Teaching Profession

Bel Kaufman, Teacher Who Skewered Public School Bureaucracy, Dies at 103

By Ross Brenneman — July 28, 2014 2 min read
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Honored as something just shy of a teaching legend for her portrayal of the bureaucratic inanity of public school systems, author Bel Kaufman passed away Friday at age 103.

Kaufman’s 1965 bestselling novel, Up the Down Staircase, about an idealist English teacher who comes up against the comic and depressing realities of an urban school system, depicted public schools without glamour or rose-colored glasses. It earned her rave reviews from teachers themselves, and quickly became part of the K-12 education literary canon.

Born Belle Kaufman in Berlin in 1911, she and her family moved to Russia shortly thereafter. After the Russian Revolution, her family leveraged its connections (the work of Kaufman’s grandfather, Sholem Aleichem, inspired the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”) to flee Russia for New York City. In 1936, Kaufman declined a doctoral fellowship at Columbia University in order to support her first husband’s medical training, which she did by teaching in New York City.

Kaufman supplemented her income by publishing short stories in magazines under the more gender-neutral “Bel,” and became the first woman to have a published byline in Esquire magazine. In 1962, The Saturday Review published the short story that would soon become the basis for Staircase. Robert Mulligan directed the 1967 film adaptation starring Sandy Dennis. The novel was on the bestseller list for more than 60 weeks, and has sold more 6 million copies during the past five decades, according to publisher Open Road Media.

In a new introduction to a 2012 edition of her novel, Kaufman said that little in education had changed in the intervening years:

Now, as then, the school system is strangulated by its own red tape. Now, as then, it is mired in rigidity and befogged by empty rhetoric. Now, as then, teachers are overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated. Now, as then, children wage war against their schools. Many see no reason to attend classes; one boy told me, ‘My future is forget it!’

(Those hyperlinks are my own helpful annotation.)

Up the Down Staircase is by turns optimistic, heartwrenching, and soul crushing, with its protagonist, Sylvia Barrett, attempting to adjust to her new gig at Calvin Coolidge High School. As the character confesses to another teacher on her first day: “Nothing in my courses on Anglo-Saxon literature, or in Pedagogy, or in my Master’s thesis on Chaucer had prepared for me this.”

Barrett remains in good company.

Kaufman continued to speak on public education for the rest of her life as an ardent supporter, and as an advocate for improved working conditions and school environments. Despite the hardships of teaching, she continued to recommend the profession to those who genuinely wanted to do it. During a visit to Iona College in 2011, she said, “If that person had a ... strong passion for teaching young people, I would say, whatever the circumstances, do it. But if it’s just to wait until another job comes along, or if it’s just the only job open in your neighborhood, don’t. You’ll be wasting your time and the students’ time.”

Here’s that full presentation. It’s something special; she was a hoot:

Image source: Amazon

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.