Contented Reader

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Up the Down Staircase

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Up the Down Staircase

Bel Kaufman

Avon

My paperback copy of Up the Down Staircase is 43 years old.  Its cover is proudly priced at ninety-five cents.  The book itself is actually 48 years old now.  And it’s about a subject that is so fast-moving; the experience of teaching in an urban school.  After nearly fifty years of school reform, this book ought to be entirely dated, interesting only as a glimpse of what schools were like before school reform.

But no.  This book could have been written yesterday.  By me.

Sylvia Barrett is a naive English teacher, entering her first year of teaching for a New York City public high school.  She loves poetry, and hopes to inspire young people.  She knows a lot about Chaucer.  She is almost entirely unprepared for the work, for staying on top of bureaucracy, for managing a classroom, for dealing with students’ frighteningly huge problems.  This book tells the story of her first semester as a teacher, from September until Christmas.

Aspects of it are dated.  Of course.  The slang, for example, is all different.  Her pile of petty bureaucracy is on paper, delivered as memos, while mine is mostly in the form of e-mail.  But other than that, her experience was a very close mirror to my first year of teaching in a large urban school.

I’ve read various books about teaching over the years.  Most of them were of the ‘great teacher changes kids’ lives’ model.  This one is more of the ‘unprepared teacher battles despair’ plotline, which is a lot more honest.  You would think that would be depressing, but there’s so much humor in the book that it isn’t.  It’s the kind of gallows humor teachers use to cope on days like the days Sylvia seems always to have.  The book shows the hopeless difficulty of making any real difference, and the joy of those rare moments when she makes a little difference despite it all.

There’s one thing all the books I know of about what it’s like to be a teacher have in common: they’re all written by people who taught for a few years, then quit when they got their book check.

Maybe this book is a little too bitter and a little too critical of the school system to be a good read for the last days of summer vacation.  I have some anxiety about going back to school.  I’m going back to a challenging year, teaching kids who are going to be more difficult to work with than I’ve had for a long time, new administrators, and a girlfriend (which requires me to find new ways of dealing with stress, because all my usual ones involve some variation on ‘hide in a hole alone and distract myself’).

Anyway, it’s still a good book.  And it’s still very true.  And maybe all the school reform we’ve seen has been window-dressing to make politicians feel like they’re making a difference, while in the classrooms, teaching is pretty much exactly what it has always been, and maybe, just what it always will be.

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Written by Contented Reader

August 25, 2012 at 8:11 am

Posted in Reviews

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