The Teachers: Robbins shows how US schools expect staff to be martyrs – review

The Teachers: Robbins shows how US schools expect staff to be martyrs – review

by Suswati Basu
The Teachers by Alexandra Robbins seen surrounded by books including The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau, Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, Macbeth by Shakespeare, William Blake's poetry collection Songs of Innocence and Experience, black and white photo of a child in school in Paris in 1909 by Eugène Atget and stationery
The Teachers by Alexandra Robbins surrounded by books taught in schools

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In “The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession,” Alexandra Robbins delves into the lives of three educators as they tackle the complexities of teaching in today’s society. A renowned author and education expert, Robbins brings to light the untold stories of Penny, a middle school math teacher; Miguel, a special education teacher; and Rebecca, an elementary school teacher.

With their distinct backgrounds and challenges, these teachers offer readers a candid view into the experiences, obstacles, and triumphs they face in the classroom. The book is a peek behind the real challenges and struggles faced by those in one of the most misunderstood and difficult professions.

“The extraordinary moments are rewarding, but not what keep teachers going day to day.”

Alexandra Robbins, The Teachers

Who is The Teachers author Alexandra Robbins?

Alexandra Robbins is a journalist, lecturer, and author. Her books focus on young adults, education, and modern college life. Five of her books have been New York Times Bestsellers.

Robbins graduated summa cum laude from Yale University in 1998. She was editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper, the Black & White.

She then worked as a fact-checker for The New York Times, before becoming a freelance writer, contributing to publications such as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, USA Today, Cosmopolitan, and

Robbins's first book, Secrets of the Teenage Brain, was published in 2006. The book was a New York Times bestseller and was praised by critics for its insights into the teenage brain.

Robbins's subsequent books have also been New York Times bestsellers. They include: The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids (2008), The Geeks Shall inherit the Earth: The Rise of the Next Generation of Nerds (2010), The Only Way Out is Through: How to Survive Bullying, Social Isolation, and Loneliness (2013), The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges (2014), and The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Stress, and Survival on the Front Lines (2016).

In addition to her writing and speaking, Robbins is also a consultant to schools and businesses. She helps organisations understand the needs of young people and how to create a more supportive environment for them.
The Teachers author Alexandra Robbins speaks at festival in a green dress
Alexandra Robbins reading at 2023 Gaithersburg Book Festival. Credit: Frypie

What is The Teachers about?

Robbins takes to task the supposedly age-old adage “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”, originally quoted by George Bernard Shaw. In The Teachers, she showcases both the systemic inequalities that people in the profession have faced, as well as the daily mistreatment by parents, the administration, school boards, and sometimes even the students themselves.

Although the book touches on the effects of COVID-19 on teachers, Robbins intentionally avoids attributing the profession’s underlying issues solely to the pandemic. Instead, she contends that the pandemic exposed pre-existing challenges within the US education system, which require substantial, lasting changes to be rectified.

Diving into three different narratives, the book provides an intimate look at the lives of each teacher. In “Penny’s Story,” the toxic dynamics of a staff clique at her Southern school unravel, bringing up serious bullying allegations. “Miguel’s Story” showcases Miguel’s unwavering commitment to his students, both as an educator and an activist, while also facing violence from several students and lack of support. While “Rebecca’s Story” delves into the struggle to balance teaching with personal life on the East Coast.

Robbins showcases how disrespect is ingrained into the system, and consequently, teachers are often treated as inferior.

Violence against teachers

According to Robbins, between 2020 and 2022, there was a marked increase in parents harassing, intimidating, and threatening school staff; in several states, parents physically assaulted teachers because they were upset about school mask policies even during virus surges.

“Teachers may be heroes, but they shouldn’t be expected to be heroic, as if heroism is a job requirement and anything less than martyrdom is a failure to meet the standards of the position.”

Alexandra Robbins, The Teachers

However, outside of the pandemic, Miguel experienced constant injuries as a result of teaching students with learning difficulties. He acknowledged it wasn’t their fault, but also tried to raise the issue that he shouldn’t be put at risk. When the district administrator told him “that’s part of the job”, Miguel responded: “You’re implying that teachers aren’t supposed to feel safe on the job and that’s completely uncalled-for.” The lawyer told him he had a case and an independent doctor found that, because of his students’ attacks, Miguel had permanent disabilities in his back and the tendons in his arms. What this shows is the level of disregard given to those in the profession, because teachers have been positioned as babysitters, gatekeepers, and at times, even human shields.

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In one of the few pre-pandemic studies on the topic—statistics are scarce—DePaul University psychology professor Susan McMahon and her team found that about a third of teachers had been victimised by parents.

Hence, the author delves into the rising tension between teachers, parents, and administrators. Instances of book bans, mistreatment, and aggression towards teachers have become more frequent, often accompanied by an “us-versus-them” mentality. This escalating animosity poses a challenge to creating a collaborative environment that supports effective education.

Wage gap

Robbins’s writing underscores the sobering reality that teachers are undervalued and underpaid. Despite their pivotal role in shaping future generations and constantly expanding responsibilities, teachers often face financial hardships. The book highlights the declining average teacher salaries and the growing wage gap between teachers and other professionals with similar education levels.

US teachers’ salaries compared to those of workers in other professions with similar education levels are worse than in every other industrialised nation surveyed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—and US teachers work more hours than most. In the 2010s, the national average teacher salary dropped 4.5% at the same time as college costs and student loans ballooned.

