The Teachers: A Year Inside America's Most Vulnerable, Important Profession
March 16, 2023
For how important teachers are in the development of our children, teaching remains one of the most under-resourced, underpaid, and underappreciated professions in the United States. This is what writer—and substitute teacher—Alexandra Robbins explores in her latest book, The Teachers.
The Teachers: A Year Inside America's Most Vulnerable, Important Profession by Alexandra Robbins, Dutton
One of my clearest childhood memories takes place in my fifth-grade classroom. We were lined up before a closet with a small plastic basketball hoop hanging from the door, and our teacher, Mr. Jeff Gange, had a list of vocabulary words for us to spell. If we spelled a word correctly, we earned one point and the opportunity to make a free throw for a bonus point. When it was my turn at the front of the line, I stepped up to the makeshift free throw line, and Mr. Gange gave me what he said would be a challenging word. I spelled it aloud without hesitation: “C-O-R-D-I-A-L.”
He smiled broadly and turned to the rest of the class, saying, “That’s the sign of someone who reads a lot of books!” and handed me the small plastic basketball for my extra point shot. I missed, but still walked away elated. Reading had always been a pivotal part of my identity. I couldn’t—and perhaps still can’t—think of anything I’ve ever loved more. It meant the world to me to be praised for something I cared so much about by someone whose opinion held so much sway.
Small moments like these can determine the course of a child’s life and shape the kind of adults they become—at least, I know that was the case for me. And yet, for how important teachers are in the development of our children, teaching remains one of the most under-resourced, underpaid, and underappreciated professions in the United States. This is what writer—and substitute teacher—Alexandra Robbins explores in her latest book, The Teachers.
In the book, Robbins follows the stories of three teachers over one school year: Penny, a middle school math teacher; Miguel, a special education teacher; and Rebecca, a fourth-grade teacher. The teachers experience a range of challenges: Penny copes with putting on a brave face for her students each day as she finds herself going through an acrimonious divorce and being bullied by her fellow teachers. Miguel is confronted with having to meet the various needs of his special education students with diminishing resources while a school board member threatens to turn their public school into a charter school. Rebecca tries to establish a healthy work-life balance while trying to adapt to a new curriculum for her gifted students with little support. Though the three teachers teach different subjects and grade levels from one another and are based in different regions of the country, what unites them is the heartbreaking difficulty of figuring out how to stay in the profession they love while also taking care of themselves.
Robbins intersperses interviews with other teachers on topics such as parental aggression, teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic, and the dangerous structural issues that cause teachers to burn out and leave the profession. She also shines light on subsectors of educators that are often even more overlooked and underappreciated, such as physical education teachers, school librarians, and guidance counselors.
Though the book highlights many of the unseen problems facing the nation’s educators today, there are still moments of levity and everyday victories to celebrate. Robbins shares stories of teachers enlisting their students to engage in lighthearted prank wars with other teachers. She spotlights several instances where teachers discover untapped potential in their students and lead them to develop passions for math, cinematography, art, and more.
Towards the end of the book, when a student spontaneously announces, “Mr. Garcia, you’re my favorite teacher ever,” special education teacher Miguel reflects:
“I don’t think I could have gotten such a gratifying, human, and life-affirming moment in many other professions. While teaching is stressful, hard, and often overwhelming, you also get nuggets that signal you’re making an impact […] What’s wonderful about being a teacher is knowing that even after I’m gone, my life will have meant something.”
Along with an exhortation that we, as a society, must strive to do better by our nation’s educators, Robbins ends the book with an uplifting list of responses from teachers answering the prompt, “Why I love teaching.” The teachers give responses ranging from the excitement of seeing their students experiencing an a-ha moment on a difficult subject to the joy of spending their workdays with thoughtful and highly motivated colleagues. As one teacher puts it, “Teaching isn’t a career, but a way of living. You don’t go to work and then come home and stop being a teacher. It’s who you are.”
I can identify an endless list of moments, big and small, where my teachers have had a positive impact on my life. I can think of plenty of times when they’ve continued to cheer me on, long after I’ve left their classrooms—shout out to my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Virginia Nuss, who for years would send me newspaper clippings whenever I made honor roll in high school, and who still sends me kind messages via Facebook to this day.
And yet, I must admit, I’ve never truly stopped to think about what impact I may have had on them, or whether I’ve ever adequately thanked them for all they’ve done. After reading The Teachers and understanding just how much teachers give of themselves to pour into their profession every day, and how little they receive in return, these are questions I find myself wanting to explore further.
While we may not be able to directly pay back every single one of our teachers for all the meaningful things they’ve done for us, we can always pay their goodwill forward. As Robbins notes throughout the book, we can lobby our elected officials and push for reforms that create safer working conditions for our teachers. We can recognize educators for what they are: collaborators in the development of our children and our communities, not our enemies. At the very least, we can remember to be kind to one another, as so many of them once taught us to be.