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Q&A: Book's Editor Distills the Wisdom From Teachers' Voices

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In a new book, entitled Teachers' Voices, Teachers' Wisdom, seven San Francisco Bay-area teachers talk candidly and compellingly about their lives in and out of the classroom.

The teachers tell why they decided to become teachers, what they want to accomplish with their students, and how they have learned to cope and thrive in difficult circumstances.

The book is edited by Nancy Kreinberg and Harriet Nathan, who are both associ- ated with EQUALS, a program at the University of California-Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science, which helps K-12 teachers retain more female and minority students in mathematics. Ms. Kreinberg directs EQUALS, and Ms. Nathan works with the program at the Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library at Berkeley.

Ms. Kreinberg discussed the book with Staff Writer Daniel Gursky.

Q. What inspired you to do the book?

A. Through my work in EQUALS, I have had the privilege of meeting thousands of teachers, and I am very aware of the enormous strengths of teachers and the immense creativity it takes to be able to function effectively in a classroom with 30 or 35 children. I feel that there hasn't been a real forum in which the public has been able to understand the creativity and the complexity of life in the classroom.

Also, the voices of teachers have remained largely absent from the debate over public-education reform. We wanted to provide a forum so that teachers' own voices could be heard.

Q. Did you find any common threads running through the teachers' stories?

A. Each of the teachers' voices really differs from the others as much as their own experiences and lives do. But they have certain similarities.

They are all very dating--they question the present system, they're willing to take risks, and the possibility of finding something better or some solution to a problem keeps them searching.

All of the teachers mentioned at some point the immense out-of-school needs that their students bring to school with them--the emotional problems that are going on at home, the economic problems, some legal issues.

Many of these teachers felt really overwhelmed in their abilities to deal adequately with these children's needs. And there's a real sadness on the part of teachers because they know that real learning can't begin until some of these severe needs are met.

Q. Were you encouraged by what the teachers had to say?

A. I'm slightly in awe of teachers when they talk about their work. I feel it's the hardest job in the world, and I'm always encouraged by the quality of people that I meet in this profession and what they've been able to accomplish against what I consider to be immense odds.

So I'm encouraged by them and the force of their knowledge and their commitment. But I'm discouraged by the barriers that seem to be mounting every day to prevent them from doing the work they do.

Q. Do you think the public appreciates what's involved with teaching?

A. I really don't. Everybody thinks they know about education since we've all been to school. We bring away very strong memories of our own school experiences. We remember good teachers and we remember bad teachers, and we think we're completely familiar with what happens.

But we experienced that as students, not as adults. I think most people have no idea what goes into teaching 30 kids in a classroom every single day.

Q. And that's what you want to show in the book?

A. I hope some of it comes across. I can't expect to present everything in the book. We need perhaps lots of movies and television programs, as well as stories by teachers, and much more writing in the public, so the public begins to hear teachers' voices in many media.

I think they need to hear it over and over again in many ways from lots of different teachers whose backgrounds and experiences are different. One book is only a very, very small beginning of what actually needs to be presented to the larger public.

Q. So non-educators are the audience you're trying to reach with the book?

A. I hope that the book gets out to the larger public beyond the education profession. It's really aimed at people who care or should care about education.

Q. In addition to the teachers' accounts, you include a chapter in which you propose two new roles in schools--a "community-linking teacher" and a "social-systems worker." Can you explain those roles?

A. The community-linking teacher position is designed to create an advocacy base for schools among the public. It would be a teacher whose role it was to inform the public in many different ways about what's going on in schools.

There would be one per school or one per district, so that every community would have a person whose job it was to respond to the public, to go to meetings, to give radio interviews, to write stories. The public would gain access to what's happening in schools that way.

Another role that we really thought had to be re-established in a sense was the social-systems worker. Formerly, school counselors or nurses took on some of the health-care and safety issues that needed attention. But we need a position in school for a person who does nothing but pay attention to the emotional and physical well-being of children.

That will then free the teacher to teach and not be overburdened with these other needs children bring that teachers really cannot handle. We need somebody who is knowledgeable about the social-service system and has access to it to act on behalf of each child.

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