Garret Keizer taught English at a high school in rural Vermont for 16 years before resigning to become a full-time writer. In the years after his exit from the classroom, people often asked him if he missed teaching, and he felt their need to hear him say yes. “Some didn’t bother to ask,” he notes, citing the former student who simply declared, “I know the pay is not the greatest, but of course you love it.”
In fact, he doesn’t love it. But even though he cobbled together a successful writing career – Keizer is a contributing editor at Harper’s and the author of several books, whose topics include privacy and noise – the need for health insurance brought on by a change in his wife’s job situation persuaded him to take a one-year position at the same school he’d left 14 years earlier, a prospect that filled him with emotions ranging from dread to panic. His return to teaching is the topic of Keizer’s new book, Getting Schooled: The Re-education of an American Teacher.
In some ways this is a small book. Each chapter covers a month of the school year, with its familiar and universal rhythms tied to beginnings and endings, holidays and seasons, exam periods and vacations. We also get a feel for its very particular setting, Vermont’s poor and remote Northeast Kingdom, many of whose hard-luck residents have seen their family farms swallowed by big agribusiness. Keizer’s writing is finely observed, with no detail too trivial for subjection to his eloquent analysis: We learn that he prefers the “sensuous” sound of chalk on a blackboard to the “mousey squeak” of dry-erase markers.
But by intimately immersing readers in his daily defeats and victories, no matter how slight, Keizer produces a critique of our educational system as worthwhile and persuasive as any broad treatise, making this a big book indeed. Some of his struggles concern his students’ reluctance and even outright refusal to read. (He wins some credibility with his class early in the year when it’s discovered that he’d been a guest on "The Colbert Report" while promoting his last publication, but it isn’t lost on him that it’s not the existence of the book that impresses the kids but the resulting six-minute television appearance.) He engages in a yearlong effort to get the young and well-meaning school librarian to reinstate a collection of classic volumes that she’s removed to make way for graphic novels that teenagers will actually check out.
Keizer also condemns current trends in education, familiar targets like the move toward uniform instruction, the outsize role of technology (he breaks down in tears only once during the year, while trying to master the school system’s computerized grading system), and the prerogative given to standardized testing, which he sees as “taking time away from teaching in order to test what you lack the time to teach.”
He never loses sight of the students themselves or their contradictory natures: as a group they are both “much of what’s driving you crazy and most of what’s keeping you sane.” Teenagers are a tough crowd to begin with, but Keizer is sensitive to the additional burdens many of his students face, from poverty and divorce to neglect and abuse. When a lesson unexpectedly sparks something in a student, the teacher’s sense of momentary triumph is easily shared. And when a girl who, following a lesson on the distinction between abstract and concrete, fills in the exam question “Patriotism is abstract, but a flag is ___” with the word cement, we are bereft to see her fall just short. It’s easy to imagine a less big-hearted writer playing that error for laughs.
Throughout the school year, the teachers have some homework of their own. They’ve been directed to read and discuss a book co-authored by four education consultants (the term fills Keizer with disgust) that’s riddled with “almost sinister references” to teachers described as “lone wolves.” “The authors seem to indict the very teachers who played the biggest role in my own formation,” Keizer observes tartly. Surely they would indict him, too: no uniform curriculum would have teachers tell their students, as Keizer does, that “the society they were living in valued people of their age, region, and class primarily as cannon fodder, cheap labor, and gullible consumers and that education could give them some of the weapons necessary to fight back.”
But the school’s generous and supportive principal, a former student of Keizer’s who realizes his good fortune to have him back in the classroom if only for a year, puts a more cheerful spin on the lone-wolf concept, telling Keizer that he thinks of him as the school’s “artist in residence.” In that sense he is surely given more leeway than the rest of the faculty, although still not enough to make him love the job. “I am inclined to distrust people who expect me to work for love or who need a sentimental mythology to gloss over the impossibilities of teaching and the daily injustices it lays bare,” he writes. We want to believe that teachers, underpaid and undervalued by society, love what they do because they love our children. "Getting Schooled" offers an implicit challenge: change the conditions under which teachers labor. Maybe then, when former teachers like Keizer are asked whether they miss the job, they can answer with an unqualified yes.