Alexandra Robbins’s new book The Teachers is a must read for all non-teachers who want to better understand the profession and for all teachers who want to feel seen. It’s an extraordinary work that combines broad scope, tight focus, telling details, and the voices of dozens and dozens of actual teachers.
In her introduction, Robbins cites the oft-repeated quote that “Those who can’t, teach.” Her reply sums up the goal of the book:
After the teachers in this book escort you through their year-in-the-life stories, our hope is that you will never tolerate that message, or anything like it, again.
Robbins structures the book around the months of the school year, following three teachers (elementary, 6th grade math, and middle school special ed) through their year. Those narratives are paired with deep dives into the larger issues teachers face, sparked with a combination of detailed research and quotes from more teachers. Robbins has created a book that solidly addresses policy issues without descending into a wonkfest, but folds them into a narrative that is engaging and accessible.
Writing about teaching often displays classic pitfalls. An edutourtist writer who stumbles, Columbus-like, into classrooms to breathlessly report things no teachers is surprised to hear. The teachers who heroically sacrifice their personal lives for the students because “it’s a calling.” Robbins, who works as a substitute teacher in a local district, avoids all the usual teacher cliches.
Robbins does not portray teachers as super heroes—her teachers are all actual human beings—but her admiration for them is clear as she calls them “among the most vital, hardest working, passionate and selfless members of the workforce—yet they are also among the most disrespected and undervalued.” The work is a testimonial to the heart, drive, craft and humanity of teachers.
I asked her what she thinks the public does not understand about teaching. “They don’t understand,” she said, “that the job a teacher is given is not a job that can be completed in the given hours. It’s impossible to do all the things you must do.”
Robbins captures many aspects of teaching, from the “schoolmares” (those nightmares featuring students and the classroom) to the constant balancing of needs and demands from a dozen directions to the obstacles created by administration and, unfortunately, other teachers.
The book addresses many of our current issues, from the effects of the pandemic to the culture wars to teacher burnout. While Robbins addresses many of the factors that contribute to teacher burnout (such as the toxic effects of high stakes testing), she also suggests there’s another way to look at the issue.
Rather than suggesting that teachers as having the worst burnout rate, being uniquely unable to meet the demands of “shifting and expanding expectations” laid on them by “districts that don’t give them the tools necessary,” why not instead say that “school systems are the employers worst at providing necessary supports and resources for employees.”
What are three concrete steps that school districts could take to fight burnout, I asked. She gave three good answers:
1) Invest in personnel rather than new programs. Adding teachers and support staff (paras, aides, counselors, and a nurse in every school) while paring down newfangled curriculum initiatives and other programs would at least be a first step to better keep a teacher’s job within the paid contracted hours.
2) Increase teachers’ pay. No teacher should have to work a second job just to be able to afford to keep teaching.
3) Increase teachers’ decision-making power and autonomy. Every committee that determines school operations should be led by a teacher; teachers know best what will work in today’s classrooms.
In forty-some years, I have not read a better book about the reality of teaching. This book is a must read for everyone interested in the profession so central to our society, yet so often maligned and misunderstood.