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Interview: Alexander Russo – The “Anti-Hollywood” Teacher Book

….On the Hot Seat, Elden reveals how teachers have been reacting to her book and how her book avoids — nay, refutes — movie and book cliches that “make real teachers feel like failures.”

Click here to read the rest of this interview on Alexander Russo’s blog, This Week in Education.

How would you describe See Me After Class?

RE: It’s a funny, practical guidebook that acknowledges teaching is not like the movies.

What book or books inspired you or were a model (or may be familiar to readers)?

RE:  I grew up reading Dave Barry’s work, which was why it was such an honor to get a cover blurb from him. He has a way of picking out the humor in every situation which influenced my outlook on life, and later my own writing. I’m also a fan of Scott Adams’ Dilbert books, which mix funny observations with career advice, and I used a few parenting and relationship advice books as models.

Why do we need yet another education book?

RE: Most books written for new teachers are either inspirational stories or training manuals. Training manuals repeat the over-simplified messages many teachers already learned in training. They don’t help teachers who are struggling to put their training into practice. Inspirational stories gloss over the fact that becoming a great teacher takes time, and even great teachers have bad days.

You say your book acknowledges that teaching is “not like the movies.” What’s wrong with teacher movies?

RE: There’s a genre of teacher movies best described as “inspired-rookie-teacher-goes-above-and-beyond-and-fights-the-system-to-help-underprivileged-students-because-no-other-adult-cares-about-them.” These stories might be inspiring to non-teachers, but Hollywood-style portrayals of our job make real teachers feel like failures. After all, many of us used to watch these movies and pictured ourselves in the lead roles. Now we’re stuck in the uncut, un-edited versions, and no one is sticking to the script, including us.

Are there any broader effects of these inspirational stories about plucky teachers?

RE: Many of the teachers who tell these Hollywood-style stories have left the classroom by the time the book or movie comes out. Career teachers are compared to the unrealistic standards they leave behind. Many of the new accountability measures seem to be created with the idea that every part of our students’ lives would be under our control if we had enough dedication to make it happen. Rookie teachers are especially susceptible to these images. Some beginners don’t realize that they can damage their careers by trying to recreate the bold moves of movie teachers, who confront their bosses, make plans behind their principal’s backs, and invite students to their homes without notifying parents. The truth is, movie stunts are not meant to be tried at home.

What makes you qualified to write this book, compared to anyone else?

RE: I’m now a National Board Certified Teacher, and have taught many different subjects and grade levels, but I still remember my first year clearly. I set out to write the book I needed during my own first year, and was also lucky to find teachers all over the country willing to share their stories and advice.

What mistakes did you make as a first-year teacher?

RE: My first year I spent a tremendous amount of time, money and energy trying to be a great teacher. Unfortunately, I spent them in the wrong places. I stayed until after well after school hours every day and bought creative, unnecessary supplies, but couldn’t get my lessons back on track when they got derailed. I brought home piles of paper every night, but my grade book was nearly empty when report card time came. The worst part was the feeling that I was the only one making these mistakes. I had dreamed of being a teacher for most of my life. By November I was sure I had chosen the wrong career.

How would your book have helped you?

RE:  The stories would have let me know I wasn’t alone, which would have improved my confidence and morale. Some of the basic stuff, like the ready-to-use filing system and ten-day-countdown to the school year would have helped me start the year on solid ground. The most helpful part would have been the classroom management chapter, which addresses the pitfalls in common management advice like “be consistent,” and “give positive reinforcement.” I had heard all these things before starting teaching, but when my classroom management broke down, they became easier said than done. I needed more than just a repeat of what I learned in training. See Me After Class could have helped me pull my classroom back from the edge of chaos in the middle of the year. It would have been much better for my students, not to mention my mental health.

How has the book been received so far?

RE: The most common reaction has been, “Where was this book during MY first year?”

Don’t you know teachers don’t have time to read?

RE: See Me After Class is meant to be weekend reading – likely after a really bad week. Teachers should be able to pick up the book on Friday, finish it over the weekend, and walk in Monday as a better, more confident teacher. Not perfect, but better.

If you were going to write or star in a movie set in a school, what story would you tell?

RE:  If I were going to write a book or movie set in a school, it would have more than one star. Schools are run by a whole bunch of imperfect human beings. Our personalities and personal lives influence our teaching. So do outside issues such as poverty and politics. There are plenty of stories about police officers and doctors that show these people as complete humans, but there aren’t many stories that do the same for teachers.

Why didn’t you write this as a more serious, less cute type of book?

RE:  The book is serious – it’s just not preachy. Teachers already know our job is important, and the days we feel we’re bad at it leave us very demoralized. The last thing we need is to open up about our mistakes and have someone say, “Well, that never happens in MY class.” We need someone to say, “That has happened to me, and it’s not an easy problem to solve, but these are the solutions I’ve developed.”

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