The Washington Post
September 13, 2009 Sunday
This summer, a mildewed, cream-colored copy of a 45-year-old novel saved me from a whopping midcareer crisis.
My decade of devotion to teaching high school literature -- years that brought me an intense sense of professional reward, much more so than my previous 10 years as a college instructor -- was in peril. But Bel Kaufman's "Up the Down Staircase," a 1964 portrait of a 20-something English teacher striving to bring literary passion to the students crowding her New York City public school classroom, came to the rescue like no professional development seminar I had ever attended.
Staring at the red letters outlined in black on the book's cover, I remembered the catchy title from my childhood, with no idea what it referred to. Although the book hit the bestseller list, was translated into 16 languages and became a movie starring Sandy Dennis, I missed it.
I never heard, despite years of banter with colleagues about favorite books, that "Staircase" was the classic portrait of an English teacher's struggles with school bureaucracy, with students up and down the axis of caring to couldn't-care-less, and with her inner self as she strives to do a job that asks everything -- oversee, organize, proctor, chaperone, coach -- except the thing she's there to do: teach.
The novel poses the question that still haunts many an English teacher: Should I stay and fight on behalf of literature, or go earn money at a job with intellectual challenges, edible food, bathroom breaks and a blissful absence of school bells?
This was the dilemma ruining my sleep. Even though as a private-school teacher I benefited from small class sizes, the multitasking high school grind was dragging me down. My daily rounds included five literature classes with roughly 10 minutes to review assigned books before class. That was all the time I had to prepare lessons and grade papers too. In between 250 minutes of instruction each day, the "free periods" were a mind-numbing dash from students' questions to parents' e-mails to administrative duties. Throw in, too, the daily troubleshooting: investigating a case of plagiarism, fixing the Xerox machine (again), explaining to the girl texting during class why she is going to the discipline committee.
All this, plus the biggest problem of all: how, while on the run, to instill passion for serious literature in a generation of students with a shrinking interest in reading, as iPods, Facebook and YouTube consume their mental universe.
A month after I read Kaufman's novel this summer, a stroke of lucky networking landed me in her New York City office. There I received the most inspiring wisdom on education that had come my way in many years.
Now 98, Bel taught English in New York City public schools from the 1930s to the 1960s. But she spoke about teaching as if she had retired yesterday. I asked her about the conflicts that fueled her novel. Her answer -- the absence of time to teach -- was something I had uttered more than once. "Parents have no idea," she bellowed. "Look, we are good teachers. We're inspired and inspiring teachers. Schools don't let us teach!"
That is precisely the challenge of the protagonist, Sylvia Barrett, at Bel's fictional Calvin Coolidge High. An idealist devoted to poetry and her students' well-being, Miss Barrett learns that teaching teens -- which she once thought of as a matter of knowledge and enlightenment -- is, more accurately, an improvised sprint through administrative memos, student reports, faculty meetings and chaperoning duties. "All our hours and minutes are accounted for, planned for, raced against," she laments.
Sylvia's struggle helped me realize how a decade of professional development workshops -- afternoons spent in dutiful analysis of "formative assessment," "differentiated instruction" and "curriculum mapping" -- missed another of Bel's central insights: that the human encounter between teacher and student is often a more powerful teaching tool than the academic content on a paper or test.
True to her profession, Bel made her point through stories. She recalled a former student who saved a graded essay all her life because her teacher, Bel, had written something about her personality that she treasured. She talked about a young man about to quit school -- failing all his subjects but science -- to whom she gave her own hardcover copy of Paul de Kruif's "Microbe Hunters," hoping that this book might change his mind. In September, back at school, the boy told Bel: "No, I never read the book. But you gave me your own hardcover copy. That's why I'm here." Like an actress closing a soliloquy, Bel murmured: "That's what reaches them. Caring enough. Caring. Never read the book, but came back."
These words confirmed my faltering sense about learning that sticks: that students remember moments when books furnish genuine human connections. Softening her voice for emphasis, Bel made sure I grasped the essence of her many years of literary instruction: "to point the way to something that should forever lure them, when the TV set is broken and the movie is over and the school bell has rung for the last time."
Bel, who, like me, chose teaching in a high school over teaching in a college, told me that she didn't want classrooms full of older students. "They were on their way," she said. "I was eager to work with adolescents in whose lives it was still possible to make a difference." It's a choice that strikes people as counterintuitive. Colleagues still ask me why I gave up prestige, faculty lunches and sabbaticals for a static salary, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and year-in-year-out teaching. Because, I tell them, it's a better job.
Not for everyone, but certainly for me. I understand the privileges of my position: the chance to open the door to an intellectual universe that most teenagers have never viewed before; the opportunity to help students forge their adult identities through a wide world of literary classics.
In 1991, in a new preface to her novel, a less-than-sanguine Bel wrote: "Now, as then, the school system is strangulated by its own red tape. Now, as then, it is mired in rigidity and befogged by empty rhetoric. Now, as then, teachers are overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated."
You don't have to look far for teachers who will agree with her. But change requires only the leaders willing to initiate it. What can teachers do? I suggest carrying forward the spirit of "Staircase." Like Sylvia, we have an eagerness to teach. Like Bel, we need to speak out -- unabashedly and insistently -- for the time to craft the quality instruction that our students will actually remember.
Nancy Schnog teaches English at the McLean School in Potomac.