After a particularly hard day at school, a day where perhaps I learn horrible news about a student, or sometimes on a great day, when the lightbulbs going off light the room like a beacon for “Best Practices,” I want to say to non-teachers, “You will never get this. Don’t even try. Don’t create memes about my summers off. Don’t begrudge me a snow day. Don’t laugh because I think I can change the world. You.Just.Can’t.Get.It.”
But, then, I don’t make this pronouncement because despite my own firm belief that the collective “they” can’t understand my job, I also realize that I can’t fathom theirs either. Put my life in danger running into burning buildings? Can’t comprehend. Spend months preparing for a case that only gets its day in court long enough to settle. I can’t even. Deliver mail in this weather? That’s crazy, I think, as I see my mailman trudge down the road.
The problem with talking about education-my job-is this: everyone went to school, thus everyone has an opinion about how it should go. So many of the people who want to critique the modern day classroom were in school before the internet, before cell phones, before a global economy, or ADHD. Somehow, because we’ve all “survived” our education, we want to bemoan how it is.
So, when I began The Battle For Room 314, the story of a man who has dedicated his life to nonprofit causes and is attempting to become a teacher, I was cautious. It doesn’t take long in the narrative to understand that Ed Boland, who describes his life as “comfy bourgeois” and is taking an $80,000 dollar pay cut, is going to have some harsh realizations.
Masterfully, the book is sensational from the start, beginning with Chantay, a fiercely crude student hurling profanity, calculators literally being thrown across the room, and the author’s legitimate fear that his sexuality would ostracize him even further from students who were equally confused by his world as he was by theirs. The subtitle “My Year of HOPE and DESPAIR in a NEW YORK CITY HIGH SCHOOL,” intrigued me, as did his sister’s warning that he was going to be “Another whore for the poor; welcome to the ranks.” There is an edge to this book that I have not encountered before in any book about education, and it is extremely refreshing because education is edgy and often controversial.
Curious after reading the first few chapters on a Friday afternoon, I was unable to put the book down. Before the weekend was over, I had finished the over-two-hundred-page journey of the self-proclaimed do-gooder, who by turns irritated me with his inexperience as an educator, while absolutely slaying me with his dead on, straightforward observations and quirky sense of humor. He conveyed his hope with such earnestness that it hurt to read, and his despair was deep and real-like a teacher.
The stories are heartbreaking and cringe inducing. He is startlingly blunt and says things that many teachers wouldn’t say, which immediately gave this effort credibility in my eyes. He was not afraid to show his students in their worst moments, but neither was he hesitant to reveal his own horrible reactions and mistakes. Ed Boland may not be a teacher, “for real,” as he does return from his single year to a completely different life; however, his one year was enough for him to make some important observations and suggestions.
Lots of people have ideas about education reform, but too often they are not walking the walk. In this educator’s opinion, I’m willing to accept his experienced outsider status and listen to what he suggests.
What he does impart in the epilogue are a number of things that most teachers would agree with:
- Schools are all different
- Classroom management is an art and science
- Planning to engage students is crucial because you won’t do it without intentionality
- Find mentors
- Rethink education structures
- Recognize that poverty is the root of educational failure.
It is validating for an outsider to experience a year in the life and walk away with a better understanding of the day-to-day lives of teachers, yet Boland goes further than that.
Most important is his realization that:
Tales of individual teacher and school success and failure serve as a dangerous distraction for those who care deeply about changing the trajectory of American education. To enact real change, we must step outside the system and stop expecting schools and teachers alone to create lasting solutions.
In The Battle for Room 314, Ed Boland came to realize the most complicated paradigm of them all; we, as teachers, can’t solve all problems, and in fact, it is surprising that given the life circumstances of deep poverty, addictions, depression, and overwhelming odds,many students can manage to make it through even a single day of school. They keep coming back though, so often because there is hope within school walls, and though there is despair too, sometimes teachers are, even in our failures, the best some students will ever have. Often we feel that we are small in our battle against the behemoth issues in education, but we are important to those who matter, the students. I certainly hope some policymakers and non-educators find themselves as riveted as I was, curled up on a weekend, taking in the journey from an informed outsider, who dared to be the David to Goliath.
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