The “teacher pay gap” hit a record high in 2021, when the Economic Policy Institute reported that teachers were paid 23.5% less than US professionals with similar education and experience—and that the pay gap was a major reason why the “teacher shortage” is “real, large and growing, and worse than we thought.” This financial strain is further exacerbated in states like Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Virginia, where the pay gap exceeds 30%.

Hierarchy within an unjust system

Penny is among many teachers who has faced bullying, with little consequences. Blair had been reported to Southern administrators before, but her behaviour didn’t change. “If I complain, central office will never hire me”, Penny said.

“No, that would just piss everyone off. You don’t do things like that at our school. Southern has a reputation. They just cover everything up.”

‘Penny’, The Teachers

According to expert Jo Blase, a University of Georgia research professor emerita, it is “the terrible, dark, dirty little secret” of education: Clique hostilities and bullying among educators exist in schools, even at schools that spend money on programs to combat these behaviors among students, even when student anti-bullying posters line the halls. Approximately a quarter of all calls to the Workplace Bullying Institute come from educators, second in frequency only to health-care professionals. In Europe, too, education is one of the fields with the highest frequency of workplace bullying, particularly verbal abuse.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) defines workplace bullying as “repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed toward an employee (or a group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate or undermine, or which create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s).”

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Paulo Freire, Brazilian philosopher, proposed that when a dominant group imposes its values on a marginalised one, the oppressed develops low self-esteem and aggression. To adopt dominant norms, they disdain their own culture. Oppressed group’s inability to confront dominators leads to infighting, self-sabotage, as anger turns inward due to powerlessness.

Why teachers are often seen as inferior

Disrespect for teachers is entrenched historical roots, according to Robbins. She quotes education reform historian Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz, who wrote in The Washington Post: “The disregard of teachers’ shared professional expertise and practical knowledge is no accident. It reflects the way that, instead of treating teachers like other American professionals, society has long blamed them for the failings of schools and worked to constrain them through bureaucracy and regulations.”

In the 1800s, “informed by deep-seated gendered stereotypes of women as nurturing, submissive and intellectually inferior to men, education leaders and policymakers ignored the problems that plagued schools—organizational chaos, a lack of funding, adequate school sites and curricular materials and rising social inequality. Instead, they blamed teachers for the schools’ shortcomings. According to one early critic, the legions of women standing at the front of public school classrooms were the ‘anchor…that drags on the bottom,’ impeding the promise of education.”

Robbins says this attitude is “galling” because the public has forgotten that educators “take on extraordinary risks and sacrifices, unpaid work and undue stress, and put their lives on the line—all for other people’s children.” She also quotes Illinois teacher Jason Fisk, who in October 2020 told parents: “The next time you feel like attacking teachers, please envision me standing in the middle of my classroom during a live-shooter drill, having to decide between my family and your child, and remember that I chose your child.”

Comsequence of mistreatment of teachers

Robbins does not shy away from discussing the emotional toll of teaching, characterised by burnout, stress, and low morale. She emphasises the urgent need for schools and districts to prioritise the well-being of their educators.

“Every fall we hear, ‘This year we need you to do more with less,’ but we’re past the breaking point. What kind of business would follow this model year after year and expect to increase performance levels?”

Michigan educator quoted, The Teachers

In Gallup polls, teachers tied with nurses for the highest rate of daily stress on the job among all occupations. Historically, teachers’ rates of “job strain,” a strong measure of stress referring to high demand/low control work, are higher than the average rate of all workers. In 2021, nearly 80% of teachers reported experiencing frequent job-related stress, compared to 40% of employed adults. Globally, a UK study reported that teachers are among the workers “with the highest levels of job stress and burnout on the job.”

These narratives offer insight into the varied struggles that teachers encounter, while simultaneously highlighting their dedication and passion for education.

Key takeaways from The Teachers:

Through these tales, Robbins not only offers readers a glimpse into the lives of teachers but also sheds light on the factors contributing to the alarming teacher turnover rate. Robbins goes beyond surface-level observations to explore the systemic challenges that educators face, and she proposes ways to enhance the teaching profession.

As the daughter of a veteran teacher, Robbins offers a personal connection to the subject matter, which enriches the narrative with authenticity and empathy. Her commitment to highlighting the voices of educators and advocating for change in the education system is evident throughout the book.

My own thoughts

I happen to be the daughter of a veteran special needs teacher as well, and not a day went by where we didn't hear about what happened in school - both the triumphs and tribulations. From correctly diagnosing a young child to be on the autism spectrum and therefore, getting adequate support for them, to becoming severely stressed, and having a form of stroke - teaching is not for the fainthearted. And it isn't because it's some sort of mysterious code that needs to be solved. But it's the fact that there is next to no assistance for teachers, that even the UK is facing an endemic brain drain. Whilst the rewards were apparent, even countable with the numerous Christmas cards we would hang every year from students, there was very little in compensation for all of the hundreds of extra hours put in every year.

In conclusion, The Teachers is an engaging and thought-provoking read that casts a spotlight on the challenges and rewards of teaching in America. Robbins’s masterful storytelling captures the essence of the teaching profession, making this book a must-read for those who care about education and the invaluable role of teachers in shaping the future. What she shows is that teachers should be treated with respect, as we often forget they are the first port of call to mould the next generation of thinkers.

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