Alexandra Robbins, THE TEACHERS: A Year Inside America's Most Vulnerable, Important Profession

Alexandra Robbins, THE TEACHERS: A Year Inside America's Most Vulnerable, Important Profession

Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling author and education expert Alexandra Robbins to discuss The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession, a riveting, year-in-the-life account of three excellent teachers “whose stories readers can curl up with and get lost in.” Alexandra describes the most significant issues teachers are facing in our country today (from blatant disrespect to a lack of resources) and lists the steps we can take to help. She also talks about her career in journalism, the influential teacher who helped her get there, and the books she has read recently and loved.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alexandra. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession.

Alexandra Robbins: Thanks so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: This is such an important book focusing on such an undervalued, obviously, profession in the States. You just completely went in there and did your thing and all of it. Tell listeners how this whole book came to be and your experience in reporting and writing about it.

Alexandra: I wanted to write a book that would open the public’s eyes about what’s really going on in schools. I also wanted to show teachers that they are deeply appreciated, that they’re not alone, that they can find solidarity and support. Most of all, I wanted to motivate readers to stand up for and speak out for educators right now before it’s too late. I also wanted the book to be the kind of book that you could give to a teacher as a way of saying, I appreciate you, and now I understand what you’re going through. In terms of the writing, the kind of nonfiction I like to read — honestly, I’m mostly a fiction girl. I read fiction every night before bed. I can’t read nonfiction before bed because then my brain goes into work mode. You probably understand. How did they structure that? How did they do the reporting for that? I have to read fiction before bed so I can escape. The kind of nonfiction I like to read is the kind that feels like a fun fiction book, but then when you put it down, you feel a little smarter or a little more informed about a topic. In this case, education. One of my favorite reviews of all time in my career called my writing style poolside nonfiction. I love that because when I read nonfiction, that’s what I want to read, the kind of book you could read by the pool. The way I structured the book is, for a schoolyear, I followed three excellent teachers whose stories readers could curl up with and get lost in. There’s Penny, a middle school math teacher in the South; Rebecca, an East Coast elementary school teacher; and Miguel, who’s a special ed teacher out West. I also interviewed hundreds of other teachers across the country so people can truly understand what is going on in schools.

Zibby: What is going on in schools?

Alexandra: Oh, my gosh, it’s so much. It’s not even what’s going on in schools. It’s what going on around schools that’s affecting teachers. There’s so much. What’s happening on a basic level is that we have these skilled professionals who are trained and certified to educate our children, and they are being mistreated. They are under siege from all sides. Students are more disruptive than ever. Even just one disruptive student in a class can disrupt the entire class for everyone, teachers and students. District officials and sometimes principals are piling on and piling on extra time-consuming responsibilities on teachers without giving them the resources or the support staff or the planning time or the structural supports to actually execute those duties. At the same time, the teacher pay gap has hit a record high. US teachers are paid about twenty-four percent less than other professionals with similar education experience. There’s — how can I say this? Certain sections of politicians and parents are loudly vocalizing disrespect for the profession like never before. They are stripping teachers away of the autonomy that they should have in the job that only they are trained and certified to do. All that helps explain why teachers are fleeing the profession and why listeners here might have kids in classes without a teacher or with a long-term sub or with a different sub every day or kids who are scattered among other classes every once in a while, because they just can’t find coverage for them. That’s, at a basic level, what’s going on.

Zibby: I’m sorry I put you on the spot there. Sometimes I think about this too. This year in particular — I have four kids. My two youngest kids, they have really great, great teachers. They’re so happy. That is what’s making the year amazing for them. I think about this every day when we smile at pick-up. Thank goodness for them. Just even a slight bit of rudeness or something can throw a kid off, let alone the things that you document in the book and actual things that are occurring everywhere. It’s mind-blowing how much influence this one particular person is. Even when I interview authors, I find that — I don’t know if this happened to you. Most authors are like, at some point, a teacher told me that I had talent. At some point, a teacher said I was a writer and I should keep writing. How important. Did you have that experience even yourself as a writer?

Alexandra: I did. My sixth-grade teacher. We had to write in a class journal every day. We would just write stuff for ten or fifteen minutes. She came to me after class one day. She said, “I saw what you wrote in your journal. I’d like to submit it for the superintendent’s writing award.” I’m like, “It’s just something I scribbled in my journal.” She’s like, “Yes, but I think you are a writer.” I was like, “Okay, that’s fine.” It got it. It never would’ve occurred to me. I liked writing, but it didn’t occur to me that I was that good at it until she did that. A teacher recognized that I had a passion for something that was a strength. That changed my life.

