Teaching memoirs

I love a good teaching memoir. During my first year in the classroom, I relied on the Teach for America memoirs (which are legion) to provide hope that I would prevail, despite current adversity. I’ve also included some organisational biographies and books of leaders which I’ve found especially inspiring.

1. Taught by America, Sarah Sentilles

This is the first Teach for America memoir I read. Sentilles joined TFA as a member of the 1995 corps and was sent to Compton, a city south of Los Angeles. Her beginning days as a teacher will sound comfortingly familiar I think:

I woke up before 5am each school day, made myself breakfast and packed a lunch, drove to the nearest copy shop to make copies for that day’s lesson, and then hightailed it to Compton. I taught thirty-six students all day, and then I cleaned my classroom, graded papers, planned the following day’s lessons, drove home, opened a can of something to eat for dinner, and practically fell into bed. I often cried myself to sleep. The next morning it started all over again.

If nothing else will, these American teachers will make you grateful for your school copier (even if there’s a huge queue after 7:30am and it jams five times a day). The issues of unsettled homes are writ large in this book: Sentilles contends with an ever-changing register of names as children leave and move into the area. Despite these struggles, there are some truly heart-warming moments in this book – although the ending can be hard to swallow if you’re a hardened teacher (I won’t give it away here).

2. Hands up! Oenone Crossley-Holland

This is the sole Teach First memoir of a participant I have been able to find (if you know of another please do let me know). Crossley-Holland’s placement school was alleged to be the one near my own placement, and a girls’ school as well; I thought I’d find plenty to learn from here. I wasn’t disappointed. The writer takes you through several “typical” days, and some of the challenges (both external and emotional) of working in a “Teach First” school. I found the style of the book warm and the writer extremely likeable. Her dialogue is convincing and the students warmly depicted, with a real sense of them as humans, often flawed by factors not of their own making, and eminently lovable.

3. Whatever it takes, Paul Tough 

This isn’t a memoir, but rather a biography – yet it is also informative of the challenges facing our students, and inspiring in one man’s quest for educational equality, crusading outside a classroom. Geoffrey Canada, a teacher by trade, took it upon himself to transform the life chances of children growing up in Harlem, creating the “Harlem Children’s Zone”, and Tough chronicles his movement in this book. This book is a must-read for any would-be education-reformers, as well as anyone with an interest in the backgrounds of the students they find in their classrooms. Depressingly, it also shows us how vast the issue of educational inequality is; at the same time, one might also conclude that more people with Canada’s dedication can do much to turn the tide.

4. The Best Job in the World, Vic Goddard

I’ve never tried to hide it: I am a massive, massive fan of Educating Essex (any international readers: this is a Channel 4 series which documents the year in the life of an exceptional school in Essex, England). Goddard, in the series, is seen in headteacher-guise; a very human headteacher, but still one with all the confidence such a role illuminates. His autobiography shows us that such certainty is created, not inborn, and Goddard takes us through the highs and lows of his career, whilst simultaneously repeating his rallying cry to those new to the profession: become a headteacher; it is the best job in the world. There is much to learn here, both about teaching, learning, behaviour management and, especially, leadership.

5. Teaching in the Terrordome, Heather Kirn Lanier 

This is another TFA memoir, one about an English teacher. It is suffused with genuine humility, such as Lanier’s retelling of her first lesson with her students, where she wants them to see reading as a door to new and undiscovered worlds:

‘See! It looks like a door!’ I close the cover to illustrate, then open it again. I nod. “A book is a door! Reading is a doorway into a new world!’ I raise my eyebrows, I smile. They stare back blankly. They show no signs that they are enthralled by the prospects of visiting new lands via literature. No music plays in the background, and I win no one over.

The sheer belief you have in your students is often met with complete and utter apathy at first; in Lanier’s disfunctional school in Baltimore, she overcomes challenges I could only imagine, and reveals more about the disfunctional American system than perhaps any other memoir I have read.

6. Work hard. Be nice. Jay Matthews

This is another biography of an organisation, this time KIPP: a chain of hugely successful charter schools which have gone on to inspire many of their UK counterparts. This is the story of Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two of my heroes (and it is well worth following both on Twitter); of their initial experiences in the classroom (both were not born teaching prodigies, comfortingly) and their unstoppable drive to change education for the better for as many children as they could. The story is peppered with anecdotes which show the human and reflective side of the educators; my favourite is the one of the student who can’t finish her homework because she is addicted to television (something I sympathise with). Feinberg visits her home and asks the mother for the television set. She protests that it is their only one, and he responds:

That’s fine, but you tell me you are powerless to stop your daughter from watching it, so it seems to me the only way to make sure she doesn’t watch TV is to take the TV out of the house.

After the incident, Feinberg humbly admits he has overstepped the mark, yet there is something heroic in the anecdote I think we can all gain from.

7. Radical, Michelle Rhee

If ever there was a truly “Marmite” educational reformer, it has to be Michelle Rhee. She is known to many through her appearance in the documentary “Waiting for Superman”, wherein she becomes chancellor of schools in Washington D.C, said by some to be the most malfunctioning system in the states. Her central aim is to put students first; unlike my educational inspiration, Dr Irene Bishop (CBE; Superhead) who contends that to put students first you must look after your staff, Rhee often accomplishes this aim by firing “inadequate” heads and incentivising the best teachers financially. Although this sits uncomfortably with me, her invective against mediocrity is compelling. We must always be familiar with what we disagree with. And I don’t disagree with her aims, her intentions; only at times her method. Rhee’s style is powerful and she really takes you on her journey through education, as well as leaving you will an irrefutable call to arms.

This post is un-finishable; I have not explored There are No Children Here or In the Deep Heart’s Core, two of my very favourite books, as they mainly reiterate concerns above – but I would urge interested readers to read both; the first set in Chicago, the second Mississippi.

Finally: readers, please direct me to more teacher memoirs; share your favourites and, most importantly, go and write your own so I have more to read.

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One thought on “Teaching memoirs

  1. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Reading all the Books

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