Book Review of "The Secret Lives of Teachers" by Anonymous
Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Posted by: Christina Mimms
Reviewed by Lee Hark, Assistant Head of School & Upper School Director, Durham Academy, Durham, NC
One morning in the spring of 1992, Brad Gioia called me to ask if I’d be interested in applying for a teaching internship at Darlington School, my alma mater. Mere months from graduating from Chapel Hill, I had been accepted into law schools but had little interest in going (my father’s dream, not mine; cue the “I don’t want your life!” scene from Varsity Blues), and teaching English sounded like a fun way to while away the time as I figured out my next move. I didn’t have an idea in my head that hadn’t been put there by someone else, and I knew even less about the subject of English (to say nothing of teaching it), but after an interview that could only be described as desultory, Brad nevertheless saw fit to offer me the job. Given my limited role as an intern, I suspect he thought the damage I’d inflict would be minimal – a dangerous assumption with one as earnest as I.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, over my first few years, I gave various administrators plenty of reasons to fire me (impersonating the head of school in a play lampooning a young teacher’s life at the school? Check.), and it was common for me to stand in front of my class and feel like a complete charlatan. But if I knew less than nothing, I cared deeply – for the school, for my students, and for my colleagues – and fortunately I was given the time and enough mulligans to cobble together something resembling a pedagogy and an educational philosophy. I wouldn’t have lasted long as a new teacher at my current school today.
I paint that brief portrait not to kill all future job prospects (I’ve grown, I promise!), but rather to underscore what all teachers instinctively know: that we are human beings, and by nature as flawed as we are virtuous. I suspect that many of my independent school compatriots would, in a paroxysm of honesty, admit to an origin story similar to mine: we didn’t intend to be teachers, and we have screwed up mightily on occasion, but nonetheless here we stand, empodiumed – and at times, still making it up as we go along.
The Secret Lives of Teachers doesn’t explore such conflicted histories or motivations, but they are the basis on which it deconstructs the myth of the selfless and sacrificial teacher (held largely by those outside the profession), an impossibly high standard to which one might hold a human being (and ones as poorly compensated as we). In its place, the book paints a far more human portrait of the modern prep school teacher.
This is one of the best books (or, in the author’s estimation, a “series of interlocking essays”) about being a teacher (about actually being one, with all its humiliations and petty jealousies, as well as its joys and triumphs) that I have ever read – about a life of service to others and, at times, in mere servitude. It’s not a call to arms about the state of teaching in America or the national obsession with uniform academic standards. In fact, it’s a very specific window into a particular kind of life in education – that of the prep school teacher. It’s about how hard this job can be, even when you’re holding a pretty favorable hand, as most of us who work in independent education are.
It’s worth exploring why the author felt he needed to hide behind “Anonymous,” the ultimate pseudonym. First, doing so hints at a truth so brutal that our aging history-teacher-cum-author must be protected from its searing heat; it implies, to quote the immortal Sisqo, that something “so scandalous” lies within – equal parts Primary Colors and Kitchen Confidential. And scandal sells, even if here it’s unreasonable parents or moldering coffee cake in the staff room or the monthly fear of not being able to making the car payment – the quotidian indignities each teacher faces – rather than something more salacious.
Anonymous has his limits as a writer, especially when it comes to rendering classroom dialogue in a convincing way, and most often his attempts to recreate it fall flat. Even while he decries “Mr. Chipsian” self-aggrandizement, he can’t escape it entirely (he names his narrator Horace Dewey, after all.) And the parents, students, colleagues, and administrators who populate the book – no doubt amalgams of real people in Anonymous’ professional sphere – come across as ciphers rather than flesh-and-blood examples. The rough frame of the book, which is a year in the life of the school, allows him an excuse to cover the ground he wants to, but it, too, feels constraining and forced at times.
The book really sings when Anonymous skips the anecdotes and speaks from his personal perspective; in these instances, the book is smart, trenchant, and very funny. The best chapter, entitled "Compensations," highlights the compromises all teachers must make once they have committed to this profession. His take on the financial plight of teachers is clear-eyed and unapologetic. Long story short, we all eventually pay the bill for deferred maintenance. Whether you agree with him or not, his honesty is refreshing – and, truth be told, quite novel. Teachers don’t like “telling tales out of school,” especially when it comes to the gory details of their real lives. Credit Anonymous for keeping it real, and for (mostly) not succumbing to the platitudes that plague most writing about our profession.
As always, my bottom line with any book is, “Why read it?” Is it just to be reminded that teachers are imperfect, as human as everyone else? That hardly seems worth the purchase price or the time. Instead, the real value here is the book’s ability to force us to contend with our imperfections. When it works, the book asks us to reconsider assumptions about our work, our students, our goals, our limits, and our teaching lives. It is possible you will view yourself – and your profession – differently after you’ve read it.
Lee Hark is the assistant head of school and upper school director at Durham Academy in Durham, NC. Follow him on Twitter @leehark or reach him by email at email@example.com.