The Teachers: A Year Inside America's Most Vulnerable, Important Profession

The Teachers: A Year Inside America's Most Vulnerable, Important Profession

by Alexandra Robbins
The Teachers: A Year Inside America's Most Vulnerable, Important Profession

The Teachers: A Year Inside America's Most Vulnerable, Important Profession

by Alexandra Robbins


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***A National Bestseller***

A riveting, must-read, year-in-the-life account of three teachers, combined with reporting that reveals what’s really going on behind school doors, by New York Times bestselling author and education expert Alexandra Robbins.

Alexandra Robbins goes behind the scenes to tell the true, sometimes shocking, always inspirational stories of three teachers as they navigate a year in the classroom. She follows Penny, a southern middle school math teacher who grappled with a toxic staff clique at the big school in a small town; Miguel, a special ed teacher in the western United States who fought for his students both as an educator and as an activist; and Rebecca, an East Coast elementary school teacher who struggled to schedule and define a life outside of school. Robbins also interviewed hundreds of other teachers nationwide who share their secrets, dramas, and joys.
Interspersed among the teachers’ stories—a seeming scandal, a fourth-grade whodunit, and teacher confessions—are hard-hitting essays featuring cutting-edge reporting on the biggest issues facing teachers today, such as school violence; outrageous parent behavior; inadequate support, staffing, and resources coupled with unrealistic mounting demands; the “myth” of teacher burnout; the COVID-19 pandemic; and ways all of us can help the professionals who are central both to the lives of our children and the heart of our communities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101986752
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/14/2023
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 16,341
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Alexandra Robbins, the author of five New York Times bestselling books and a Goodreads Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been honored for “Distinguished Service to Public Education.” She has written for several publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic, and has appeared on hundreds of television shows, including 60 Minutes, Today, CBS Mornings, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The View, and The Colbert Report.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


A Maryland administrator to a group of female math teachers: "Long-term subs are really hard to find, so I need you to not get really sick or pregnant this year."

A district arts coordinator to a Texas high school art teacher: "We don't need to give you money for art supplies because you can repurpose found objects, like toilet paper cores and cereal boxes!"

A parent at a parent-teacher conference, banging his fists on the table and screaming at a Michigan high school English teacher: "I'm coming to get you, little girl. Just wait. I am coming to get you."

Rebecca AbramsElementary School Teacher

Ah, summer, that long relaxing stretch during which the nation's teachers, freed from all classroom and contractual obligations, spend the entirety of their "summers off"-"they're off four months a year"-on a "paid vacation" (after working their "part-time job" for "only 180 days" during which all they have "to do is show up the next year, teach the same class, and do the same job, and they automatically get a cost of living increase") either partying with abandon, three sheets to the wind, or generally loafing about, comatose on the beach.

Haha, not.

Following a month of lesson prep and continuing ed coursework, Rebecca Abrams met with Yvonne, Eastern Elementary School's instructional coordinator, to go over the gifted English language arts curriculum requirements. After two years of teaching 4th grade (following stints in 3rd and 1st), Rebecca felt confident that her gifted math lesson plans were effective and fun, and she was well prepared for her on-grade-level social studies and science classes. But she hadn't taught gifted ELA before and the curriculum, set by a combination of district and state entities, was a beast.

During their nearly four-hour session, Yvonne handed Rebecca endless packets, too thick to staple, of the units and strategies the class was expected to cover, each accompanied by a teacher's guide and student workbook or dozens of pages listing URL links for teachers. The district provided no direction explaining the order in which to teach the units or how to incorporate the strategies. The preassessment for one unit analyzed a poem that Rebecca, a lifelong literature buff, didn't fully understand, but somehow the county expected nine-year-olds to comprehend it before the class covered its first poetry unit.

"You'll be so good at this!" Yvonne said.

"I'm going to die!" Rebecca announced. She shook her mop of untamable copper curls, which along with her general zaniness, had led many students over the years to refer to her as Ms. Frizzle, of Magic School Bus fame.

For three summer weeks after that meeting, Rebecca struggled to figure out how to integrate the mountain of advanced requirements into the general ed curriculum she was supposed to teach the gifted ELA class. The units and strategies did not overlap. She had never even heard of some of the strategies.

In August, when Rebecca learned there would be a professional development session on 4th grade gifted ELA, she was delighted-and not because she enthusiastically considered herself a big dork (though she did). PDs, which had varying levels of usefulness, could span anywhere from a one-hour workshop to a yearlong class. To keep their licenses, teachers had to accumulate continuing education credits, which they often earned over the summer.

In a classroom at a nearby elementary school, the curriculum guides were spread out on a table. Awesome, they're explaining the guides! Rebecca thought. I'm so glad they're having this PD.

