Teaching Profession Q&A

For Teachers, Life Is More ‘The Office’ and Less ‘Freedom Writers,’ Roxanna Elden Says

By Madeline Will — February 07, 2020 8 min read
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Schools are where learning happens—but they’re also workplaces, complete with frustrations, minor victories, and lots of interpersonal drama.

That’s the premise of Adequate Yearly Progress, a satirical novel from veteran teacher Roxanna Elden. The story follows a cast of educators at Brae Hill Valley, a struggling urban high school in Texas. There’s the young, idealistic history teacher, the math teacher who’s a stickler for data and binders, and the science teacher who’s in love with the disillusioned English teacher down the hall. Oh, and there’s a new celebrity superintendent, who doesn’t have a background in education but knows just the right way to turn schools around.

The book was originally self-published in the fall of 2018. But it sold well, so Elden’s agent was able to then sell the book to Simon & Schuster, which will publish a new edition on Feb. 11.

"[The audience is] not all teachers, but definitely it has a big audience of teachers who feel like finally something gets the story right, instead of the teacher-hero movies,” Elden said. “Teacher-hero books and movies [like “Freedom Writers” or “Dangerous Minds”] ... all go back to the 20-year-old teacher who works harder than everyone else and saves the day, and I just felt like there were a lot more nuanced stories that you could tell about the profession.”

Elden spoke with Education Week about telling the stories of teachers and why the profession is so ripe for a “workplace comedy.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The book is a funny look at the day-to-day frustrations and minor victories of teaching. It’s the opposite of what you’ve called the “Myth of the Super Teacher.” Can you talk a little about that disconnect with the realities of teaching and how it’s typically portrayed in the media, and how your book bridges it?

This is something that’s been important to me for a long time—the myth of the super teacher, which is this sassy, young spirit with a can-do attitude who hasn’t yet learned the word “can’t” and cares about the kids more about all of her colleagues and then does what no one else has been able to do. And the secret is something like, believing in kids.

What I thought was missing with teaching was something more like what you see in a workplace TV comedy, like “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation” or “Scrubs.” You have a whole bunch of characters that are all recognizable, and all of those characters have their own plot arc. There are other conflicts with teaching besides just being new to the job and figuring out what can and can’t be done.

Teachers are humans. They go home to their own personal lives, and sometimes there’s a mirror between what’s happening in their classrooms and in their personal lives. Those two things affect each other. If you break up with someone, and come to work the next day, and a student says something that reminds you of what your ex said to you in a fight last night, that is going to affect the way you react in that moment.

You can’t just turn it off.

Yeah, and none of us do. That’s how people act at their jobs. I wanted a workplace novel about teaching, instead of a first job story about teaching.

I thought the character of Kaytee [the young, idealistic teacher who’s in year two of “Teach Corps,” a Teach For America-like program] was interesting, because it’s the trope of the super teacher but turned on its head. You see that her expectations fall far short of the reality of teaching.

She’s the teacher who thinks her story should be that story. ... I think a lot of teachers on their first two years on the job, it feels like the most natural fit—that that’s what we’ve been told is the story of a young teacher. Not even just from movies, but in general, when you go to training, when you see the news, there’s a lot of this, “Here’s the teacher who’s not afraid of change. Here’s the teacher who’s pro-innovation—unlike the rest of them.”

Race is a thread throughout your book, from the teacher with a bit of a “white savior complex” to the black teacher who deals with microaggressions at school. I imagine it would be impossible to write a book about education without diving into the role that race can play. Tell me about your process there.

It’s hard to take race out of any character’s story and any person’s story. At the same time, I think it’s a very dangerous trap to think that race is the only thing that would define a character, and you want to keep that as a proportional thread in each character’s experience. In education, I would almost say that’s doubly true, because when we talk about education, race is always threaded through there. Even if you don’t say it, if you say urban school, that calls to mind a certain population. When you talk about someone being a role model, that calls to mind a certain relationship between their race and their students’ race. ...

It would be impossible to write a book like this, and not pay attention to the races of the characters and how that would affect their experiences, either as students or as teachers or all the way through their lives. This is the face they’re presenting to the world. But also, other things influence the characters, which includes their age, which includes their own experience in schools [that] could be somewhat linked to race, also which includes the subject they teach. I put a lot of research into thinking about how a science teacher would think about things, versus a math teacher, versus an English teacher, which is my background.

Did you talk to a lot of your colleagues who teach different subjects and have different backgrounds while doing research for this book?

Yes. And some more than others, as far as forcing them to let me into their thought process. Most of all of those would be the football coach. I really tried hard to get into the head of someone who coached football. With math, I really found myself having to stretch. I read any book that I could get myself interested in that had to with how math people would see the world.

It was very important to me that each character’s subject was reflected in their outlooks. Also, each character has a school of thought when it comes to education and what it’s for.

Right. The book pokes fun at pretty much every aspect of education, from Teach For America, to teachers’ unions, to charter schools.

The way I thought about this book is that a lot of people have prescriptions for education, but there’s not a lot of description. There’s a lot of people shaking their fists at the system, but there’s not a complete picture of the system that everyone can point to and go, yeah, these are how the pieces knock against each other. If you flick this domino, this is the other domino that it hits.

What I wanted to do more than anything, and more than lean into any particular prescription, is get a good description that I felt was, to the best of my ability, fair to everyone. Not necessarily a glowing recommendation of anyone, but at least even-handed. I hope that people are able to sign onto this as something that feels real, and do with it what they will.

I think a lot of the new initiatives that are handed down at Brae Hill Valley will ring true to teachers, even though they’re satirical. [For example, each teacher is told to write the Research-Based Best Practice That Works of the Day on their board and stick to it.] Is there something that you would like administrators or policymakers to take away from reading this?

There’s not a moral to the story. I would hope that whoever is in charge of the next big thing in education [has] read this book. ... The public is getting these kind of boiled-down versions of what education really is. I was on some TV panels [on education], and I would see that everyone gets cut off after 16 seconds of talking. And teachers are totally unprepared to communicate like that—we’re used to 45-minute classes where we can get the point across and clear up any misunderstandings. And politicians, for example, or anyone who’s used to being on TV, they actually can make their point in 11 seconds.

It felt like teachers were at a disadvantage even when we were at the table, or the televised town hall meeting. We sounded bad as a group, we sounded like someone who you could easily dismiss. I remember going to a town hall meeting in Miami, ... and teachers showed up to make their opinions heard. And one teacher got the microphone and started reading a poem about the value of teachers. And I was just thinking, “Nooo!” ....

People are always patting teachers on the head and saying how important they are, no matter what they’re doing. Whatever decision they may be making that may affect your job and your students in a negative way, they’re still telling you that teachers should be paid like star athletes or some cliché like that.

I have to ask—how many times have you heard the starfish story in a meeting or training?

So many times! And it doesn’t necessarily preview what their next step is at all. [Administrators] could tell you the starfish story, and then the next initiative that they’re going to be put in place could be completely the thing that kills more starfish. Or not! It’s a feel-good story, and it’s a view of teaching, and it’s not entirely untrue, but it’s also not entirely true as far as the way that we should run our education system.

The moral of that story really is, well, you’re only saving one or two kids, but it matters to them. That is a point of view that a person could take about education, and I’m sure some do, but it’s definitely not the only viewpoint.

Image courtesy of Roxanna Elden

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