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No matter what you thought about going to school, you probably remember at least one teacher you’ll never forget, and at least one you’d love to forget.
For many of us, teachers are the first adults we really get to know who aren’t our relatives. I remember (metaphorically) watching the memory tapes play as my 13 year old students compared my answers to their questions with the answers they heard at home from their parents. We were their first informants of the outside world.
I worked in schools as a teacher and an administrator for nearly two decades. I taught low income, urban kids and diplomats’ children. I’ve taught kids from more than 60 countries while living in 3.
These are my favorite books about teachers, stories that tell it like it really is, no matter what the circumstances.
Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
I first read Up the Down Staircase near the beginning of my teaching career, and I could not believe that anyone had nailed the absurdity of teaching in a large public school so accurately. The miracle of the modern school system, as this book shows, is not the quality of learning but that any learning takes place at all between all the competing requirements and random rules.
This book was written in the 1960’s, but it is a must read if you are even thinking of becoming a teacher.
I remember just sitting in the teacher’s lounge thinking, “I could write a book about this, but no one would believe it’s nonfiction.” Bel Kaufman found a way to get the absurdity on paper, and it’s hilarious.
2. The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein
Bel Kaufman’s comic novel manages to convey the absurdist spirit of teaching. The Teacher Wars, written by an education reporter for the Washington Post, explains how we got from there to here. And by “here” I mean to a system that is a modern miracle. I have no clue how we continue to maintain the excellent public school system that we have in the United States with the way that we finance it.
I mean, I know how it happens: the teachers make up the difference between their acceptance of the low pay and their self funded classrooms. It’s ridiculous how one of the richest countries in the world treats their own public school teachers like charity cases. Ridiculous.
The Teacher Wars explains how the teaching profession got where we are.
3. Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker
Winter Wheat is a vivid novel about a young teacher in an isolated school in Montana. What struck me is the understanding of how isolated an existence this type of job must have been…well ok, either you’re stuck living with a family, or sometimes a series of families, or you’re doing the alternative, which is to live in a building attached to the school, with no one around when school isn’t in session.
I’m all for adventure and everything…I was very happy to be able to travel all over the world to practice my profession…but I, like a lot of teachers, am an extrovert so roughing it ALONE would have been tough for me.
Winter Wheat is a wonderful look back at the way we were.
2. Tisha: The Wonderful True Love Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaskan Wilderness by Anne Purdy as told to Robert Specht
Tisha is another book, this one a memoir, about a young woman who follows her dream of going to the Alaskan wilderness to teach in a remote school and falls in love with a half Inuit man. The difference between Tisha and some of these other books…that is typically the story of a middle or upper middle class young woman going to a remote or urban and usually impoverished area to teach, is that “Tisha” (which means teacher) is from an unstable background herself, and her ethnicity, while not apparent, is not different either. The difference is that Alaska in the 1920’s is significantly different from the lower 48, even the northwest, in the 1920’s.
Going to teach in a community far, and significantly different, from your own is one thing; becoming a part of that community…committing to be a part of it permanently…is a whole different thing.
Tisha is a fascinating look back and an unusual story.
3. Christy by Catherine Marshall
Christy is similar to Winter Wheat and Tisha in that the protagonist heads to a remote community to teach…a community that is much different from her background. Like all of Catherine Marshall’s books, Christy has a Christian bent, but even if you aren’t especially religious you will be taken in by this story in this Smokey Mountain (North Carolina) community in which education is suspicious.
6. To Sir, With Love by E. R. Braithwaite
You may know the title To Sir, With Love from the classic Sidney Poitier film from the sixties. This memoir is the only book on this list that is not set in the United States, but some of its themes are similar if somewhat inverted from the usual American narrative. In this case, a highly trained (as an engineer) war hero can find no other employment other than teaching in a low income school because he is Black. The kids are White, and as racist as can be, but they also face limited futures with a minimal education and few opportunities.
The British system is different from the American: Students stay in school until they are 16 by law. Now they may have some sort of leaving ceremony, but what really matters are exam scores. The goal of the school is to prepare the students for the exams (given at ages 16 and 18) rather than amassing credits, which is the goal of the American system. Understanding that is key or you won’t understand how Braithwaite could get such a free hand with the program. In stories about American high schools, the narrative always centers on graduation or college admission, but Braithwaite’s challenge is first to survive, and then somehow prepare kids for life when their intention is to literally “wait out the clock” until they are old enough to “leave school”.
To Sir, With Love is about the concept of teaching the students rather than teaching the subject. Because sometimes, that’s what you have to do.
Add your favorite books about schools and teaching below!