Unsung Heroes

Reviewed by Rafe Esquith
Sunday, June 26, 2005

TEACHERS HAVE IT EASY: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers

By Daniel Moulthrop, Nínive Clements Calegari and Dave Eggers

New Press. 355 pp. $25.95

As Jack Nicholson growls at Tom Cruise in "A Few Good Men," "You can't handle the truth!" It's a deservedly famous line because the search for truth is universal. We pursue it even though we may not like what we find. When Hamlet gives advice to the Players, he reminds them that the purpose of acting is "to hold the mirror up to nature." The priest in "Rashomon" faces his greatest crisis of conscience when he discovers that even the simplest of truths can be very difficult to discover. As a classroom teacher for almost a quarter-century, I have had the often frustrating experience of reading books and articles about education that I know do not even approach the truth. Teachers who claim that they have all the answers, opinionated pundits who could not teach a class to save their lives, and proponents of the latest scheme to save the world have all weighed in on the issue of education.

Now comes Teachers Have It Easy , a book that, I'm pleased to say, is full of truth. In a lively, well-organized format, authors Daniel Moulthrop, Nínive Clements Calegari and Dave Eggers have provided one of the most accurate descriptions of the world of teaching I have read in a long time. The book will remind teachers who threw in the towel years ago of the outrageous expectations set for them by a dysfunctional system. Stubborn teachers who continue to hang in there will laugh and cry at themselves as they recognize the often insane things we do. Most important, the book does a fine job of dispelling certain myths that all too many believe about teaching.

The authors have made several wise decisions in presenting their arguments. Rather than rely on theory, they support their premise by going to the front lines and telling tales of actual teachers, who are refreshingly frank in discussing their successes, failures, joys and disappointments. In addition, rather than merely being a forum for complaints, the book offers solutions.

The main argument is that to save our educational system teachers must be fairly compensated for the enormously important and difficult work they do. We meet teachers who are trying to save lives while working night jobs because they cannot make ends meet. All teachers will personally connect with the stories of those who have gone into debt by regularly reaching into their own pockets to finance their classrooms.

One chapter, "A Day in the Life," in which a teacher's daily schedule is juxtaposed with that of a pharmaceutical salesman, is both hilarious and tragic. There are great moments here, such as when the teacher's day continues after 3 p.m., when many assume that he or she is done for the day. As the salesman plays a video game and participates in a softball game in the late afternoon and evening, the teacher answers angry e-mails, helps students with homework and finally falls asleep grading papers. As any teacher knows, there are moments when the simple of act of going to the bathroom becomes practically impossible because of the system's demands.

As with any book about education, the reader will take exception to certain issues or will want to join in the discussion. While I agree with many of the authors' contentions, and have seen firsthand examples of teachers who cannot support their families or live in the neighborhoods where they teach, I believe that the authors have missed some problems.

For example, there are terrible teachers in the system, and lots of them. We've either seen them or had them growing up. This year in my own elementary school, I have seen a fifth-grade teacher attempt to teach his kids about the "Cival War," walked in on another teacher showing her 10-year-old students the grisly horror film "Freddy vs. Jason," and watched other teachers distribute answers to a literacy test to their students before the testing began. Some of my former students told me that their sixth-grade math teacher simply puts on music every period and the class dances. The authors might argue that paying teachers more would eliminate such travesties, but the point needs to be made that it is far too difficult to get rid of bad teachers.

Also, the book is a bit hazy in defining great teaching. The teachers who are profiled are definitely hardworking and caring people, but that alone does not make them great in the classroom. The authors pay a lot of attention to teachers' work experience and their various degrees. But any true measure of a teacher would have to take a look at the students and how their lives have been changed. Children get short shrift here, but they must be at the center of any discussion about education.

However, these are simply important parts of a discussion, one that is stimulated by this engaging and often accurate look at teaching today. Moulthrop, Calegari and Eggers note a few examples of districts and teachers' unions that have found ways to take better care of teachers and improve schools. But I do not share the authors' cautious optimism that one day teachers will be compensated fairly. In a society where enormous amounts of time and money are spent on celebrity trials and reality television, I highly doubt our culture will ever embrace teachers and reward outstanding work in the classroom. Still, cautious optimism is a good thing, and so is Teachers Have It Easy . Buy yourself a copy, and may the discussion continue. ·

Rafe Esquith, the author of "There Are No Shortcuts," teaches at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles. His students, The Hobart Shakespeareans, are the subjects of a film to be shown on PBS in September.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company