Zibby: Amazing. Wonderful. Take us through your own career and how you got to this . I know you’ve been accomplished to date across journalism and books and everything. By the way, poolside nonfiction is amazing. You’re in the Michael Lewis, James Stewart reporting, highly accessible. I personally love this style that you have.

Alexandra: Thank you so much. Career, let’s see. I was really into journalism in high school because of that teacher. I was like, okay, let me write some more. At the end of high school, I knew I wanted to go into journalism. I wrote an article. This was way back. I never told anybody this story. I wrote an article for a local newspaper that I was interning for the summer after high school about how county policies discriminated against LGBT students. Wrote the piece, gave it to the editor. Editor didn’t get back to me. I was like, I just feel like this is really important. This is a long time ago. This is in the nineties, so it was before people were talking about it as much as they are now. Ended up submitting it to The Washington Post. The Washington Post said, “Yeah, we’ll print this.” They went through the editing process. It was almost the publication date. Then the local paper published my article under another reporter’s name. I never forgot that. I never told anybody that story. I don’t know why it just came up now.

Zibby: I cannot believe that that happened. I can’t believe that.

Alexandra: I asked the editor. I said, “Why did you do that?” She’s like, “Well, you’re eighteen. We can’t publish it under your name.” Maybe because you’re in a car. Maybe that’s why weird stories are coming out. Anyway, what I learned from that was several things. One, you have to stand up for yourself. I did quit that paper. Two, at that point, The Washington Post was interested in what I had to say. They published something else I wrote within the year. Three, I was interning for a radio station at the same time here in Washington, DC. I was crying to my mentor, the reporter at the station. She said, “You have to just focus on moving forward and using your writing for good.” Ever since then, I guess that’s what I’ve tried to do.

Zibby: I’m honored you told me this story. Maybe the fate of local papers themselves has been the revenge for co-opting your work.

Alexandra: Sure, we’ll go with that.

Zibby: We’ll go with that. It’s karma. It’s coming back.

Alexandra: I have nothing against local papers. Just that one editor.

Zibby: I’m totally kidding. I read the Palisades Post all the time and East Hampton Star and all these local — it’s fun. It’s fun news. Local papers in New York City are, what? The Post? I guess. I don’t know. Anyway, there’s never been more attention on teachers than after COVID and how amazing a job they did stepping up and saving the world, essentially, so that everybody could continue getting an education even though, obviously, some districts did a better job than others. This must have been conceived way before. Tell me about the timeline of everything and what you want the public, really, to take away and what we can actually do. I feel like it’s well-known how teachers don’t get enough respect or salaries or whatever. Is there anything we as concerned citizens can do about it?

Alexandra: Absolutely. The seeds of the book started germinating in 2015. That’s when I published a book called The Nurses where I followed ER nurses for a year and talked about their working admissions. Nursing and teaching are very similar professions. They are both female dominated in the workforce. However, they’re overseen by men. In this case, about three quarters of the teaching profession identify as women. Seventy-three percent of superintendents identity as men. There’s a disparity there. When you have that kind of dynamic, there are certain stereotypes that go along with the professions. People treat nurses, often, in similar ways as they treat teachers. When that book came out, teachers read it and said, “We’re going through something similar. Can you write a book about us?” I started thinking about it then. I started talking to people then. I published another book in the interim. Then probably shortly before the pandemic, I really started reporting this book in depth and getting into it. The pandemic changed things in terms of the way people view teachers, but it didn’t cause the issues that we see today in the teaching profession. While there’s a heightened sense and a heightened polarity as to the views of teachers now, it’s not because of the pandemic. While COVID is mentioned in the book, I don’t actually focus on it exclusively because I think to do so would be a disservice to the teaching profession.

What can we do? Yes, everybody listening can do something to help teachers. First of all, teachers need the public’s trust. Teachers are trained and certified to educate students. We need to let them do that without second-guessing them. Even something as small as saying in front of your child, “I trust your teacher. I know you’re uncomfortable with this assignment. It seems really challenging,” or really easy or whatever it, “but I trust that your teacher knows what they’re doing,” if you model respect and appreciation for a teacher, then that’ll improve students’ experiences too. Also, when you hear someone or see someone disparage teachers, which you can see every day on social media these days, speak up to support educators. We need more voices. We need louder voices. This aggressive fringe that’s attacking teachers right now, they’re in the minority. It’s just that too many of us are staying silent. We need to show teachers that our numbers are larger and that they really are appreciated and supported. We can also lobby for smaller classes and larger paychecks. Teachers deserve far more money than they get. Studies actually show that students’ math and English scores are significantly higher in districts that pay teachers higher base salaries.

