10 Books That Show the Lives of School Teachers
Sarah Beddow, author of "Dispatches from Frontier Schools," recommends literature that portray educators with nuance
You would think that with all the TV shows and books set in schools, people would have a pretty good idea of what happens in them on a day-to-day basis. But school stories are more often stories set in schools than they are about school. Stories that show the actual work of teaching and learning remain frustratingly few and far between. Quinta Brunson’s Abbott Elementary is a true delight, but that show’s realistic depiction of teaching is the exception that proves the rule.
When I first started writing my memoir-in-poems Dispatches from Frontier Schools, I was desperate to find a way to explain why teaching was so hard in a way people would understand. No matter how I told the stories about my work, my friends and family didn’t get it. They would tell me to quit, as if that didn’t mean leaving behind people I loved. They would tell me to just stop trying so hard, as if that didn’t mean purposely underserving other people’s children. They would praise me like I was saint, as if I hadn’t recently lost my temper, slammed a door, and hung my head in shame during my prep period. So, I started writing the stories as poems, the kinds of poems my husband described as “pain cries” and “cries for help.”
Heartbreakingly, the culture war over schooling continues unabated. Increasingly, my memoir-in-poems feels less like one teacher’s story and more like part of a larger, necessary project to humanize the people inside our school system. Teachers are feeling pretty embattled, and anti-teacher sentiment flows freely. But people consistently rank their own communities’ schools and teachers higher than they rank the nation’s schools as a whole. And I wonder if that is simply because they know the teachers in their community schools—can recognize them as people.
In that spirit, I offer these ten books, then, as part of that larger project of humanization. They portray educators with nuance, demystifying the job and demonstrating that it is a deeply human endeavor.
Minor Dramas and Other Catastrophes by Kathleen West
From the emotional-support Nalgene bottle and handouts hot from the photocopier to the student who knocks on the door the moment a teacher settles in to get her grading done, Minor Dramas and Other Catastrophes nails the details of teachers’ daily lives. I was hardly surprised to learn that author Kathleen West is a veteran teacher. The novel tells the story of how Isobel Johnson, an English teacher with a social justice mission, and Julia Abbott, a theatre mom who simply cannot keep her nose out of her kid’s life, both find themselves targets in the gossipy, politicking world of a high-achieving, suburban school district. Both Isobel and Julia make mistakes—some of them quite disastrous—but the story makes clear that their aim is always what is best for the kids.
Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
My mom hassled me for—years!—to read this book, and I refused, thinking it was another one of those stories where the (white) teacher in an urban (Black and/or Hispanic) school is a conquering hero who saves her students from a life of poverty. But Up the Down Staircase refuses to bestow sainthood on its main character, rookie teacher Sylvia Barrett. (Also, it is set in New York City in the 1960s, before New York City public schools became majority-minority.) The novel tells the story of Miss Barrett’s first semester in the New York City Department of Education through the reams of notes, memos, notebook pages, school assignments, and student feedback forms that land daily in the trash can. Though satirical in its send up of the DOE’s dysfunction, the story holds on to its heart by showing its characters failing as often as they succeed, highlighting the Sisyphean task of teaching in a broken system. Most delightfully to me, the book also foregrounds what it feels like to be a human with a body in a classroom, from the teenagers struggling with their self-images to Ms. Barrett’s undeniable beauty.
Election and Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta
Tom Perrotta understands how even seemingly small-stakes contests—like the titular election in Election and adult Tracy Flick’s quest to become principal in Tracy Flick Can’t Win—can feel like life and death endeavors. The schools in both of these novels capture the ephemeral alliances between teachers and students that can provide a life raft in trying times—or, when they turn sour, weigh you down like an anchor. The schools in Perrotta’s universe remind us that schools don’t always recognize the efforts of those who work hardest. And the problems Tracy Flick encounters, first as a student and later as an aspiring principal, demonstrate how petty politics can get in the way of even the most determined overachiever.
The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat
The Most Precious Substance on Earth charts the protagonist Nina’s journey from high school student to high school teacher. The book reflects the fraught power dynamics between students and teachers, beginning with Nina’s statutory rape at the hands of the teacher she has a crush on and culminating in her realization that her fear of being a bad teacher herself is just too much to bear. On an internet date, Nina explains teaching like this:
[I]n the classroom, you have to be teaching, of course, and doing teacherly tasks like handing out photocopies and telling people to stop talking, but you also have to be constantly aware of how fragile your students are. Sometimes it’s almost a high, and then other times it like being an air traffic controller—just…too much.
