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An inside look at the brutal realities of teaching

In ‘The Teachers,’ Alexandra Robbins tells the stories of educators and their successes, stresses and burnout

Teachers face “inadequate workplace support and resources, unmanageable workload, high-stakes testing, time pressure, unsupported disruptive students, lack of cooperative time with colleagues, and a wide variety of student needs without the resources to meet those needs,” writes Alexandra Robbins. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
7 min

Anyone contemplating going into teaching might be dissuaded after reading Alexandra Robbins’s latest work, “The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession.” That is not a disparagement of her book but rather a testament to its scope, accuracy and unflinching honesty. Never before have I read any work that so clearly depicts the current realities of teaching in America’s public schools, a subject I have followed closely as a recently retired teacher with 22 years of experience.

It isn’t that Robbins fails to shine a light on the considerable joys and rewards of working with young people. She herself took on a long-term sub gig in a third-grade classroom and writes movingly about the impact these students had on her life. And the book abounds with heart-tugging stories of students struggling because of a disability, an emotional issue or a situation at home, who were able to make a breakthrough or considerable gains thanks to the teachers profiled in the book. It is impossible to read about these students without being drawn into their stories and the efforts to reach them: Eli, a bright but volatile student whose mother shows little interest in his schooling; Zach, a selective mute whose past trauma has kept him from speaking to adults; Robert, a boy on the autism spectrum who finally achieves success by passing a state exam. The hope of experiencing moments like these was what attracted me and my former colleagues to teaching.

But the realities of teaching in 2023 are considerably different from when I entered the profession in 1999. Robbins notes that pressures on teachers began to shift in 1983, with the publication of the Department of Education’s report “A Nation at Risk.” Not long after, teachers found that their jobs now also required the management of high-stakes tests and the incorporation of new pedagogical practices and curriculum. Over the years, teachers were required to take instruction in social-emotional learning and accept an increase in mandated compliance training to monitor for neglect and child abuse. A sharp surge in school shootings brought a significant rise in lockdown drills.

As the duties placed on teachers piled on, no extra time was built into their day to manage them. Robbins cites several studies revealing that as teachers struggle to keep up, forsaking their evenings, weekends and lunch hours, the result is often burnout, exacerbated by “inadequate workplace support and resources, unmanageable workload, high-stakes testing, time pressure, unsupported disruptive students, lack of cooperative time with colleagues, and a wide variety of student needs without the resources to meet those needs.”

The result of these pressures is depicted in brutal detail in Robbins’s reporting on three teachers. There is Rebecca, an elementary-school teacher, whose high expectations of herself and lack of support from the school system have left her so exhausted that she is unable to manage any kind of a social life. She starts the school year with plans to begin online dating and get involved again with musical theater, a pastime she has forsaken, but school demands on her time have her working straight through most weekends, making her plans all but impossible. Further complicating her life is a year-long mystery in her classroom: One of her students is stealing Rebecca’s possessions, as well as her students’, and she has devoted herself to trying to get to the bottom of it. She finally discovers the culprit, a girl named Illyse, whose mother agrees to get her daughter into counseling. By year’s end, Rebecca resolves to give up the social life she attempted, at least for the short run, and concentrate only on teaching, which takes all the energy she has.

Penny is a sixth-grade math teacher who struggles to maintain her high standards in the midst of a toxic workplace environment and the breakup of her marriage. Her school’s faculty is cliquish and unwelcoming, and Penny often draws the ire of a few women who see her as a threat. Penny seems to succeed with students the others can’t manage, and her colleagues’ retaliation is to make her life as miserable as they can. As if this weren’t stressful enough, Penny spends much of the year sick with recurring respiratory infections caused by unaddressed mold in her classroom. Her complaints about it are ignored.

Especially unsettling is the experience of Miguel, a middle-school special-education teacher, who is teetering on the brink of leaving the profession because of the excessive requirements placed on him without adequate time and resources. His previous school year was a nightmare of abuse, with his students frequently attacking him; every few months he had to get HIV and hepatitis tests because of student bites. Complaints to a district administrator resulted only in Miguel’s being told, “That’s part of the job.” Ultimately, Miguel sued the district because of permanent disabilities caused by the attacks and won lifetime medical care.

Teachers nationwide endure similar scenarios and are leaving the profession at an alarming pace. Robbins reports that demand for U.S. teachers outstripped supply by more than 100,000 in 2019, while graduates from teacher prep programs plummeted by a third between 2010 and 2018. Along came the pandemic in 2020, and a serious teacher shortage became dramatically worse.

At first, when schools moved to online instruction in the spring of 2020 and parents saw firsthand the hardships teachers were enduring, plaudits poured in for the educators showing remarkable commitment to their profession in a difficult situation they had never trained for. Virtual teaching took much more time to prepare, execute and evaluate. And because students were often not required to turn on their cameras, it was a lot like teaching into a void. But as time crawled on and schools remained closed to in-person instruction, parents became critical, even angry. The hostility parents leveled against teachers was astonishing. In September 2021 alone, 30,000 public school teachers nationwide gave notice. Between August 2020 and August 2021, Florida’s teacher vacancies surged 67 percent, according to a count by the Florida Education Association. In 2021, California’s largest district, Los Angeles Unified, had five times the number of vacancies as in previous years, according to Shannon Haber, a spokeswoman for the district. The number of retirements skyrocketed, and I joined the exodus. I was within a couple of years of my target retirement date, but I left earlier than planned because of the mounting stress around the pandemic and an ever-increasing workload. My colleagues who remained have said that the 2021-22 school year was unbelievably hard.

One of these colleagues, who was named 2019 Teacher of the Year by my school in Arlington, Va., spoke recently before the school board to detail how her experience highlights some of the inequities facing teachers. Based on her careful record keeping, she stated that she expects to work a staggering 454 hours outside of her contract hours in any school year. “My job is impossible to do well in the time you pay me to work,” she told the board members. “I couldn’t even be average in the time you pay me.”

Almost every page of my review copy of “The Teachers” is marked with my comments and exclamation points as I encountered situations and circumstances remarkably similar to those I experienced myself. This is an important book that will come as no surprise to the nation’s teachers. But for those who seek a fuller understanding of what educators are coping with these days, it should prove invaluable. And for those who most need to read it — those in a position to effect change in the lives of conscientious and talented teachers who are considering abandoning the profession — one can only hope that its message will be heeded before it is too late.

Melanie McCabe is a retired teacher and the author of a memoir and three collections of poems, most recently “The Night Divers.”

The Teachers

A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession

By Alexandra Robbins

Dutton. 373 pp. $29

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