The facilitator introduced herself to the three dozen seated teachers. "Here are a bunch of links," she said, gesturing to a Smart Board. "You should bookmark them. They're important. And here's an online community. You should join it. Okay, go ahead!"

The teachers continued to look expectantly at the facilitator. While some had taught gifted ELA before, many of the attendees were either new to the program or, like Rebecca, had taught only gifted math.

"This is your time to look through it all. You can talk to each other about it!" the facilitator prodded.

I thought you were going to train us to make sense of this, Rebecca thought. She had already reviewed every page of the resource materials several times.

As the facilitator strolled around the room talking to participants, Rebecca raised her hand to request help designing lessons. The facilitator started toward her, then turned to talk to another table. While she waited, Rebecca reviewed the Google Docs links, which emphasized, yet again, just how much material there was. She raised her hand once more when the facilitator turned in her direction, but the presenter suddenly veered off as if pulled by a magnet. The third time this happened, Rebecca's tablemates giggled. Now hands were going up across the room.

"I give up, I give up," Rebecca muttered, thinking, I don't know where to start. This is the worst PD of my teaching career. Rebecca was generally confident, bubbly, upbeat, and loud, but now she stared forlornly at her laptop. The veteran teachers at the table talked about happenings at their school. Looking beaten, the other new gifted ELA teacher at the table took out her phone to text.

Rebecca lowered her hand. Her tablemates noticed her dejection and stopped chatting. "Hey, we can get her attention for you, don't worry," one offered.

"Nah, forget about it," Rebecca said in her strong New York accent, worried she'd choke up if she said anything further because she was so passionate about giving her students the best possible educational experience. ("I'm a crier. All my emotions come out my eyeballs," she told me later, laughing at herself.)

Her tablemates peered at her more closely. Their hands shot up at the same time. "She has a question!" they shouted, pointing to Rebecca. "She's been trying to get your attention!"

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" the facilitator said, hurrying to their table. She looked at Rebecca, waiting.

"I'm so overwhelmed, I don't know what to do," blurted Rebecca, mortified when a few tears rolled down her cheeks.

The veterans jumped in. "Oh hey! It's not that bad!" "It's like a big mishmash of things!" "She's right, this PD would be more helpful if it included lessons or a calendar or something more concrete."

"Why don't you just pick one or two things to focus on this quarter," the facilitator said.

"But which ones?" Rebecca asked.

"That's up to you!"

Rebecca didn't challenge her. She left the meeting feeling no more informed. In her car, she blared her version of "angry music"-some Linkin Park, "Smash the Mirror" from the musical Tommy, "Good for You," from Dear Evan Hansen-and sang along at the top of her lungs. To boost her mood, she drove to Eastern, where she could "do something productive that I'm good at: setting up my classroom." She arranged her classroom library, hung bulletin board borders, and organized desk supplies and cabinets, physical tasks that calmed her because she could methodically cross them off her to-do list.

This was "summer vacation" for a teacher, the time when the general public seemed to believe teachers did not work. Certainly, teachers who weren't in classrooms over the summer could have less day-to-day stress, and some teachers made the most of the season by recharging, as they deserved to, because they were paid only 10 months of the year. But most teachers' work continued with second jobs or required certification courses, compliance trainings, PDs, planning meetings, creating new classroom resources, learning new curricula, and developing and revising lesson plans and strategies. Because of nonsensical district training schedules, Rebecca had even been required to sit through the same online training on a new textbook twice this summer.

In Rebecca's district, teachers' yearly contracts stipulated that they could be asked to work beyond stated working hours for school-related activities; those who refused were breaking contract. Rebecca had been half amused when she saw a mandatory district training presentation slide stating unironically that the teachers' workweek ended at midnight on Fridays and began at 12:01 a.m. on Saturdays.

It was no wonder Rebecca didn't have time for the life she thought she wanted. At the start of her teaching career, she'd tried to date, do community theater, and sing in her synagogue's chorus. But when her principal switched her to different grades in consecutive years, finding work/life balance became impossible. Last year, Rebecca had been frustrated that she couldn't often help her siblings with their children, go dancing on weeknights, or spontaneously see friends on weekends. She'd given up Nacho, a dog she'd loved and fostered for a few months. She had to back out of auditioning for a musical. All because teaching dominated her life.

Rebecca missed the camaraderie, culture, and inside jokes of what she called her "strange and glorious" musical theater community. And at 29, she thought that perhaps five years without a date was her limit. Her last relationship ended when her boyfriend moved out because Rebecca, at 24, was always working. After they broke up, he told her he'd almost ended the relationship several times before that because she wasn't home or paying attention to him.