And I feel that in my heart, the way teaching is high-wire act of professionalism and personal connection that you are almost destined to screw up.
Saul and Patsy by Charles Baxter
Saul and Patsy is the story of how Saul and Patsy get married, move to a small town where Saul becomes a high school teacher, and have a baby. Saul never seems to have too many papers to grade or too many lessons to plan—in fact his life is nothing like a teacher’s life! But I forgive Charles Baxter and this book for what it gets wrong about teaching because what it gets right is the way students haunt teachers—especially the students who seem unreachable. Much like Nina in The Most Precious Substance on Earth, Saul cannot shake his responsibility to his students. Gordy, one of Saul’s struggling students, takes to standing in Saul’s yard for hours a day to torment him. Gordy is a phantasmic figure, and his looming presence causes Saul—and Patsy—to fray at the edges. The violence Gordy inflicts on himself and those around him is a heartbreaking reminder of how we disinvest in education at the risk of the whole community.
The Classroom by Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich
I read the short story collection The Classroom in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, missing my students and crying at how the fantastical and surreal short stories capture the weird alchemy of a classroom. In “The Floating Away School,” an elementary school literally floats away, to everyone’s delight. But weeks pass and the teacher eventually encourages all the students to jump to safety, staying behind to make sure they make it out safely. In “All of the Infinite Possibilities,” a substitute teacher takes his students on a field trip in his time machine, dazzling and endangering them all at once. And in “The 41st Bee,” a young teacher finds herself struggling to teach a new student—if you can a swarm of bees a singular student. Even in such fantastic situations, the teachers in this collection approach their jobs with heart and humility.
The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein
Dana Goldstein was a New York Times educator reporter for fifteen years, and reading her history of the teaching profession, The Teacher Wars, is like uncovering the source code for every fight over teachers and public education I have lived through as an educator. Though the book is almost ten years old, Goldstein’s thesis easily captures the state of education today: the fights we have about teaching and public education now are variations on the fights we’ve had for the past one hundred and fifty years. Goldstein compellingly digs up the roots of our debates over whether teachers are nurturers or academics, whether they should teach for the love of it or for the money, and what exactly we should teach our children and why. The Teacher Wars shows a possible path out of those wars, one where we understand teaching in all its complexity and thus don’t fall for the easy binaries culture warriors insist on.
Cutting School: The Segronomics of American Education by Noliwe Rooks
Noliwe Rooks’s Cutting School: The Segronomics of American Education, analyzes the history of American schools through the twin lenses of race and class. Rooks argues that the project of equality depends on good public schools and that the United States has a dismal history of guaranteeing good schools to all its children. She traces American schooling from the post-Reconstruction period through Brown v. Board of Education and to the school choice movement of today to demonstrate how our school system remains stubbornly separate and unequal. Further, Rooks argues, failing schools are good business because they facilitate the transfer of wealth from the students who most need investment into the hands of private businesses who rarely deliver on the educational promises they offer (see: charter schools and vouchers, for two current examples). Cutting School helps explain why a single good teacher—or even a school full of good teachers—is not enough to fix our nation’s public schools, moving the policy focus away from individuals and to the broader system in which they struggle.
The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession by Alexandra Robbins
I end this list with a recent book that does basically everything I have been longing to see: an honest accounting of everything it takes to teach. In The Teachers, journalist Alexandra Robbins follows three dedicated and effective teachers for a year and supplements their stories with thoroughly reported and researched analysis of the issues teachers face, from incompetent administrators to politically motivated school boards, from struggling students to struggling coworkers. The result is a dizzying portrait that makes clear the enormous sacrifices, both monetary and emotional, teachers make in order to serve the students and communities they love. Perhaps what I love most about this book is that is never quite dips into the teacher-as-saint narrative. Even as the three teachers we follow are heroic, they make mistakes and struggle with their own failings—and some of the educators who surround them are downright awful. In other words, The Teachers both illustrates what is unique about teaching and how it is just a job like any other, filled with challenges and staffed by people both excellent and mediocre.