Head of the Class: Teachers on Teaching

Teaching school has always required emotional dexterity, intellectual rigor, impeccable planning skills, and physical stamina. With budgets shrinking and class size growing, today’s teachers have to be more ingenious and energetic than ever as they work to ensure that all of their students get the attention and tools they need to learn. As kids around the country break out new notebooks this back-to-school season, here are four true stories illustrating the challenges and rewards of being at the front of the classroom.

"Losing My Faculties: A Teacher's Story" by Brendan Halpin

Like so many teachers, Brendan Halpin's lofty goal is to “transform education.” But as soon as he steps into a high school classroom in the Boston Public School system, Halpin realizes that it takes more than ideals to have an effect on the teenage ruckus that roils around him. “I can’t believe how much I suck at this job,” he marvels, thinking of quitting. Halpin toils away at lesson plans, struggles with bureaucratic frustrations and gets smacked with a basketball during class for his troubles.  Over the course of ten years in the classroom, Halpin learns a lot about the mechanics of teaching,  gets through to some kids, and grows up quite a bit himself. But this is real life; no music swells as he walks off triumphant, having taught a group of rough underachievers A Most Valuable Lesson.  Halpin, like many teachers, just keeps working really, really hard -- his optimism battered, but his sense of humor intact.

"The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read: The True Story of a High School Instructor who Triumphed Over His Illiteracy" by John Corcoran

John Corcoran taught bookkeeping, social studies and physical education; he planned lessons, graded his students, and took them through their textbooks. Incredibly, he did it all while barely being literate himself. Corcoran puts his own painful educational experiences -- including corporal punishment and shaming in front of his peers because of his learning disabilities -- on full display here. Against all odds, Corcoran ends up in front of a classroom, teaching students who have some of the same difficulties he faced as a boy. Reading about the methods he used to hide his illiteracy reveals the effort and craft it takes to move through the world without reading or writing. When Corcoran finally finds teachers who encourage, support and challenge him in his journey toward literacy, it’s a relief, but also a call to action. It took Corcoran more than forty years to learn to read, and the fact that he managed as a teacher for as long as he did underscores the tragic fact that many adult Americans must navigate their way through the shame, fear, confusion and frustration of illiteracy every day.

"Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make" by Cindi Rigsbee

Today Cindi Rigsbee is nationally recognized for her excellence as a teacher, with more than two decades of experience in elementary classrooms. But in 1965 she was a sad-eyed six-year-old, trying her hardest to figure out why her first grade teacher didn't seem to like her, no matter how much she tried. When the class is split in two due to overcrowding,  Rigisbee lands in the disfavored group and is relegated to a basement classroom. The basement is damp, with beady-eyed rats lurking in closets and caterpillars crawling up the walls. The already shy girl is almost frightened away from her love of learning, but a new teacher, Mrs. Warnecke, shows real kindness to the children in her class. Finally feeling welcome at school, Rigsbee begins to flourish in Mrs. Warnecke’s room, discovering a lifelong love of poetry. The connection between teacher and student is a lasting one for Rigsbee. The genuine affection shown to her by Mrs. Warnecke resonates through her life and influences her own choice to become a teacher, demonstrating the deep emotional impact that teachers can have on their students.

"A Smile as Big As the Moon: A Special Education Teacher, His Class, and Their Inspiring Journey Through U.S. Space Camp" by Mike Kersjes with Joe Layden

Mike Kersjes's class of twenty special education students includes children with a wide range of emotional, physical and learning disabilities. Frustrated with a school system that constantly underestimates his students, facing burnout after a decade of teaching special ed, Kersjes is on the lookout for a refreshing challenge. Inspiration comes in the form of Space Camp -- a NASA-sponsored program that usually caters to gifted and talented students. Facing an uphill battle, Kersjes decides that he wants to get his special ed kids to Space Camp, despite an overall lack of support from administrators, colleagues, and parents, and even some active disdain for the idea. His efforts, along with his students’ successes along the way, are only more satisfying because of the work Kerjes and Layden do outlining this group’s specific challenges. In the end, a genuinely unforgettable and uplifting tale emerges.