SHUT UP AND LET THE LADY TEACH: A Teacher's Year in a Public School, by Emily Sachar. (Poseidon Press, $19.95.) In May 1988, New York Newsday education reporter Sachar, wondering if she has what it takes to "shape a mind,'' applies for a teaching position. She soon discovers the ease with which she's hired--the New York City Board of Education, desperate for teachers, grants temporary licenses to virtually anyone--belies the difficulty of the job. Assigned to teach five 8th grade math classes at Brooklyn's Walt Whitman Intermediate School, she finds herself, before classes even start, befuddled by antiquated texts, a ridiculously complicated schedule, and a scope-and-sequence manual with headings like "performance objective 8.12.10.01A.'' Her initial classroom experiences are disastrous. In her lower-level classes, she's distressed by well-meaning children who cannot add and frightened by pupils who threaten violence. Her only real successes occur with the motivated "8-1'' class, where a student tells her, "You don't let kids be turning in work late.'' Most distressing is her sense of isolation: Exhausted colleagues, merely trying to survive the daily onslaught, pass illiterate students; administrators, seeking refuge in their offices, evaluate teachers on the basis of irrelevant record keeping. Some teachers, it's true, manage to succeed despite of enormous obstacles. But Sachar makes it clear that individual acts of heroism won't be enough to rescue students from broken families, drug-ridden communities, and an educational system that remains pathetically unresponsive.
AN HONORABLE PROFESSION, by John L'Heureux. (Viking, $19.95.) Teaching demands that one learn compassion. But when English teacher Miles Bannon befriends a sexually abused boy who later commits suicide, he finds himself charged with molestation. Soon, the once-respected Bannon becomes the target of scorn and ridicule, as the indiscretions of his own private life are grotesquely distorted in the public light. While the plot is often sensational, this novel compels us to ask us a number of important questions. Just how much should a dedicated teacher involve himself in the lives of his students? How does one's personal life affect one's teaching? And, most important, how does one remain a generous human being in the face of undeserved contempt?
The reviewer, an English teacher, is currently a substitute in Milwaukee-area schools.