This summer, Rebecca's best friend, Aiko, had cajoled her into making a pact that they would both try online dating. Rebecca loved her work, but she wanted her life back. I can't believe I haven't dated in five years. This is the year, she vowed as she got her classroom in order. I'm going to have a social life again. Was that really too much to ask?

Rebecca was shaking her booty and singing inappropriate song lyrics about half an hour before the start of the first day of school when the assistant principal stuck her head in Rebecca’s classroom. “Hi, I’m glad you’re here. I want to introduce you to some people,” the AP said. She led a mom and two kids into the room. “This is Holly. She’s new to Eastern and she’ll be in your class.” Holly peered shyly from behind her mother.

"Holly, hi! It's so great to meet you!" Rebecca enthused, overexuberantly shaking hands with Holly and her little brother. "So listen-SNEAK PEEK: I sing and dance in class all the time because I'm a Disney princess."

Holly, still hiding, laughed. The AP agreed: "That's true. Sometimes I'll be walking down the hallway and I'll hear singing coming from here. Really, really loud singing."

"It's a good thing you didn't come into my room five minutes earlier," Rebecca said to the adults, who snickered because they'd heard her.

The AP looked at Holly. "You know what else Miss Abrams does? She walks down the hall reading her Kindle. I'm amazed she doesn't walk into things."

"Oh, I totally walk into things!" Rebecca told Holly. "That's another sneak peek. But it's worth it because I lo-ove reading!"

"Me too!" Holly exclaimed.

Rebecca chatted in her usual boisterous way with Holly and her brother. When they left, she resumed singing. As she usually did in the minutes before the first day of school, Rebecca double-checked her giant first-day to-do list to determine whether she needed to make copies, bring home papers to cut for projects or books to judge for potential read-alouds, and so forth. She admired how neat her room looked because it definitely would never look that nice again for the rest of the year. Today she also worried about doing the gifted ELA program justice and whether parents might complain to administrators that she wasn't offering students enough of a challenge.

At least her colleagues had her back. Rebecca loved most of her coworkers. Her closest friend at school, Trixie, was a fellow 4th grade teacher. They helped each other at every turn, moving furniture together during classroom setup, dropping off surprise funny pick-me-ups, pooling classroom supplies, and vetting each other's emails to parents and administrators. Rebecca was also tight with Evangeline, Eastern's music teacher, with whom she had a history of Prank Wars.

Later that morning, when her students had settled and put away their supplies, Rebecca gave her annual spiel, which she'd previewed for Holly. "I have four very important things to tell you," she announced. "First, I spontaneously burst into song and dance. If anyone says anything that makes me think of a song, I'll sing. Sometimes I'll even have a dance routine that goes with it." She couldn't help it; whenever she heard something that reminded her of a song-and with her extensive musical background, she knew a lot of songs-Rebecca sang. She'd never gone longer than a week without singing in class. Sometimes she burst into song during Eastern's weekly team meetings. Her colleagues were used to it.

"Number two: I'm very clumsy. I'll trip over the computer cord, fall onto your desks, trip over air." The kids laughed. "When I'm trying to toss you things, I will accidentally hit you. You will all get hit by a flying whiteboard marker sometime this year. You're allowed to laugh as long as you're laughing with me, not at me."

"Three: I'm really forgetful. I have some strategies that help me work around it, like writing notes on my hand and Post-it notes. So you might need to help me remember things."

"Four: I have very high expectations." As happened every year, the students' faces fell. "What I mean is, I expect you to try your best and take learning seriously. That doesn't mean we won't have fun. I just expect you to do your best and not give up. Can you all do that?"

The kids looked relieved. "Oh! Yeah!" "We can do that!"

"I'm going to challenge you. I'm not going to let you sit on your bippies!" Rebecca said. "But you will all learn in my class."

At a staff meeting after school that day, administrators discussed building relationships with students and their families. "Just to show how this is already happening at Eastern, I'm going to out Rebecca," the AP said from the front of the cafeteria. Everyone turned and looked at Rebecca.

"Ohh, Rebehhccaa, what'd you doo," Trixie singsonged.

Rebecca, who had no clue, offered a hammed-up shrug.

"Rebecca doesn't know I'm about to say this," the AP continued, "but she's already started building a relationship with a student new to the school. Let me tell you about this visit." She told the group that Holly had come from a small private school where she didn't have positive relationships with her classmates or teachers. She was anxious about attending a new school-and then she met Rebecca. The AP explained how Rebecca quickly and warmly established a rapport with the student. Rebecca was surprised; she hadn't thought about the interaction all day.

"As I walked the family back down the hallway," the AP said, "the student stopped dead in the middle of the hall while I was talking to her mother and announced, 'I think this is going to be my best school year ever!'"

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