14 Mar 2023
Alexandra Robbins’ The Teachers is a powerful and moving portrayal of the challenges, triumphs and realities educators face in the American education system. Centred on the experiences of three incredibly dedicated and talented teachers, it masterfully weaves in crucial research and anecdotes from educators across the country to provide a broader context to their stories and those of their students.
It is a raw, emotional, and unflinchingly honest account of the realities of teaching that often brought me to tears. Rarely have I encountered a book that so accurately captures the obstacles, fears, hopes, and achievements that we teachers confront daily. Robbins allows us to glimpse these teachers’ personal lives, humanising them and illustrating their struggles in balancing their careers with their personal lives.
By now, we’ve all grown grimly accustomed to stories of school shootings. Nevertheless, we tend to think of them as dreadful one-offs, manifestations of a problem with gun culture. What Robbins reveals here is a distressing reality that many teachers face daily, encountering physical violence from students and even parents. She recounts incidents of educators being assaulted, threatened, and verbally abused, demonstrating that violence is not a rare occurrence in the educational landscape but a normal one. This stark revelation illuminates teachers’ immense daily challenges.
Robbins exposes how school administrations and policymakers often adopt a dismissive attitude towards such incidents, telling teachers to anticipate and tolerate such violence as part of the job. This expectation, coupled with the lack of adequate support and resources, places an immense emotional and psychological burden on teachers, forcing many to question their career choices and even leave the profession.
The author also explores the mounting pressures educators faced leading up to the pandemic, detailing how these issues spiralled into widespread resignations and a growing sense of malaise within the profession. What The Teachers skilfully demonstrates is that the pandemic did not create the challenges of workplace and parent bullying, constantly shifting curriculums, understaffing, decaying classrooms, lack of basic supplies and planning time, and low pay. Rather, Covid exposed and exacerbated them, making these pre-existing problems increasingly difficult to ignore.
Despite the harrowing nature of these issues, The Teachers also celebrates the joy and fulfilment that comes with being an educator. The featured teachers share heart-warming, amusing and relatable moments from their classrooms that had me nodding and laughing in recognition.
By the end of the school year, readers have journeyed through a rollercoaster of emotions alongside these educators, sharing in their pride and love for their students, the incredible progress many have made and the bittersweet goodbyes at the end of the year.
The contrasting emotions and the depth with which they are laid out do more than any campaign could to raise awareness of physical violence in schools. They add up to a clarion call for a collective effort to address and resolve this pervasive problem. Robbins emphasises the importance of fostering a safe and supportive environment for students and educators, underpinned by adequate policies, increased funding, and a genuine commitment to the well-being of all school community members.
As a teacher, I found Robbins’ portrayal of this complex subject matter to be both validating and empowering. While acknowledging the immense challenges and dangers that educators face, the book also serves as a reminder of the incredible impact that we can have on our students’ lives, inspiring us to continue advocating for a safer and more equitable education system.
All in all, I found The Teachers a profoundly insightful, compassionate and unapologetically honest portrayal of the teaching profession. It is an essential read for anyone looking to understand the challenges, joys and realities of education in the United States. But more than that, it’s a vivid warning to other systems, including ours, of the dangers of normalising abusive behaviours in and around schools.
By providing a much-needed platform for voices from the classroom, Robbins has managed to explain the often seemingly unexplainable experiences of teachers. I can’t recommend it enough to educators and non-educators alike, and I can only hope someone will give our own education system the same candid treatment.