When you get off the school bus for the first time (which, for most of us in the United States, means arriving for kindergarten), you’re usually greeted by your teacher, who has come to gather up a new set of students for the year. That teacher is also usually female.
There are so many reasons for that, ones far beyond the scope of this book column — and that’s why I’m glad Dana Goldstein has written The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. Goldstein, a scholar with the Marshall Foundation, explains a lot about how teaching became a profession mainly for woman, why teachers unionized and the effect that our culture’s shaping of teachers has on today’s classrooms. The New York Times Book Review piece on The Teacher Wars found it “meticulously fair and disarmingly balanced,” meaning that Goldstein successfully battled her way through a thicket of material without getting caught on any partisan thorns — and the result is a book that successfully reminds the reader that although there are problems with modern teaching, marvelous teachers still exist.
Goldstein’s book, despite its wider scope and more serious tone, recalls an idiosyncratic memoir of teaching called Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman’s 1965 memoir of teaching English in an inner-city high school. (The book has recently gained some attention due to Kaufman’s death this past July at 103 years old.) The book stayed on the bestseller lists for 15 months and was made into a movie, but no adaptation could adequately capture the immediacy and energy of Kaufman’s recollections in pastiche, which include letters, memos, classroom assignments and witty descriptions of institutional red tape. As Sylvia Barrett navigates her way through her first year as a teacher, trying to interest apathetic students in Chaucer and Shakespeare, she realizes that in spite of her mistakes, in spite of the administration’s bumblings and in spite of teenaged ennui, marvelous teachers still exist — and perhaps, just perhaps, she’d like to learn to be one of them.