Class Dismissed

REVIEW: ‘The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession’

(Getty Images)
March 26, 2023

"Teachers are this country’s silent, constant superheroes," writes Alexandra Robbins in her new book, The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession. The book, which is filled with this kind of pablum, reminded me of nothing so much as a scene in the movie School of Rock where Jack Black, who is impersonating a substitute teacher, is asked about his educational philosophy by his colleagues. He proceeds to recite Whitney Houston lyrics: "I believe the children are the future … you can teach them well but you have got to let them lead the way." The other faculty members nod along earnestly. Education is very important and teachers are the noblest among us. Well, probably some of them. And probably some doctors and lawyers and construction workers and pastors and the people who fix cars too. Maybe they will be the subject of future paeans.

Robbins, whose previous book Nurses was subtitled "A Year of Secrets, Drama, and Miracles With the Heroes of the Hospital," has found a formula she likes. But the general public may find her latest love letter a little hard to take. After a few years in which teachers refused to show up for work and students fell hopelessly behind and were subject to the most outrageous forms of political indoctrination, one wonders how many Americans are buying the "teachers are heroes" bit anymore.

Robbins is absolutely right to point out there is a teacher shortage now and that, for a variety of reasons, tens of thousands have left the profession and fewer and fewer want to go into it. But she fails to understand why.

The first complaint Robbins documents is the lack of time that teachers have. Take Rebecca, a 29-year-old elementary school teacher who couldn’t find time to date. Her last boyfriend "moved out because Rebecca, at 24, was always working. After they broke up, he told her he’d almost ended the relationship several times before that because she wasn’t home or paying attention to him." There is no doubt that dedicated teachers spend a lot of time working, but the idea that as a general rule elementary school teachers can’t find time to date seems belied by the fact that most elementary schools feature a rotating cast of maternity subs.

Where do teachers find the time to date, get married, and have children? Well, because school teachers have summers off, they occupy one of the few jobs well-suited to having a family. Robbins complains that a disproportionate share of teachers work more than one job. But with the whole summers off thing, that makes sense. Robbins complains also that teachers don’t get paid enough—an average salary of $40,000 a year. One veteran teacher complained to her, "I will be lucky to make what a friend’s son started out making as an accountant fresh out of a five-year bachelor’s program. I feel like a fool. I am bright. I am educated. I work hard. I can’t get ahead."

Given that education majors enter college with the lowest SAT scores of any major (and leave with the highest GPA), the paltry salaries are not unexpected, though in many districts teachers are quite well compensated, especially when defined-benefit pension plans are added in. Accounting is a pretty hard major by contrast. But let’s also stipulate that good accountants get paid more than bad accountants. Which is not true in most of our nation’s public schools. So if we are to take this veteran teacher at his word that he is bright and educated and works hard, maybe he should register his beef with the professional union that ensured he would never get rewarded for his talents or his efforts.

Teachers’ unions do not make much of an appearance in The Teachers, though one of the book’s storylines is the crusade of some good teachers against the transformation of their school into a "charter-school-like-academy," whatever that is. Presumably the proposed school wouldn’t have a union. Little surprise that the blurb on the cover of the book is from Diane Ravitch, the notorious former education reformer who became a mouthpiece for the unions.

About the person leading the charge for transforming the school (because of its declining test scores), Robbins writes: "Locals didn’t trust Chad Tucker, the school board member with gelled inky hair. … He was a young white elite and former investment banker whose exorbitant funding came from out of state. His educated inexperience, out-of-touch proposals, and seeming affinity for charter schools led some educators to refer to him as ‘Betsy DeVos, Jr.’" Ouch! Here’s hoping Marvel turns this man into its next supervillain. When Kirkus Reviews says Robbins has "a gift for writing fact like fiction," they weren’t kidding.

The teachers that Robbins profiles do seem to be hard-working, well-meaning types, even if one wonders about her characterization of one elementary school teacher as being able to "clear a Jeopardy board any night of the week." And there are good reasons they are having a difficult time.

