There was a time that the ‘teacher story’ was a popular archetype along with the buddy movie, the romantic comedy, and the spaghetti western. Starting with the novel ‘Blackboard Jungle’ in 1953, there have been a string of popular books which often became even more popular movies including ‘To Sir With Love,’ ‘Up The Down Staircase,’ ‘Escalante: The Best Teacher In America’ (became the movie ‘Stand And Deliver’), ‘My Posse Don’t Do Homework’ (became the movie ‘Dangerous Minds’), and ‘Freedom Writers.’ These novels had similar themes, one enthusiastic new teacher brings out the potential in his or her class by never giving up on them.
I’ve read all these books and seen all these movies over the years and always used to enjoy them. Sure, they were oversimplified, but still they were harmless. Back then when you watched a movie like ‘Stand And Deliver’ you thought “Wow, that guy worked hard” you didn’t think “We really need to fire all the other teachers at that school” for some reason.
Maybe this is why in recent years, the hero-teacher story has mainly disappeared. The most recent attempt at a movie like this was the Walton funded box office bomb ‘Won’t Back Down’ in 2012 which had a clear anti-union message. There was also a movie called ‘Bad Teacher’ and a TV series called ‘Teachers’ which portrayed teachers in a very negative light. These did not really resonate with anyone either.
It seemed like the ‘teacher-genre’ was dead. Dead, that is, until the just released novel by Roxanna Elden called ‘Adequate Yearly Progress.’
‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ follows the lives of the staff of a Texas High School through a school year marked by the hiring of a flashy new reform minded (though educational outsider) superintendent. Their school gets singled out as a school in need of turnaround when their principal inadvertently has a very public interaction with the new superintendent.
The story, though, is a backdrop for getting to know the main characters of the books, the teachers at the school. In this book we are reminded that, unlike most teacher fiction, these teachers have actual lives. There is the math teacher who is a single mother. There is the sarcastic slam poet who is searching for her identity. There is the TFAer (called Teach Corps in this world) who writes viral blog posts about her success in class while we get to see how much she is struggling in class to get the real world to match with her ideal. There is the football coach who is like a father to his players yet has two daughters by two women and he doesn’t have much of a relationship with either. There is the science teacher who bends the rules to have a plant nursery in his room and has a crush on the slam poet.
Most teachers, like most non-teacher, have plenty of stresses in their lives. These stresses are also part of the things that have sometimes led them to teaching in the first place. What makes this book unique is that the reader gets to experience what it feels like to be a teacher, in the middle of the grind, when you’re having a bad day for reasons that have nothing to do with school and you try to do your best though it is tough to not let it affect your teaching. The principal characters in this book are multi-dimensional. If someone has issues, we learn why they have them, and we see their struggle to try to overcome these issues.
The stories of the individual teachers were great and the plot moved rapidly in a way that readers are really looking forward to finding out what happens next. Elden makes you care about these teachers and their intertwined lives.
Elden was an English teacher for 11 years and, like me, got her start though Teach For America. Her portrayal of the Teach Corps meeting group was one of the most amusing scenes in the book.
Throughout the book, and this is something that will particularly appeal to teachers, is a sharp insight into the absurdity of initiatives by top-down reformers. Non-teachers would be surprised that the humorous fictions that Elden invents — like that teachers are rated on something called a ‘Believer Score’ which is how much you believe all your students can succeed — are not much more outrageous than things that real-world teacher have to deal with nowadays. Also, any educator will love that the Texas State test in this world is called the ‘TCUP.’
From my point of view of course I love the satire about the absurdity of education reform driven by someone who knows little about education. But what drives this book more than anything, is the story — the twists and turns, the conflicts, and the drama. It’s a great read for anyone, teacher or non-teacher alike.