Roxanna Elden is a veteran teacher of writing who struck literary gold with her first book, “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers,” which is widely used for teacher training and about which humorist Dave Barry wrote:
“You know how you’ve always thought that if you were a teacher, you’d go insane? Well, this very funny book proves that you definitely would. But in a good way.”
Now Elden is back with her first novel, a funny but insightful look at teachers in the workplace, titled “Adequate Yearly Progress,” reminiscent of the TV show “The Office” but set in an urban high school. Elden switches points of view among a diverse group of educators whose professional and personal lives intersect. Her goal, she says, was to write about teachers as they really are, not as Hollywood sees them. She said:
Teaching stories tend to follow one dedicated hero battling the odds to save her students – usually in spite of all the less heroic adults around her. Or, for humor purposes, they used the inverse of this: an irresponsible train wreck who says inappropriate things to students and has a bottle of tequila in her desk drawer. These portrayals never felt real to me. The teachers I know – myself included – are not so easily typecast.
Here are a few paragraphs from the second chapter of the novel, which takes place at a back-to-school faculty meeting. The first chapter of the book follows language arts teacher Lena Wright, who walks into school at the end of the summer and greets her colleagues, then learns some interesting news.
And then ...
Chapter 2: Science
Hernan D. Hernandez slipped in at the back of the auditorium. The back-to-school faculty meeting hadn’t officially started yet, but it felt too late to walk to the front of the room to join the rest of the science department. He slid into a nearby seat, its springs sighing at the year’s first interruption.
A presenter from the district stood on the stage, grinning at no one in particular. She was one of those heavily accessorized, well-connected former teachers who had long ago retreated to offices within the district headquarters, emerging at the beginning of each school year to give PowerPoint presentations. Behind her, a screen glowed with a picture of a beach at sunrise, hundreds of sea stars dotting the sand.
All of which suggested they were going to start with the starfish story.
Hernan pulled a pen from his computer bag. The bag had spent the summer in his closet, and its reemergence was one of many reminders that summer was over—no more soccer games with his nephew, no more helping his father in the backyard or experimenting in the greenhouses of the Hernandez Plant Nursery. For the next ten months, he’d spend most of his time indoors.
“Good morning, y’all!” said the presenter.
Conversation sounds dwindled as a few teachers returned the greeting.
“I know everyone is sleepy, but we can do better than that! I said good morning!”
“Gmrning.” It came out as a grumble. This crowd spent too much time around teenagers to respond to demands for cheerfulness. Plus, everyone now sensed that the presentation would start with the starfish story, which rarely preceded good news.
The door behind Hernan opened to let in a few more stragglers. He turned in time to see Lena Wright appear in its frame, the light of the hallway behind her. Her silhouette was slim and graceful, topped by an unruly crown of curls extending in all directions. She paused as if assessing whether it was too late to sit with the English department. Then she turned her attention to the back rows, brightening when she spotted Hernan. His faculty-meeting experience improved considerably as she slid into the seat next to him.
“Did I miss anything?” she whispered.
“Not much.” Hernan gestured toward the screen.
“I’d like to start with a little inspiration this morning!” said the presenter.
Lena squinted at the beach scene, massaging her temples with one hand as if she had a headache. She had short nails and thin fingers, her bone structure as delicate as the wing of a bat. “Uh-oh. Is she going to tell us the starfish story?”
And here is a little bit from Elden about why she wrote the book, which also appeared on the Education Week blog of Larry Ferlazzo:
ELDEN: The idea for “Adequate Yearly Progress” came to me while participating in National Novel Writing Month with my students. This is a challenge in which people around the world commit to writing the first words of a novel on the first day of November and finishing a 50,000-word first draft by November 30. To finish, you have to write so fast you can’t possibly second-guess yourself.
I’d always managed to bribe a handful of high schoolers to take on the challenge each fall, promising them extra credit and pizza parties. Then, one year, one of them said, “How about you, Ms. Elden? Are you going to write a novel?” There’s probably no better way to get a teacher to write a novel than this exact situation.
My own favorite novels have always been by authors like Zadie Smith, Tom Wolfe and Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. These writers capture their worlds using multiple points of view, a satirical eye, and a believable cast of colliding characters. Yet I had never seen stories like these set in a school. Just the opposite, in fact. Teaching stories tend to follow one dedicated hero battling the odds to save her students — usually in spite of all the less heroic adults around her. Or, for humor purposes, they used the inverse of this: an irresponsible train wreck who says inappropriate things to students and has a bottle of tequila in her desk drawer. These portrayals never felt real to me. The teachers I know — myself included — are not so easily typecast.
With all this in mind, my goal was to write a page-turning story that anyone would enjoy, but it was also important that the details rang true to teachers. I’m the type of person who will talk out loud to the TV during classroom scenes in movies and say things like, “I don’t think a student would RAISE HIS HAND to say that line!” Or, “Really? Everyone did the assignment? Everyone?”
The Hollywood version of the teacher story is too easy. Of course we’re rooting for the teacher who flamboyantly cares about her students — and also happens to be played by Michelle Pfeiffer or Hilary Swank.
Real-life teaching raises much more complex questions: What happens when that flamboyantly relevant lesson plan goes off the rails? What happens when a student says something that pushes the same emotional buttons as a teacher’s recent breakup? And what’s already going on in the classroom when that voice comes on the PA to announce yet another new achievement initiative?
Every workplace has conflicting personalities and competing agendas. In schools, there’s an additional layer because there are so many different ideas about how to do education right. I hoped to show all these competing forces at play in one school. And, though the story is not just for teachers, I hope the book offers a few extra laughs for readers who spend their days in classrooms.