Being a high school English teacher is like clinging to a speeding train by your fingertips. Maybe your spouse or the friends who slipped away while you graded papers on evenings and weekends will pry your flattened body from the tracks come June, but none of them will know what you went through.
But there are books that help.
“Getting Schooled” is Garret Keizer’s month-by-month account of his return to a high school classroom after 14 years. It is a wise and brilliantly observed testimony to the peaks and valleys of this underappreciated profession. His is an insider’s view infused with equal parts affection and cynicism; it is so readable, so spot-on, that everyone who’s been to school, teaches or has taught school should read it.
At 57, Keizer begins the year feeling like a dinosaur, though he adapts well to online aids Moodle and PowerSchool and takes pedagogical trends in stride. He decries today’s mindless acceptance of iPads even as he gratefully observes that students still embody that timeless paradox of being both sweet and annoying that keeps teachers committed to the maddening work of educating them.
There are things that make Keizer want to run from teaching and things that make him want to sign on for another tour. The fatigue, he writes “can feel especially sharp when the 4:30 display on my classroom clock marks my twelfth hour on the job,” or when students ignore his suggestions on their rough drafts.
“All it takes is a class of unprepared kids — half of whom are clambering for a third copy of an assignment sheet to replace the loss of the previous two, for a book to replace the one that’s been left behind in a locker … for an extra day to complete the homework, for the repetition of directions I’ve already given twice — to make me ask myself if I’m out of my mind.” And yet he is touched by his students’ good humor, their daily displays of decency. He notes the kids who come early to class for “dribble boy talk” while lobbing their “rolled up greasy wrappers” into the trash. He marvels how students in a school play appear “charmed and immortal.”
Keizer captures the seemingly small moments that make up a teacher’s day. The days become a month, the months a year. The book is like moving through a well-written syllabus in which our hero comes to love the world with all its blemishes and would gladly go to battle for its most disadvantaged members. Keizer may come off as crusty, but all told the man seems thoughtful, well-informed, rightly incensed, the bearer of a curmudgeonly affection for his students and his colleagues, and a really good English teacher.
For a broader view of the education machine, Lewis Buzbee recalls in his memoir, “Blackboard,” his experiences in California schools before Proposition 13 gutted funding. Buzbee’s whirlwind reminiscence touches upon common school experiences and throws in a bit of history. The result is a timeline of how the burly mass of experiences we call school enabled a boy teetering on hooliganism to succeed.
Christine Brunkhorst is a high school English teacher and writer. She lives in Minneapolis.