Anne Fernandez did not set out to be a teacher. Her first career was investment banking.
But as she looked at family members who are educators — and saw that they seemed happier and more productive than she — Fernandez switched gears.
Inspired by an urge to do something “socially valuable,” she became an English teacher. In her 14 years at Staples High School, she’s earned a reputation as tough but very talented. Her courses include Advanced Placement Literature, Sophomore 2A, Caribbean Literature, and Research and Non-Fiction.
Her Research students in particular have a great role model. In 2010 Fernandez and her sister Catherine Lutz — an anthropologist at Brown University — wrote Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on Our Lives. The thoroughly documented look at America’s obsession with cars was well-received — and came from the sisters’ personal experiences.
So does their new book, Schooled: Ordinary, Extraoardinary Teaching in an Age of Change.
The genesis was SB 24, a controversial education bill. Hearing Governor Malloy’s comment about teacher tenure that “in today’s system basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years” — and reading online comments from “people who have never worked in a classroom” — Fernandez vowed to do something.
“In my previous career, I had the naive idea that teachers had it easy,” she says. “When I heard what the governor said, I took personal offense. As a teacher, I was working at least as hard, if not harder, than I ever had before.”
She decided to explore “what teaching is really like.”
It was the start of a long project. Fernandez and Lutz used social media to find a variety of teachers in a broad range of settings who wanted to talk about their profession.
During summers and vacations, the sisters traveled across the country. They conducted in-depth interviews, asking questions like “Why do you teach? What is your life like? What are the most pressing educational issues today?”
A magnet elementary school teacher in St. Paul — originally from Finland, often held up as a model country — spoke about American reforms like standardized tests in kindergarten and cuts to recess time that seem antithetical to education.
A woman on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota described what it’s like working with students always on the verge of dropping out.
A science teacher in rural South Carolina who teaches about evolution told how she is able to meet students where they are, while still holding on to scientific values.
A young, talented and energetic woman in Arizona had always wanted to be an educator. But what she found — scripted lessons, merit pay based on her students’ performance on standardized tests — drove her out of the profession after 4 years.
Schooled includes interviews with teachers who are old, young and career-changers. They’re in public schools, magnet schools and charter schools. One is a home-schooling mother in Ohio.
The sisters “did not cherry-pick Teachers of the Year, or incredible innovators,” Fernandez says. Instead, they sought out “typical teachers.”
They found men and women who are inspired, and others who are dejected.
They also found a “pincer movement,” with teachers caught between social forces on the left and right that make their jobs much harder.
Rising childhood poverty, income inequality, the explosion of technology, increasing linguistic diversity, budget cuts, larger class sizes — all that, plus a wave of “education reforms” — make it difficult for teachers to do a good job, the authors’ interviewees say.
Yet, Fernandez says, “we met so many people who are so profoundly dedicated to children, and education.”
The book’s subtitle is apt. “We found ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Fernandez notes. “There are so many smart, dedicated teachers with lots of great insights into education today.”
In her own classroom, Fernandez says, the project has helped her “focus on what matters. The teachers who keep going don’t get distracted by educational fads or political squabbles. They stay wedded to their educational philosophies.”
For so many teachers, she adds, education is about “so much more than their academic subjects. They see their job in long-term terms: helping build adults.”
Writing Schooled reminds Fernandez that teaching is “not about the next day’s lesson. It’s about contributing — with all the other adults in the village — to produce another adult who will move us forward.”
(Schooled will be published on July 15, by Teachers College Press. To order a copy, click here.)