Teacher in a Strange Land: America’s Most Vulnerable and Important Profession
The Teachers: A year inside America’s most vulnerable, important profession (Alexandra Robbins) does what many other books about teaching are not able to do–take the reader right into the classroom, and describe what’s happening, with empathy and perception. There are lots of books about problems in American education, and lots of books that suggest solutions for those problems, but we seldom get to see examples, conversations and the people doing the work.
If you want a drone’s eye view of American public education—where it’s been, what bedevils the century-old movement to improve it—I would recommend Diane Ravitch’s trio of excellent books that follow education reform over the last couple of decades, or A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire.
But if you want to see what happens in the classroom and in the lives of teachers, Robbins accomplishes that better than any book I’ve read since Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, written in 1989, which now feels like ancient history. The book is a tour de force—every teacher I know who’s read it agrees—unapologetically written from the POV of teachers without feeling the need to make excuses or backpedal.
Robbins chooses three very fine teachers and takes us through one year (immediately pre-pandemic) of their classroom and personal lives, deftly illustrating how those lives overlap, the pile-up of frustrations and issues bleeding into their emotional well-being.
All three teachers have huge and versatile skill sets and genuine dedication to kids as well as subject matter. Interspersed are data and editorial comment about education and current “reforms” (scare quotes are deserved here), as well as real-life anecdotes and comments that reveal just how far teaching and teachers have sunk, in public estimation.
Robbins highlights things that other education books don’t notice or can’t be bothered with–in-building teacher jealousies and vindictiveness, physical violence against teachers, the long-term effects of cuts to things once considered normal in every school, what it’s like to sit in an IEP meeting with a recalcitrant parent or clueless colleague.
One of her teachers is a middle school special education teacher who finds himself taking on every troubled kid, something that school administrators often push, seeing him as the ultimate “male role model.” Another is an overachieving fourth grade teacher who knocks herself out to be the perfect teacher for every child, leaving her with no time to build a satisfying personal life (and illustrating, to readers, just how arduous differentiated instruction is, even in a building with adequate resources and good teachers).
The third teacher is a 20-year veteran, a sixth grade math teacher who has mastered the delicate art of getting the best out of her students and runs afoul of a clique of punitive teachers who resent her success and want her to punish kids who are doing well in her class for their sins in other classes.
(Here’s a story from my own experience that parallels her problematic relationships with the people who should have her back—feel free to skip it): We’re having a staff meeting, late spring, to talk about the imbalance of students in elective classes. The middle school bands keep getting bigger and bigger. I will have 93 students in my 8th grade band next year. What this means (besides a classroom management nightmare) is that other elective classes will be tiny, because “too many” students want to be in the band. The Woodshop teacher is outspoken—we need to limit the number of students in band, perhaps allowing the 93 students only one semester of band, in order to give him the minimal 12/class that will keep him employed in the building full-time, rather than splitting his time between middle school and high school, or forcing him to teach a second elective subject.
Everyone knows why all those kids want to be in the band, he says. I turn to him, surprised. I have no idea why kids sign up for band, beyond the fact that they like it. Mrs. Flanagan gives them all As and Bs, he says. If we forced her to use a bell curve like everybody else, we’d see half of them drop out.
I look around. Nobody’s making eye contact, so it’s clear that this has been a topic of conversation before. And there’s some truth there—I do give a lot of Bs and As, mainly because the students are meeting the goals set for the class. Their parents are paying for their instruments and students must practice to do well in class. We do many performances—both band and individual players. The bell curve is stupid; have all my colleagues really been using it?
I can justify everything I do, but I spent the rest of the year eating my lunch in the band room, paranoid about disrupting the building schedule. And the next September, I have all 93 students in my first hour class. Nobody ever shows up to help. The Teachers is full of stories like this—real things that happen. There is no paradise, no perfect school, although there are many vivid examples of teachers bending over backwards for students and colleagues. Why aren’t we honoring this, financially supporting this work, applauding the folks who show up to teach every day, sacrificing their time and energy for other people’s children?
This book is also the first and best description I have read about the impact of the pandemic on teaching and learning. There have been endless articles and research on “learning loss”–all rife with meaningless data and numbers–but nobody talks about the impact of being expected to position family needs as secondary to students’ needs. Robbins gets this right–there is a line between acting morally vs. choosing school over family, a choice that teachers were urged to make, and reviled when they chose their own families and their own health. We have not yet reconciled that, here in America—but the book makes a good start on it.
Highly recommended for everyone, but especially teachers. It’s a fairly fast and facile read, although well-documented with endnotes, and should give teachers a lift, knowing that their work and their dilemmas have been acknowledged.
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