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The Book on Teachers

The literature our students read may reveal what they see in us.

School gaze

by David Booth  

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Fictional teachers

by Francis Chalifour  

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A Few Fears and Fantasies

The high school experience haunts a 50-year-old man's dreams.

by Linwood Barclay  

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by Rosemarie Bahr  

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200,000 Members

The College passes a major milestone.

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The Book on Teachers

Teachers are a huge part of most writers' formative years, so it is not surprising that we figure large in the collective imagination of our culture.

David Booth began looking at children's literature in particular to see what the teachers found there could tell us about how we are seen by students.

Professionally Speaking invited David Booth to share his findings. Francis Chalifour supplements the evidence with a brief glimpse at teachers in books from French Canada.



School gaze

by David Booth

There are so many jokes, stories and rhymes in childhood lore about teachers that there can be little doubt how greatly we figure into some of our students' thoughts and a few of their daydreams.

Teacher, teacher, we don't care,
We can see your underwear,
Is it black or is it white,
Oh my gosh, it's dynamite!

Doctor Knickerbocker

Authors of books for children and youth readily draw on perceptions and misconceptions of teachers. In novels about school children, teachers may provide background and atmosphere or figure as central characters.

As a teacher my heart actually pounds when I read some descriptions and recognize the storying that must have gone on around me during my own career in the classroom. The English teacher in Laurie Anderson's Speak is one:

My English teacher has no face. She has uncombed stringy hair that droops on her shoulders. The hair is black from her part to her ears and then neon orange to the frizzy ends. I can't decide if she had pissed off her hairdresser or is morphing into a monarch butterfly. I call her Hairwoman.

Hairwoman wastes twenty minutes taking attendance because she won't look at us. She keeps her head bent over her desk so the hair flops in front of her face. She spends the rest of class writing on the board and speaking to the flag about our required reading. She wants us to write in our class journals every day, but promises not to read them. I write about how weird she is.

I remember my own Grade 9 English teacher well: a mysterious woman who wore the same black dress all year, until Easter, when she appeared in a bright pink floral number, to the silent cheers of the whole class.

Our students' eyes notice when we get contact lenses, when Miss Clairol visits or when sadness takes over our lives for a while. Bits and pieces of our personas are exposed as we teach, and slivers of stories enter the myths of the playground.

I have come to value our appearances in the literature that children encounter – from the ever-present Mrs. Marsh in Leatie Weiss's My Teacher Sleeps in School (my son did indeed have a teacher who lived in the school basement), to the sensitive Miss Stretchberry in Sharon Creech's Love That Dog.

On the whole we are portrayed as sensible taskmasters, sometimes exaggerated and silly, but usually supportive of the children involved in the tale. However, once in a while I am brought up short when the fictional teacher behaves in ways that resonate with difficult truths that I have read about or witnessed, or buried in my own mistake-riddled past.

Such examples can serve as warnings for the consequences that arise from forgetting the complexities involved in working alongside children. In I Gave My Mom a Castle, Jean Little's poems remind us of the effects of careless teaching, from Valentine parties where one student receives none, to Mother's Day card-making with a motherless child. And, of course, Robert Cormier in The Chocolate War describes school commitment gone berserk.

The history of English school stories is centuries old, beginning with Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays. The genre is distinguished by the differences in male and female education, by friendships, bullies, manly boys, tomboys, the inspiring teacher's speech, showdowns in the principal's office, dramatic rescues and moral dilemmas. After World War II the portrayal of school children and their teachers became more realistic, even in parody. In Andrew Clements's The Landry News, a fifth-grade student complains about her burned-out teacher who, for a while, simply reads the newspaper all day. (I asked a boy who was describing this book for me if the teacher represented only fictional characters, and he replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Sometimes.”)

We mustn't forget the widely popular Harry Potter series as a locale for school conventions wrapped around fantastical characters and settings. Contrast those stories with the realism of Jean Little, Brian Doyle or Kevin Major. In Major's Hold Fast a student is disciplined for fighting on the playground and the principal states that he will have to inform the parents that their son has been expelled.

“Sir,” I said when I finally got started, “you needs to read your stupid records. You couldn't recommend a lousy thing to my parents. Both of them are dead.”

As a teacher I enjoy sharing the foibles and fractures of our daily lives in school with the students, parents and other teachers I meet. Somehow, laughing at ourselves creates more opportunities for honest dialogue among the adults who supervise the lives of children. I am a great fan of Wayside School stories by Louis Sachar, in which our school lives are twisted and mocked and full of fun. The 30 classrooms in Wayside School are stacked on top of one another (rather like my faculty, OISE/UT), offering a teacher in the school, Mrs. Jewls, an opportunity to take out her frustrations on the advent of technology in the classroom:

“Watch closely,” said Mrs. Jewls. “You can learn much faster using a computer instead of paper and pencil.” Then she pushed the new computer out the window. The children all watched it fall thirty floors and smash against the sidewalk.

“See?” said Mrs. Jewls. “That's gravity! I've been trying to teach you about gravity, but the computer showed you a lot quicker!”

In Mable Riley, Marthe Jocelyn recalls her grandmother's reading primer:

Sal may sell a cake,
Lil may buy a cake.
Nick may sell a rake,
Nell may buy a rake.

