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Book Review: Educating Esmé

Earlier this week, I found myself at the public library.  During my browsing, I ran across a book that had been recommended to me by a friend, so I picked it up and checked it out.  The book was Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year.  I’ve been pretty busy this week, but tonight I couldn’t get to sleep so the opportunity to dive in presented itself and I took it.  This book is a relatively quick read, but also contains some emotional depth.

Esmé is a first year teacher at an inner city school in Chicago.  The diary entries contained in the book haven’t been censored for publishing, so it reads as a very authentic look into her perspective.  There are both great victories and terrible defeats, representing the full spectrum of experiences (including some very humorous anecdotes), from a student who stabs a teacher in the back with a pencil, to another student who brings their 2 year old brother to school because there’s no one to watch him at home, to a class yelling “play ball” after the anthem in a very inappropriate (but hilarious) setting, to a class coming together and awing the school with a literature show they put on.  I felt Esmé’s despair and helplessness when considering the situations her students found themselves in, but also her deep pride in their eventual successes.

Working at a university, I am largely ignorant of most of the issues confronting public school teachers, except for those issues relating to educational technology.  This book was very eye-opening in that regard as Esmé’s nemesis throughout the book was the one person who should have given her complete support: the principal.  It was disheartening to read about his repeated meddling over completely irrelevant issues, such as what name Esmé should answer to.  The principal really represents must of what is wrong with public education in this country today.

The hardest part of reading this book is watching the idealism fade away and a near-cynicism replace it, only to see the pride in her students at the end of the book.  About halfway through, I began to worry: was I reading yet another story of a wonderful creative inspirational teacher that would quit after her first year, or third?  According to the Washington Post, half of all teachers quit by their fifth year, so this sort of outcome would not be out of place; in fact, it’s all too common already.

About halfway through the book, Esmé makes the following poignant observation:

“In my opinion, the prefabricated curriculum and board mandates that are concocted to hide [inner classroom workings], can work both ways.  They can be benign suggestions to make talented investors out of teachers.  Or they can make it so people who don’t have anything to share can still work, since their scripts are made up for them.  Nobody really knows which is happening when the teacher closes the door.  At worst, mediocrity.  At best, miracles.”

Have we created a script that anyone can use to “teach?”  I haven’t been able to sleep tonight as I am coming down with some sort of cold, but I think it’s this observation above that will keep me up for just a bit longer.  If you get a chance, especially if you’re a teacher at any level, I highly recommend this book.

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