What Keeps Teachers Going?
reviewed by Lee Anne Bell - 2004
What keeps dedicated teachers in the classroom, especially in under-resourced urban schools? How do such teachers persevere and succeed as educators despite often daunting challenges they face? In this eloquent gem of a book, Sonia Nieto draws on the experiences of a group of veteran teachers to probe these questions, and in the process provides a flesh and blood portrait of the realities and rewards of an embodied teaching life. Through their stories, Nieto renders a deeply authentic touchstone from which to challenge the illusive and often dishonest rhetoric of accountability and standards, and from which to affirm the hope and promise of a public education grounded in the work of committed, critical, and thoughtful teachers. Nieto writes, “building on teachers’ strengths, we advance an alternative vision of what is worth cherishing in public education” (p. 8).
Nieto develops the book around themes that emerged in conversations with a group of Boston teachers in a series of retreats over the course of a year. In the first chapter, Nieto movingly describes her own journey as a public school teacher in New York City during the turbulent period of the 60s and her own developing awareness of teaching as a political act. While avoiding sentimentality on the one hand or cynicism on the other, she explores the tension between hope and critique in an unjust system to find a position from which individual teachers can make a difference in their classrooms and in children’s lives.
Each of the ensuing chapters develops a different theme using quotes and examples from the teachers who participated in the retreats. The chapter titles give an inviting glimpse of the themes explored:
While each theme is developed as a separate facet, the text and stories evoke a multi-faceted prism that illuminates the daily struggles and rewards of classroom life. This ability to render the complicated human dimensions and challenges of teaching makes this book a compelling and appealing read.
The essential challenges of teaching so often overlooked in the focus on precise method and specified result are beautifully laid out through the teachers’ stories. They show that beneath the daily practice of reflective teachers, lie profound questions of morality, politics, and care. For example:
These questions could provide the framework for a course on teaching for pre-service teachers or for ongoing staff development with in-service teachers. These are questions at the heart of teaching as “a way to live in the world” (p. 101) and that recognize the power teachers have to “change lives forever” (p. 112). As the teachers in the retreats grappled with these questions they begin to get at the raison d’etre of an engaged teaching life, one that is grounded in an abiding faith in students and one that can sustain teaching as a meaningful vocation and way of life.
Every page of this book breathes respect for teachers as intellectually engaged, committed, reflective, and independent persons whose questions, concerns and wisdom gained through experience ought to be affirmed. Nieto emphasizes,
One thing we learned from the inquiry group project that we are certain about is this: No amount of decontextualized “best practices” will keep teachers engaged or committed. The current discourse in educational reform focuses on developing “best practices” as the antidote to both teacher burnout and student underachievement. Our work departs in an essential way from this stance. We have come to the conclusion that only when teachers are treated as professionals and intellectuals who care deeply about their students and their craft that they will be enticed to remain in the profession and that new teachers will be attracted to join (p. 128).
Some might question whether the insights and experiences of teachers who have been recognized as excellent provide sufficient guidance for helping those whose practice is more problematic. It would be interesting to hear what these teachers would have to say about how to help their less successful or motivated peers develop the kinds of relationships with students and engagement with learning that they so capably engender. The standards and accountability discourses are often framed with these less successful teachers in mind, so counter-arguments such as Nieto’s would do well to engage this problem. Nevertheless, this book offers needed support and recognition for the many thoughtful and committed teachers whose work is trivialized by reform discourse, and who truly do provide a vision for what ethical and accountable teaching can be. These voices deserve more prominence in reform debates.
Nieto’s writing, always engaging and thought provoking, reaches a new level in this book, one that I think reflects a synthesis of hard-earned wisdom that is both emotional and literary for the author. The writing is deeply reflective, quietly moving, frequently poetic. The book will appeal to veteran and novice teachers alike, as well as teacher educators, who struggle with the challenges of committed teaching in the face of demeaning and trivializing efforts to deskill and control teacher work. It ought to be widely read and discussed by anyone concerned about the future of public education and the prospects for young people in our schools. It can serve as both an inspiration and a call to action for an ennobling vision of teaching, one that can inspire a new generation of idealistic young people to take up teaching as a vocation that changes lives.