Teachers deserve better.

“Teachers deserve better. They deserve more trust and respect, and less standardized testing, smaller class sizes, and yes, larger paychecks.”

So says author Alexandra Robbins in The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession. A well-known long-time New York Times journalist and a not-so-well-known long-term sub, Robbins spends a year with three public-school teachers of varying ages, grade levels, disciplines, and geographical locations.

The quotation at the top of this post accurately but misleadingly summarizes the major points of the book. I am reminded of my many co-teaching experiences with different teaching partners: my partner and I would meet after a lesson to process it, and often we would each take away a different conclusion. That’s not a bad thing—in fact it’s a good thing, since it validates having two teachers for a more important reason than just splitting the workload. Often in my case I would focus on three positive memories of our lesson, where my partner would focus on one negative memory. You have to be able to expect both when reading The Teachers. Some readers will wonder how anyone could become a teacher after finishing Robbins’s book, others will have their eyes opened to all the wonderful but intangible rewards of teaching. So don’t expect a didactic sermon that tries to persuade you of just one point of view.

The organization of the narrative also will please some and not others. It uses the months of the school year as a skeleton for describing and interviewing all three teachers. That worked for me, but it won’t for everyone, since some readers will feel that they are juggling three balls in the air for 400 pages. And speaking of juggling, you have to process communications with students, parents (ranging from helicopter to disengaged), administrators, and the three teachers’ personal lives—yes, a teacher does have a personal life, if there’s time to have one. No one who pays attention when reading The Teachers will ever again claim that teachers have it easy because they “work” so few hours per year.

Here are several things that Robbins helped me realize about myself:

  • A lot of what went on between and among teachers in my 44 years of teaching has passed me by, since I tend to be oblivious to social interactions among my colleagues. So-and-so is getting divorced? Everyone knew it—but I didn’t. I was out of the loop.
  • I have been extremely lucky in where I have taught. My students, my colleagues, and even my administrators have pretty much let me be a professional and just teach. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but they are dwarfed by the confirming instances.
  • I’m glad that I never taught special ed, as it wouldn’t work for me. Having a few students with an IEP in a regular class was usually fine and sometimes even worked spectacularly well, but I couldn’t possibly do what one of the teachers Robbins describes does.
  • I’m also glad that I retired when I did! Or should I say, more accurately, “semi-retired,” as I’m still teaching in the Crimson Summer Academy, but that’s an entirely different experience.

Although there are vastly more positive than negative reviews by the amateur reviewers on Amazon, I do need to quote from one of each, and not just to be “fair and balanced”:

I taught high school where maybe people are too busy to participate in all the corner of the hallway gossip and faculty bullying. One of the teacher characters in this book seemed to be like the character Eeyore with gloom and doom following her around wherever she went. Not everything in my career was perfect. I mean, after all, I taught for four decades. But combing my entire career it wouldn’t add up to the drama in this school during one year.

On the other hand:

As a teacher, I knew I needed to read this book. I didn’t realize I would finish the whole thing in a single weekend, it is that compelling. This book will tear your heart into pieces and then put it back together again. I would encourage anyone to read it.

So would I.

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning