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In 'The Teachers,' passion motivates, even as conditions grow worse for educators

Dutton

Alexandra Robbins' The Teachers: A Year Inside America's Most Vulnerable, Important Profession opens with this line:

"You may think you know what's inside, but you don't."

And Robbins delivers on this promise.

I taught four different high school classes for two years in Austin before the COVID-19 pandemic, which showed me what teachers experience. But the challenges, politics, and failures of public school districts across the country are as varied as their students — and they've been getting worse in recent years.

The Teachers is a year-long dive into the life of three teachers: Penny, a southern middle school math teacher, mother, self-described "math nerd" and Star Wars fan who struggled with a toxic culture at work while also dealing with personal turmoil; Miguel, the son of Salvadoran immigrants and a member of the LGBTQ+ community who worked a special-education teacher in the western United States and fought for his students as both educator and activist; and Rebecca, an East Coast 4th-grade teacher who became painfully aware of how she had no work/life balance and hadn't been on a date in half a decade but struggled to get her life under control and find time to do things outside of school. Along with interviews with hundreds of others, Penny, Miguel, and Rebecca — fake names created to protect their identities — are at the core of The Teachers; their battles, frustrations, triumphs, and heartaches illuminate how teachers, who literally shape our future, live a constant battle against financial pressure, entitled parents, politicians, and the educational system at the local level.

Robbins, an award-winning investigative reporter, New York Times bestselling author, and education expert, dove deep into the lives of teachers and exposed the many flaws that have been hurting the teaching profession — even before the pandemic — and how it's gotten worse. The Teachers is engaging and impeccably researched, but it's also hard to read because it shows just how bad it's been for a while and makes us wonder (if you've been a teacher you won't wonder as much) how people stay in a job that, despite having plenty of great moments, is so incredibly hard.

The Teachers accomplishes many things — bringing readers into classrooms, showing how politics affect teachers, exposing how awful things like book banning have gotten — but two of its biggest triumphs are eviscerating popular misconceptions about the profession and showing the colossal passion that keeps teachers going. In terms of destroying ideas about teaching, Robbins starts early and never stops. Teachers have the summers off! Teachers are paid for ten months and spend their "time off" taking certification courses, revising lesson plans, learning new curricula, and doing compliance trainings. Teachers are paid well! In many places, a teacher makes $30,000 per year after taxes and insurance payments, which means nearly 70% of teachers have to take on a second job to makes ends meet. In fact, the teacher pay gap "hit a record high in 2021, when the Economic Policy Institute reported that teachers were paid 23.5% less U.S. than professionals with similar education and experience." Teachers have great benefits! Teachers pay higher health insurance premiums than other state and local employees in most states and there are districts in states like Oklahoma and California where teachers must pay for their own substitutes when they take an extended medical leave. The list goes on and on.

The demand for teachers in this country outgrew supply "by more than 100,000 for the first time in 2019." Since, it's gotten worse. The same goes for substitute teachers, a job Robbins did while working on this book. After reading The Teachers, it's easy to see why. For example, Miguel's school, a Title I, only had a nurse once a week despite having students who suffered from seizures so bad they required an ambulance. Meanwhile the district had enough money to create a "a new academy for wealthy white families." Unfortunately, systemic racism is not something teachers can teach because they're also being attacked and censored in what they can teach. In the first six weeks of 2022, "state legislatures introduced more than 100 bills aimed at censoring classroom discussions of race, racism, gender, LGBTQ+ issues, and American history," Robbin writes. That's on top of the ongoing banning of books that deal with race, racism, and LGBTQ+ issues or contain BIPOC characters.

"Politics, greed, and mismanagement have made this profession incompatible with physical and mental health," Miguel is quoted as saying in the book. And he's right. Teachers have to deal with students and their problems while juggling inadequate pay and resources, unrealistic workloads that eliminate any semblance of work/life balance, and pervasive disrespect for the profession, especially from parents. This takes a big toll. Rebecca, for example, suffered from what she called "schoolmares," nightmares about school that featured the building and her coworkers. Things like this demand a change, and that's what Robbins wants.

The Teachers is an exposé, sure, but it's also a call to action, and our collective future is at stake.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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