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Book Review: Teacher

Medford High School in the 1960’s was a tough place. Expectations were low for many students, including Mark Edmundson, author of Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference (Random House, New York, 2002). According to Edmundson, “I was a high school thug. I was a football player, a brawler who detested all things intellectual….My prospects were not bright.” By senior year Edmundson was told he might be able to gain entrance to one of the local community colleges, which were, he believed “high schools with ashtrays, where I’d have the chance to take all the courses I loathed at Medford High one more time.” The alternative was “working for the city of Medford; perhaps I’d start off collecting trash….” 

And then along came Frank Lears.  Lear’s impact was so profound that Edmundson ultimately becomes a graduate student at Yale, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and a prizewinning scholar.

So how did this happen?

On the first day of school senior year, Edmundson and his classmates thought they had “struck gold.” Lears, the new teacher, is described as soft-spoken, small, and partial to suits two sizes too big. And, for icing on the cake, he was a recent Harvard graduate. Most teachers at Medford High knew that in order to get through the day with their unruly charges the name of the game was discipline but Lears rarely doled out punishments.  Instead he asked questions, a lot of questions, in the style of Socrates. He was initially greeted with blank stares, but over time—several months—he started to ask questions that deeply resonated with his students. Should America be fighting in Vietnam? Who was Malcolm X? What are the Rolling Stones really singing about? Suddenly, the students started to listen, and think.

Lears was a teacher of Philosophy. Edmundson, like most of his classmates, had registered for this class solely as a way to gain needed (presumably easy) credits to graduate. After a couple months of teaching the authorized curriculum from the school-issued text, Lears walked into class one day and ceremoniously collected the textbooks. He had decided, on his own, to revamp the curriculum. The students cheered—no more textbooks, yippee! Lears than assigned four books—still on subject but much more interesting to students in the 1960’s. This was considered a real innovation—no other teacher had done anything like this. And while it wasn’t technically permitted, no one stopped Lears. With a new control of the curriculum, Lears was free to bring material to his students that he knew would get their attention.

Teacher is a beautifully written memoir filled with rich description and poignant reflection. It is about how one teacher changes a student’s life.  After a year in Frank Lears’ class, Edmundson has a dramatic shift. For the first time in his life he reads books that appeal to him, cutting class to spend hours in the library.  A new world opens up.

The question I kept asking myself as I read this book is whether there could be a Frank Lears today. While abandoning the prescribed curriculum was frowned upon in the time the book describes, it garnered a wrist slap at best. Could a teacher get away with this today? And, if not, how can teachers present material in ways that reach students?  Lears employs other freedoms that seem unfathomable in today’s environment. For example, he allows students to grade themselves. As it turns out no one ever gets an A – but Lears makes the point that teaching content is his goal, not awarding grades.  Similarly Lears uses class time to run a group psychology experiment that shocks everyone.  Do teachers today, particularly those teaching high-stakes tested classes, have this kind of freedom to innovate? If not, what can they do to reach students the way Lears did? Is it even possible?

One point this book makes is that an effective teacher can make all the difference—even change a life. At ERS we believe teaching quality is one of the most important elements of a successful school experience.  There’s no doubt Edmundson believes this as well.  In fact in the Prologue he explains the reason he wrote the book was to help him become a better teacher. He had been teaching for years and course evaluations, enrollments and student comments all indicated he was a success. Yet by his own measure he was not, since he had not changed anyone’s life the way Frank Lears changed his. So he wrote the book in an attempt to teach himself what great teaching is really all about.

I was sad and surprised when I read that Lears left teaching after one year. I got the sense, though Edmundson never directly spelled it out, that Lears did not fully understand the impact he had. Given the attitude of many of the students, he probably left believing he had failed. It was 25 years after the events when Edmundson wrote the book, and readers are left wondering if Lears even knew it had been written.

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