Yet Another Teaching Memoir? A Teacher's Critique
Book publishers love stories about first-year teachers. The narrative arc is familiar: Exuberant idealism fades as the teacher battles entrenched bureaucracy, stale curriculum and disengaged colleagues or kids. The young educator then tries to overcome despair with creative grit and determination and struggles to make a difference.
The books often teeter between self-promotion and slams against the public education system. Some, however, actually shed light on the yawning gap between reformist rhetoric and classroom reality.
This month there's a new one out: The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School by Ed Boland, from Grand Central Publishing.
To get a take on how it lands in this genre, I asked a veteran New York City teacher to read it and write up her thoughts. Nicole Dixon teaches at East Side Community High School, which serves grades 6-12 in Manhattan's East Village. Here's her review:
When I first became an English teacher in New York City, I would often find my conversations about my job traveling an increasingly well-worn path: "You teach at an ... inner city public school? Those kids must be tough!" Whether these comments were made with an air of, "Good for you!" or "You must be crazy!" they felt somehow cut from the same voyeuristic cloth, especially when followed up by, "You must really have some stories!"
I did, in fact, have many stories, but the one I found myself telling most often was a humorous one centered around my inadvertently stealing a student's backpack. I knew, of course, as I told it, that this was not the kind of story anyone had in mind. I knew from the way their voices dropped at "inner-city" (read: Black, Latino, poor) that what they wanted was a tale replete with fistfights and broken homes and gang signs and teen moms. A heartwarming teacher-as-savior ending was preferred, but optional.
I could never fully articulate why I didn't feel comfortable telling those stories until years later, watching a TED talk given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In it, Adichie speaks about her own experiences growing up as a child of middle-class academics in Nigeria, and then arriving in the U.S. for college, only to discover that her roommate expected her to be impoverished, unable to speak English, and listen to tribal music. She says, "My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals."
I found myself thinking of Adichie's talk while reading Ed Boland's The Battle for Room 314. Boland, who left a position as development director for an educational nonprofit to try his hand at teaching, finds himself deeply disillusioned by his experience.
Boland's memoir of his first and only year in a New York City public high school classroom certainly does not shy away from telling the kind of story about inner-city teens that dominates the media and our cultural imagination. He opens the book with three epigraphs — a lofty one about the meaning of education from Horace Mann and one about the value of struggle from Alfred the Great.
And one from a student's "Getting to Know You" questionnaire: "I like to fight, I like to f***, and I like pie."
From that moment on, Boland's year is all downhill. Students throw spitballs, homophobic slurs, curses and calculators. He is disrespected and ignored, gets injured splitting up fistfights, becomes an inadvertent pawn in a student's drug ring and the target of another's accusations of sexual harassment.
Boland is the first to admit that his failings as a teacher were perhaps even greater than those of his students, unflinchingly detailing every disastrous moment. Including: a formal classroom observation that his assistant principal declares "the worst one I have ever conducted," and confessing that he responded to one student's "F*** YOU!" with a "No, Solomon, F*** YOU!"
Boland is candid about his own shortcomings, and gestures at the larger systemic and societal issues behind the problems in his school.
But he lingers longest on the outrageous behavior of his students: Chantay climbs on desks and hollers for Boland to perform an obscene act, and Kameron flashes his "dark shark eyes" as he threatens violence against students and teachers alike.
But underneath the grand displays of insubordination, the innocuous race and class-marked details of his students' lives seem to wear on Boland almost as heavily. "I began to loathe my students," he writes, "resenting everything about them that was their lot — their poverty, their ignorance, their arrogance," as if it is all behind him.
But his anger and disdain still pulse insistently through his writing.
It's not that I don't sympathize with him. Being a teacher is one of the hardest jobs imaginable. I remember during my first year the unique mixture of exhaustion and gratitude at the end of every day that I did not cry in front of my students. I remember repeating my mantra of "just do less harm than good today" over and over on the long walk to work from the subway. It's not that I don't recognize in his students some of my own.
Certainly many of my former students would probably meet Boland's definition of "thuggy," a word he uses often. I taught, for example, a charismatic, budding Bloods leader who replaced all of his "c"s with "b"s so as not to accidentally compliment Crips, and a girl recently released from juvie for selling the crack on which her own mother fatally overdosed.
I know there were even moments at which I thought of them as "monsters" — a word Boland uses so many times I stopped counting.
Teaching is a battle, and the enemies are everywhere: poverty, racism, ignorance, rotten cops, wrong-minded government officials, greedy educational corporations, incompetent administrators, the occasional parent. I've wanted to annihilate each and every one of them at one point in my teaching career.
But the battle is never, as Boland implies and as many first-year teachers imagine, a battle against students for power in the classroom. Every time he suggests that, he makes the real battles more invisible and harder to fight.
Boland's focus on his personal struggle to maintain order takes readers away from the more important national conversation about the societal inequities that are reflected in all of our classrooms.
And as a teacher, valuing compliance over the messy process of actual learning is a rookie mistake. Boland's older sister, Nora, also a teacher, tells him that his students "are people with free will ... [t]hey have very little power in their lives, so they will use it where they can."
The longer I teach, the more I see how little power most students feel they have both in and out of the classroom. My most important job is to give them as much power as I can.
Had Boland stuck around another year or two (he left after one year and returned to his career as an administrator at an educational access program) he might have written his story quite differently.
What he might have learned as a second-, third-, or fourth-year teacher would be enough to fill a much more interesting book. I returned to school after that first year to find that something inside me had loosened, and that enemies I hadn't realized I had — my own fear and a tendency to take things personally — had fallen away.
Like Boland, who raged at union rules that prevented him and his colleagues from giving up their one prep period to teach an extra class that would make their other classes smaller, I hatched a similar plan at my charter school. In time, I realized the importance of time without students, and how many young teachers work such insane hours that they burn out and leave teaching.
I cringed at Boland's descriptions of how he planned his lessons — a seeming daily quest to find a different interesting activity to hook students and make them feel successful. But the truth is that my own first-year lessons often felt just as purposeless and desperate.
Years later, I've learned that the lessons that grab kids are the ones that ask students to do hard work that feels important and authentic.
In the end, I came away respecting Boland's honesty, admiring his writing and vehemently agreeing with his pleas to integrate America's public schools.
It is a book that many readers may enjoy because it is a book that they expect, one of the two narratives (this time, chaos without the inspirational ending) about inner-city schools that seem acceptable today.
But his book ultimately fails to follow Adichie's exhortation to "engage with all of the stories" of his students and their community.
Nicole Dixon has been teaching in the New York City public schools since 2009.
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