Their first problem is that they are being forced to make up their jobs every day. They have to go online to find curricular materials and teaching strategies. Their years as education majors did not prepare them for what they would actually have to do in the classroom. And school administrators are not telling them what to teach or how to teach. It is enormously time-consuming and frustrating. And frankly it is absurd that we don’t tell teachers what to teach or how to teach and then we test them on how well they’ve done it.

Of course, if someone told teachers how or what to teach, Robbins and the teachers’ unions would object to their loss of autonomy. Teachers tell Robbins that kids just can’t learn the way they used to. One Texas high school English teacher says she was pleased a student thanked her for "keeping it real. … She said I had made her a stronger critical thinker and more ‘woke’ as a young lady of color. I did cry because what she said is what drives me to get out of bed every single morning."

And then there are other issues besides time that make teaching hard, like the colleagues. Robbins is at pains to explain how teachers can at once be saints and also the teachers she interviews are constantly complaining about other teachers. Some of them are unnecessarily harsh with kids. Or they don’t do any work. Or they spy on other teachers and tell their ex-husbands they are having affairs. "How can these hostile climates pervade a profession known for its nurturing and selflessness?" Robbins wonders.

The answer is "oppression." Because teachers are often from groups that are oppressed—like women—they are more likely to be treated badly by principals and superintendents. And this can lead teachers to behave badly. She cites research that "‘workplaces with high levels of job insecurity, low levels of autonomy, and high workloads’ correlate to higher levels of workplace bullying." There’s no explanation of why a profession where people can get lifetime tenure after three years has more job insecurity than, say, construction work or medicine or accounting.

Robbins also quotes one expert who notes that the teachers most likely to be bullied are "the best and the brightest. It’s the stars." So the profession that is supposed to be nurturing and altruistic is bullying the people who are at the top. Again, no mention of a union that is committed to not rewarding people at the top and ensuring that everyone is equally mediocre.

Another complaint that Robbins describes but does not accurately diagnose is the violence perpetrated against teachers. She chronicles how often teachers in recent years have been assaulted and berated by students, who are either never disciplined or who are quickly removed from the classroom and sent back. There is no mention of the so-called restorative justice practices that have led to the tolerance of this behavior. Instead, she blames these problems on—wait for it—too few teachers. She even cites Nikolas Cruz, who was responsible for the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, but instead of noting that his history did not result in his being expelled from school (let alone sent to a juvenile detention facility), she just notes that teachers don’t have enough resources and training to handle these matters.

Where are the unions on the issue of restorative justice? Why haven’t they done more to push back against this dangerous narrative that students don’t need serious discipline? Their "equity" agenda overrides even the safety of their members.

But it is hard to take Robbins’s complaints on behalf of the profession seriously since she mixes in the legitimate with the silly. At one point she bemoans the fact that people don’t appreciate P.E. teachers enough and that librarians are not recognized either. One tells her, "many schools celebrate National Assistant Principals Week without acknowledging National Library Week." The horror!

And then there are the complaints about how teachers were treated during COVID. She noted that "one in four teachers" had preexisting conditions. But then she doesn’t note that some estimates suggested that about 40 percent of Americans also had them. Teachers were probably less at risk because they tended to be younger and also tended to be women who were at less risk than men. She even cites a researcher from the University of Minnesota who says, "I know a number of teachers who died." Not to be cavalier, but there were more than a number of people in a lot of professions who died.

The question is how teachers behaved once it was clear that schools were really not posing much of a risk and that students were among the least likely to get sick or transmit COVID and that vaccination was widely available. And this is where Robbins will lose many readers who were perfectly willing to love her previous appreciation of nurses. The teachers in many large cities insisted on staying home, month after month, year after year, even as kids were falling behind, failing to learn how to read or talk or socialize. They threatened strikes if they were made to appear in person. They forced low-income families to leave kids home unattended as they went to work. They talked about the importance of racial equity even as the kids who suffered most tended to be black and brown.

Maybe for her next book Robbins can document a year in the life of America’s children. They’re the ones who suffered the most. And I hear they’re the future.

The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession
by Alexandra Robbins
Dutton, 384 pp., $29

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Independent Women's Forum, is the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.