The message of “The Teachers” comes into clear focus long before the final words of this 384-page dissection of what’s wrong with American public education, seen principally through the eyes, ears and experiences of three teachers in different areas of the nation.
Author Alexandra Robbins also interviewed hundreds of other teachers and many of their voices are here, too.
Robbins paints a portrait of public schools across the land where many, if not most, of the educational support systems are crumbling or under attack.
Teachers are among the most altruistic and dedicated of professionals, but they are leaving the classroom by the thousands.
Here are the challenges the teachers cite:
• Pay and benefits significantly trail other professions. Moreover, many come to teaching carrying student debt that will burden their lives for decades. Robbins notes that teachers are five times more likely to take a second job than other professions.
• Resources as fundamental as paper and building heat are often not provided.
• Multitudes of parents either are disconnected, unable to control their children, absorbed by their own demons, or, they hound and threaten teachers, some foaming with rage if their children get a low grade. A teacher who suggested a parent read to her child every day was told “that’s your job.”
• Rather than supporting teachers, some principals pressure them into lowering standards to get students to the next grade.
• Specialists are in short supply and just one special needs student in a mainstream classroom can obstruct learning for everyone else. The book cites statistics showing 14% of students aged 3 to 21 now are in special education classes.
• Elected officials intrude in ways not seen before in American education, mandating, for example, that teachers avoid slavery realities that might make students feel guilty. In 2021, The Washington Post reported that the conservative nonprofit Moms for Liberty in New Hampshire offered a $500 reward to the person who first successfully caught a public school teacher breaking the state’s new law about how race can be taught.
The teachers in Robbins’ book retain their dedication despite all these obstacles, but readers are left to wonder how long even the most devoted can retain their fidelity to America’s next generation. Robbins granted them anonymity, and it’s impossible to imagine principals and administrators cheering teachers who shared their day-to-day experiences with Robbins.
One talked of leaving school every day “completely drained” and usually “crying on my way home.”
“The Teachers” is a call to action that as a nation, as communities, we owe our teachers much more than we are giving. As Robbins says, “It’s urgent that we improve their working conditions before it is too late.”