There’s a great essay in today’s Washington Post by a high school teacher named Nancy Schnog who found inspiration in a book written by another high school teacher, Bel Kaufman, in 1964. It is Up the Down Staircase. Kaufman, the grand-daughter of beloved writer Sholom Aleichem, whose stories inspired “Fiddler on the Roof,” wrote an epistolary novel (made up of notes, letters, memos, reports, fliers, and other written ephemera) about
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 book was an enormous hit in the 1960’s, translated into 16 languages and made into an award-winning film starring Sandy Dennis.
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.
Schnog was able to speak with Kaufman, now 98 years old and glad to explain “that the human encounter between teacher and student is often a more powerful teaching tool than the academic content on a paper or test.” Now that is a good lesson.