I am a teacher. After my fifth or sixth year as a social studies
instructor at Tamalpais High School I set out to write a book
about education that more accurately reflected my experience
than what I’d been seeing in movies, reading about and listening
to on the radio.
Every where I turned I seemed to encounter either exposés of un-fireable rubber roomers huddling en masse in empty New York City administrative buildings or cinematic paeans to classroom
heroes — Hilary Swank leading her Freedom Writers to the literary promised land. So I resolved to tell
a truer, subtler, unvarnished story, something like the Kitchen Confidential of education. Classroom
My hope was to improve our education system by humanizing the teaching profession. If readers
better understood what it was really like to teach, I figured, they’d be in a better position to influence
policy, interact with their children’s educators and override the misleading stereotypes permeating our
Marin boasts many top-notch schools
that consistently score highly in state and
national rankings. That status stems from
several factors, including a supportive community, higher-than-average incomes, sound
organizational systems and, of course, good
teachers, not to mention a premium placed
on learning for its own sake. What’s more, the
value of Marin’s homes is directly linked to the
performance of its schools. Homebuyers are
drawn to the area in part because of elite public schools, which keeps housing prices high and, because of
funding laws like Proposition 98, ensures those schools have much-needed financial backing from the state.
But the story I set out to tell in my book Teacherland (published in August) focused on the adults in
the classroom, those with whom Marin’s sons and daughters spend the majority of their waking hours.
And it began, in my mind at least, on the way to work as I found myself in constant “dialogue” with
education-related programs on National Public Radio.
I came into teaching in the earlier years of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and
the burgeoning accountability movement, was there as the Department of Education under President
Barack Obama announced its Race to the Top grant program, and more recently watched as the Every
Student Succeeds Act rolled back much of NCLB’s dictates. All the while my up-close classroom observations have been very different from the views I heard espoused from 30,000 feet above — the latter
holding that the way to improve schooling was to tether teacher evaluations to high-stakes student tests.
During this time, as I commuted in my Honda Civic back and forth across the bridge, it was not uncommon for me to talk out loud at the radio.
Arriving at school, I’d speak with colleagues in the parking lot, on breaks, at lunch and staff meetings,
but these impromptu dialogues didn’t feel like enough. How would people outside the profession know
what it was really like inside it? Why would people not believe the misinformation they were hearing?
As I wrote I began to see a link between education policies and how teachers were represented in
popular culture. By painting a more human portrait of teachers, I was hoping to influence policy at both
the local and national levels.
When you strip away all else, it is clear that three key challenges currently confront the teaching
profession: competition, compensation and understanding.
If readers better understood what
it was really like to teach they’d be in
a better position to influence policy,
interact with their children’s
educators and interpret the
misleading stereotypes permeating
our national discourse.