Having taught in public schools for more than a decade, I’ve often been frustrated by the limited portrayals of teachers in movies and books: Single-adjective secondary characters. Role models acting badly in goofy comedies. Idealistic rookies battling their terrible colleagues to save the kids. The initial spark for my debut novel, ADEQUATE YEARLY PROGRESS, was my own desire for a story that captured teaching in all its complexity. (It was one reason for switching perspectives among several teachers instead of letting one protagonist carry the whole burden.) And so, as a reader over the years, I’ve made note of any book in which the classroom scenes rang true. The books below are not all novels, nor are they entirely set in schools—but when they enter the classroom, they get it right.
Frank McCourt is best known for ANGELA’S ASHES, the platinum-hit memoir he published in his mid-sixties. But for the three decades before becoming an author, McCourt taught high school English. TEACHER MAN is a series of vignettes from McCourt’s career as an educator. It showcases the same distinctive style that made him famous: wry observations, self-effacing humor, stories shared without any easy moral in mind. Some chapters made me feel like I was sitting in the author’s New York City classroom, decades ago. Others made me feel like he’d been in my classroom earlier that day.
This memoir is perfect for those who cast a skeptical eye on Hollywood edu-dramas. Dan Brown captures his first year as a teacher with nuance, honesty, and realism, willingly portraying the type of nonheroic moments that would never make it into an inspirational-teacher movie—there’s a scene where he punches a hole through a thinner-than-expected chalkboard, for example. But what made the book unique were Brown’s descriptions of the less dramatic aspects of teaching. Reading this book felt like reliving my own early-career experiences. It also showed why some of the best and worst moments in teaching are not those that translate easily to a movie screen.
At the age of twenty-two, Dan Brown came to P.S. 85 as an eager, fresh-faced teacher. He was even as-signed his own class: 4-217. Unbeknownst to him, 4-217 was the designated “dumping ground” for all fourth-grade problem cases, and his students would prove to be more challenging than he could have ever anticipated.
Intent on being a caring, dedicated teacher but confronted with unruly children, absent parents, and a failing administration, Dan was pushed to the limit time and again: he found himself screaming with rage, punching his fist through a blackboard out of sheer frustration, often just wanting to give up and walk away. Yet, in this seeming chaos, he slowly learned—from the more seasoned teachers at the school and from his own mistakes—how to discipline, teach, and make a difference. The Great Expectations School is the touching story of Class 4-217 and their teacher, Mr. Brown. But more than that, it is the revealing story of a broken educational system and all those struggling within and fighting against it.
This is the book that made me want to become a teacher in the first place. The memoir explores the author’s motivations for joining a gang and his later experiences as a gang member. Its school-related scenes offer glimpses of how a teacher might have connected with the type of kid Rodriguez was as a student. And, as a high school student reading the book, I wanted to grow up to become that teacher. While some of the content is graphic (and definitely worth reading before assigning the book to teenagers), ALWAYS RUNNING is poetically written and filled with insight about what schools can look like to students struggling to find a place within them.
By age 12, Luis Rodriguez was a veteran of East Los Angeles gang warfare. But after years of losing his friends and family members to violence and prisons, he saw a way out of his circumstances through education and the power of words—and he became an award-winning poet. ALWAYS RUNNING is his memoir.
Even though ADEQUATE YEARLY PROGRESS is a novel, it owes a big debt to work by journalists and memoirists—so much so that a list of nonfiction books appears in the acknowledgments. THE TEACHER WARS is at the top of that list. In it, Dana Goldstein excavates two centuries of history of the teaching profession and links them to issues that still create classroom controversy today. For me, a teacher who sometimes felt trapped in a cycle of competing ideas about education, this book rang true—and brilliantly used the past to give a whole new context to the present.
Classroom management is a pretty fraught subject for teachers; our students are supposed to behave well because of our calm consistency, positive reinforcement, and relevant lesson plans. So it’s hard to talk about the days when all of these things go wrong. Gary Rubinstein doesn’t shy away from any of this awkwardness, and readers are better for it. He mixes solid advice with detailed accounts of his worst moments and missteps. This book made me snort-laugh. More than once.
Zadie Smith is one of the wittiest observers of human nature writing today, with an eye for the ways personal lives and political ideas collide. Her multiple-perspective storytelling style was a big influence on my own novel. ON BEAUTY follows a mixed-race couple and their three children as they navigate their various roles within a nearby university. Smith’s take on university politics—with its familiar echoes for those who have taught at any grade level—is a delight to read, and even more so through the perspectives of her complex and memorable characters.
Full of dead-on wit and relentlessly funny, this tour de force confirms Zadie Smith’s reputation as a major literary talent. Smith notes that she “has taken Howards End, that marvelous tale of class difference, and upped the ante by adding race, politics, and gender.”