We are all familiar with the “hero teacher” narrative from books and movies: A plucky young (inevitably white) teacher ends up in a tough inner-city classroom filled with “those kids”—the ones that school and society have written off as unteachable—and succeeds against all odds, through grit and compassion, embarrassing in the process those who run “the system.” Ed Boland’s The Battle for Room 314 is the dark opposite. It’s a clear-eyed chronicle of first-year teaching failure at a difficult New York City high school, vividly written and wincingly frank.
Reading the book brought back a flood of memories of my own struggles as a new teacher at a low-performing public school in the South Bronx. Like Boland, I had my share of defiant and difficult students. If I’d been teaching high school, not elementary school, I likely would have made the same decision he did: to abandon ship and return to my previous career after one year, shell-shocked and defeated.
Two things saved me. First, midway through my first year, another fifth-grade teacher was called up from the army reserve to active duty. I asked my principal to reassign me from my two-teacher “inclusion” classroom to take over her class. My other breakthrough was the discovery of The Essential 55, a book by Ron Clark built around a list of classroom rules he developed to teach his students to be attentive, engaged, and respectful. Taking over a new class gave me a fresh start in my first year and an opportunity to undo my rookie mistakes; Clark’s fifty-five rules helped me develop a hard-nosed action plan to address my prodigious classroom management struggles. (It’s worth noting that Clark’s book was a direct repudiation of the training I’d received, which encouraged us to allow students to create their own classroom rules so they would feel “ownership” of their “classroom community.” The only thing that got owned was me.)
With a fresh start and Clark’s book as my new bible, the rest of my year went more smoothly. The next year was better still. I felt in control and able to teach. Boland never made it to year two. When his book came out last month, I was quoted in a New York Times piece about him, making what I thought was an obvious observation—that we simply assume it’s normal for first-year teachers to struggle in the classroom. “Nobody says to an air traffic controller, ‘Everyone crashes a plane their first year; you’ll get better,’” I told the paper. “It’s not acceptable that that’s part of the profession.”
Almost immediately I received pointed emails from teachers. “Do you actually think that it is reasonable to expect any teacher, especially a new teacher, not to make mistakes on the job in a challenging inner-city school?” asked one.
Of course not. Veteran teachers make mistakes every day. My complaint is with the way we train teachers—or, more accurately, refuse to train them—in classroom management. The idea that every teacher struggles in his or her first year is not merely accepted but celebrated. And almost invariably, the teachers who struggle the most are in front of the students who can afford it the least.
Boland’s book is more a memoir than a prescription for what ails teaching, and he is admirably candid about his own shortcomings as a teacher. But he makes abundantly clear that he was unprepared for the job he was asked to do. “Two years of graduate school and six months of student teaching offered me little to draw from. I had taken courses in lesson planning, evaluation, psychology, and research,” he writes. “Next to nothing was said about what a first-year teacher most needs to know: how to control a classroom.”
Note, too, that Boland was not a Teach For America corps member. Critics of such “alternative certification” programs (I was a New York City Teaching Fellow) often deride the preparation offered in these “teacher boot camp” programs. Boland went the traditional education school route, and it was a disaster.
“What little I had heard was wildly contradictory, a mix of folk wisdom, psycho-jargon, wishful thinking, animal training, and out-and-out bullshit,” Boland writes. Most of what he learned wasn’t even from his education school professors, “but from the shell-shocked first-year teachers I shared my classes with. The majority of our professors hadn’t taught in a public school in ages, if ever.”
I know Boland personally; I worked for him briefly at an education nonprofit called Prep for Prep. He’s exactly the kind of person sought out by those who think raising teacher quality is the answer to what ails American education. He’s well-educated, quick-witted, engaging, and deeply committed to education—particularly for low-income children of color. It was hard not to read his memoir without concluding that he was failed by those who trained him, hired him, and left him to crash and burn.
“We treat first-year teaching like it is some sorority or fraternity hazing,” notes Kate Walsh, the head of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “Educators expect a new teacher to be sick to her stomach at the thought of how she is going to survive the day, just because that’s what they once did. It’s appalling!”
She’s right. It’s difficult to pinpoint why we seem so averse to making classroom management the centerpiece of new teacher training. Just the word “training” seems anathema to education schools. Training is for cops, firemen, electricians, air traffic controllers. It’s hard not to see a bit of intellectual or professional insecurity at work in education schools’ reluctance to stress classroom management.
Teacher quality advocates tend to talk mostly about “accountability”—measuring teacher performance, rewarding high-fliers, and counseling out those with lackluster results. We focus too little attention on how poorly prepared too many instructors are for the hardest jobs in the field. We assume struggling schools are filled with untalented or tenured layabouts. Far more often, these teachers are good people trying their best and failing. And they fail not in spite of their training, but because of it.