The Secret Lives of Teachers

  • By Anonymous
  • University of Chicago Press
  • 272 pp.
  • Reviewed by Rachael Guadagni
  • September 28, 2015

What could've been an eye-opening insider's account of the classroom instead lapses into the mundane.

As a former teacher with years spent in both public and private schools, I admit I was looking forward to reading this book. Between the content, the kids, and navigating parent- and administrator-infested waters, I was surely in for a delightful romp.

But with little fanfare — and even less secrecy — The Secret Lives of Teachers portrays the professional experiences of an educator at an elite private school in much the same way the Discovery Channel depicts life on the savanna: thorough, methodical, interesting in places, but entirely expected. (Is anyone truly shocked when the cheetah takes down the gazelle?)

The author is charmingly self-deprecating and clearly cares for his students, but the tone of this tome is decidedly flat and does little to either inspire one to, or bolster respect for, the profession.

True to educational convention, the story begins on the opening day of a new school year, where history teacher/anonymous author “Horace Dewey” reflects on his vocation past and present. The reader quickly discerns that Dewey is a nice, by-the-book guy whose greatest skill is the psychoanalysis of those around him. Nearly everyone discussed is described from a psycho-emotional perspective; it is pleasant albeit dull to hear the traits of each character laid out so thoroughly.

In an English novel, there is at least the prospect of a murder to keep the butler, gardener, and petulant heiress tolerable. Here, the action is workaday, the people are workaday, and even the conflicts are workaday. Again, it’s mildly amusing that lions nap in the shade of a baobab tree. It’s yawn-worthy that it’s hot in Africa.

Still, Dewey works hard to convey the deeper meaning behind his characters’ words and actions. In an exchange with a student named Caroline, Dewey responds to her angst over the grade she received from another teacher by suggesting that the other instructor may be motivated by jealousy.

That may seem like an unprofessional, I’m-trying-to-be-her-friend maneuver, but Dewey, whose default setting is honesty, knows his colleague perceives Caroline as being blessed with both brains and talent, but not necessarily the drive or desire to apply either. In short, this fellow teacher thinks she’s “phoning it in.” 

Caroline is shocked and dismayed by the revelation, lamenting that she thought her teacher understood who she was. By speaking candidly with her, Dewey crafts a new perspective for the student and sends her off with the grown-up realization that we don’t get to decide others’ opinions of us. They do.

It’s in these exchanges — where teachers walk the personal (but not too personal) tightrope of counselor/educator — that the author shines and Teachers enjoys its only literary footing.

Dewey relates more serious events — the firing of a colleague for a perceived homophobic slur; his own cursing at a parent; pot-smoking at a senior campout — but even these episodes fail to ignite a spark, and the story idles along at a Sunday-drive pace. The competing agendas of administrators and teachers, the leaden meetings, the petty competitiveness among the staff, and Dewey’s woe-is-me demeanor keep Teachers from rising above the mundane and inspiring any real interest in the vocation.

Teaching, at least for me, was a living, breathing entity. It required care and feeding and rarely presented itself the same way twice. And while I can relate to what he is saying, Dewey doesn’t seem to connect the dots. At the end, one is left wondering what, if anything, is appealing about this job.

If you’ve never taught and have no more connection to the classroom than the fact you were once in one, The Secret Lives of Teachers may prove to be informative and interesting. But if you have teaching experience and/or are looking for a spirited tale of behind-the-desk drama, forget it. Teachers reads like a folksy dissertation.

Dewey is genuine, but between lamenting his pay and duties to sighing his way from one term to the next, he loses both the reader’s interest and sympathy. It’s a delight to learn about the lions, Mr. Dewey, but less so to count the hairs in their mane.

Rachael Guadagni is a writer and former middle-school teacher based in Lexington, KY. Her work as appeared in Kentucky Monthly, Maryland Life, Her Mind, and other publications.

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