

Achievement gap disparities spring from issues of poverty, which are often closely intertwined with race.

One-year estimates from the American Community Survey as detailed in the Race to Equity Report show that 54 percent of black residents in Dane County were living in poverty in 2011. This is in comparison to 39.2 percent in Wisconsin and 28.1 percent across the United States.

With parents sometimes out of the picture, students can lack a stable presence motivating and encouraging them to do well in school.

“Children become latchkey kids with no supervision,” du Vair says.

As a result, du Vair says teachers adapted to these societal changes by taking on more roles— “Mother, father, nursemaid, teacher all wrapped up into one”—to try and teach students.


Society sets high expectations for teachers and schools and when tests show that students are failing and unprepared, the public demands change. But du Vair says the public maintains misconceptions about education.

“You can’t educate everyone,” du Vair says. “Those who come to us so badly wounded, so far behind, what has taken 14 or 15 years to mess them up is going to take another 14 or 15 years to straighten them up, if ever.”

“But yet, the public out there expects us to perform miracles which we can’t,” du Vair continued.

Unrealistic expectations for all students’ success, according to du Vair, leads to administrative pressure to improve performance. This can result in teachers passing students to increase graduation rates and lighter disciplinary measures to keep students in school.

du Vair was critical of East High School’s decision to abandon the tardy policy in the 2013-2014 school year, saying teachers now have to work harder to control the lack of discipline and deal with more classroom disruptions.

While du Vair says he adapted over the years, he held strongly to “competition, grades and the wonderful feeling kids get when they achieve something.”

And there is one change he refused to abide by—the dress code. While other teachers may have loosened their dress code style, du Vair remained formal.

“I wore a suit and tie for 52 years first because of respect for the profession and secondly, because it had a great impact on discipline in my room,” du Vair says. “Kids just don’t screw around with a man in a suit.”

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