We might feel grateful for the realism of the subsequent Dick and Jane series. And there is always the familiar reality of school projects to unite parents and teachers in complaints about children's inability to schedule. Some schools may have corrected the disparity between project assignments and children's ability to do them, but not those in this story by Jon Scieszka:

One bright and sunny day, Grasshopper came home from school, dropped his backpack and was just about to run outside to meet his friends.

“Where are you going?” asked his mom.

“Out to meet some friends,” said Grasshopper.

“Do you have any homework due tomorrow?” asked his mom.

“Just one small thing for History. I did the rest in class.”

“Okay,” said Mom Grasshopper. “Be back at six for dinner.”

Grasshopper hung out with his friends, came home promptly at six, ate his dinner, then took out his History homework. His mom read the assignment and freaked out.

“Rewrite twelve Greek myths as Broadway musicals. Write music for songs. Design and build all sets. Sew original costumes for each production.”

“How long have you known about this assignment?” asked Mom Grasshopper, trying not to scream.

“I don't know,” said Grasshopper.

John Scieszka and Lane Smith, Squids Will Be Squids

This passage set off personal alarm bells. In my first year as a drama teacher I assigned the project of building a model of a Greek theatre, to be completed in six weeks, to my 640 Senior-school students. I myself had never seen a Greek theatre (or, for that matter, a Greek) but those plucky kids, to a person, showed up with their constructions – dutifully created by parents, using plywood and cardboard and paint – and of course I had no place to put them. They filled my room, the hallways, the stairwells. I cringe at the memory of all those parents trapped by a goofy young teacher into supporting their children by putting on hard hats and rediscovering classical Greece. I never assigned another out-of-school project.

Biographies that recollect school days are no less instructive. In Guys Write for Guys Read, edited by Jon Scieszka, boys' favourite authors write about their own boyhoods. Naturally, teachers are present:

I was a huge fan of professional wrestling. My guys were The Sheik and Bobo Brazil. The only way I could find out about these wrestlers was through the newsstand wrestling magazines.

So I'm at the library, and I see a whole shelf of different magazines. As I go to check out my books, I summon up all my courage and ask the librarian if the library has any wrestling magazines. That is what I thought I asked; instead I think I asked her to show me what her face would look like if she sucked on a lemon for a hundred years. She looked like she was about to stroke out at the mere mention of wrestling magazines in her library. She made me feel stupid and I never went back.

Patrick Jones, Wrestling with Reading

Artists can show us the complexities of schools today. They can remind us that assessment is there to assist us in making life better for the students, so that we don't fall prey to designing schools like Whittaker Magnet School, where “standardized testing truly is the work of the devil.” That school boasts the highest test scores in the nation, but at what price? “The classes are held in dreary, windowless rooms and students are force-fed noxious protein shakes to improve their test performance.”

Does Edward Bloor have a crystal ball, or is his book Story Time just a flight of fancy?

Maybe it's because she is a drama teacher, but Madam, a character in Shyam Selvadurai's novel, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, has crept into my conciousness…

She had a way of looking at him, as if she saw right into his soul and understood something about him that he did not understand about himself. And what she saw made her more kind to him, more gentle. She never joked or teased him, or used her wit against him.

Children and teenagers – like all of us – search in stories for their misunderstood selves. They appreciate authors who see the school world through the eyes of childhood. As Jerome Bruner says, stories only exist when we somehow connect with them.

It may help us as teachers to enter the fictional worlds of school stories, interpret the perceptions and viewpoints of the students and teachers found there, and examine the stereotypes/archetypes of our own iconic images. Stories reveal much about the societies that surround them – time frames and cultural contexts. Today's narratives have gone beyond the schools of the past and reflect everything happening inside and outside the school, where life goes on for hours, without parents, but with us.

Like many fiction writers, educational reformer and author Deborah Meier celebrates the fact that “Teachers are by nature unique, unpredictable, complex, never fully knowable, and endlessly varied.” But are we allowed to reveal personal feelings inside these walls and our lives outside them? How real are we? How real can we be?

Ms. Dove and Mr. Edgars

Couldn't let anyone know
they loved each other so
each morning he stood
by his window in Room 225
saw her pull up in the parking lot
step out of her blue Toyota Camry
arms full of papers
his heart ran out to meet her
while he stood behind the pane
she always glanced his way
then hurried to her class

during break in the teachers' lounge
she dropped a quarter and a dime
into the soda machine
he stood behind her
rattling the change in his pocket
not a single word betrayed them
after she left
he tried to find something
to quench his thirst

all year they played
this quiet charade
so that no one
would ever suspect

and everyday he wondered
would it be so bad
if he took her hand
in front of everyone
whispered in her ear
rested his palm
on the small of her back?

Kathi Appelt, Poems from Homeroom

Rest assured: we teachers are part of the storytelling. Authors of books for young people weave their own memories of school life into their stories – the personal bits of teacher lore that all of us carry through life. Comparative literature professor Ted Chamberlin says, “It is the ground of Us and Them, and it is the answer to the question, If this is your land, where are your stories? Common ground.” I find my common ground as I read alongside the students.

We are certainly inside stories for youngsters. Such fun to know and useful to remember that we are under the gaze of our students every day.

Makes you want to buy a new shirt.

David Booth, a professor emeritus at OISE/UT, is an award-winning author of books for teachers and children. He is also a well-known speaker at international conferences on literacy in education.