At a local level, something that’s easy to do, ask what supplies teachers need, whether you have kids in school or you can just go to the school and ask or call the school and ask. Ask what they need. Then buy it or fundraise or collect supplies. I’m doing an event at the end of March to give swag bags to teachers in the DC area for free. I’ve got some companies donating things. I also just asked. I set up an Amazon list. I said to people, “Hey, can you contribute?” This is the overflow from my garage. You see the stuff in the back there? My whole garage is full. There’s post-its there, and Papermades. I got them chocolates too because you need chocolate, and chap sticks and dice and fun socks and diverse colored pencils, diverse colored band aids. It’s so easy. Just that little gesture can really lift a teacher, to know that people are thinking of them. It’s not enough just to say, “I love my kids’ teachers. They’re awesome.” That’s great. That’s super. You should tell the teacher that. We need to stand up for teachers on a broader, more visible level. Show up to board meetings. Lobby for teachers at this time when public education is under attack. Pay attention to what your community school board is doing. Ask teachers how they feel about what the school board is doing. Then testify publicly. Email board members. Start petitions. Write open letters that people can sign onto supporting the teachers’ stance. Teachers need to see that people are supporting them. It’s kind of a demoralized landscape for them right now.

Zibby: That’s good that those are not just your groceries in the background there.

Alexandra: I have horrible Zoom game. Everything that’s usually on the floor of my office is right behind that door. You cannot get through the hallway. I just smooshed everything back there.

Zibby: My dad was on this kick for a while to try to get teachers to not have any income tax.

Alexandra: I like that.

Zibby: If you want to take that up. He didn’t get much traction on that, but he thought that would be a great way to solve the problem.

Alexandra: That is a great way. That would be helpful. That would be helpful, for sure.

Zibby: I went to college, actually, with Charles Best, who started DonorsChoose. I don’t know if you use that site. You can see all the different classrooms and what those individual teachers need. Then you get letters back from the students. “Thank you so much for our books,” or whatever. That’s a nice way to do it as well. Can we go back to your love of fiction for a second?

Alexandra: Sure.

Zibby: Tell me some of the books you’ve read lately or favorite books of all time. I don’t want to put you on the spot again.

Alexandra: Recently, House in the Cerulean Sea, loved that one. Such a Fun Age, I loved that one. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Going back a little bit, there’s The Goldfinch. There’s The Art of Fielding. I could spend half an hour just listing. It’s on my Goodreads. Everybody can go to my Goodreads and see what my — I don’t rate books very often. I feel like as an author, if someone rates my book less than five stars, then I’m like, oh, no, what did I do wrong? I usually only give books five stars or I don’t rate them because I don’t want to mess with their rating. If you look at my list and you see my five stars, I really, really like those books and recommend them.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love it. I am going to check out your Goodreads. What project are you working on next?

Alexandra: There is no next. I am pausing writing books because teachers need help. It’s not going to be solved with one book. It’s not going to be solved this year. I want to focus on advocating at a national level for teachers and spreading awareness as to what they’re going through and how we can help them. At a local level, I’m a sub. I’m a substitute teacher. That’s the way that I help teachers here in the DC area. For example, I wasn’t supposed to sub until April after my book launches, but the teacher has a family emergency this week. This week, I’m doing fourth grade because they need me. If we don’t step up to help teachers, then who will? You just want to help them every little bit that you can. That’s more important to me right now than writing books.

Zibby: Wow, that’s awesome. You found your calling.

Alexandra: I do like subbing. It’s fun.

Zibby: I didn’t just mean the subbing. I mean your advocacy for the whole profession and how you can make such a huge difference. It’s really amazing.

Alexandra: It’s important. Teachers need more non-educator voices in the national dialogue to try and sway public support to where it should be.

Zibby: When you’re not heavily reporting on different professions and reading fiction, what do you like to do in your free time?

Alexandra: I’m outside. I am playing sports or taking walks or outside reading. Pretty much it.

Zibby: Awesome. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Alexandra: Advice for aspiring authors, one is if you think you have writer’s block, either take a walk or take a bath. There’s never been a situation where, whether I was stuck on a transition or an idea or a way to connect two different concepts, where a bath or a shower — it doesn’t have to be a bath — or taking a walk didn’t help. Also, if you feel you have writer’s block, write through it anyway. Don’t assume that just because you think what you write is bad that there’s nothing in it worth salvaging. Often, even if you write a page of something that you think is no good, there’s probably going to be a kernel of something in there that’ll spark you to write something good from that one kernel.

Zibby: The popcorn model of writing, all the kernels. Sorry, not even funny. If there’s one article you’ve written that you think everybody should go back and read or something that maybe people have missed and you were like, no, no, this should get more attention, what would that be?

Alexandra: There was an article I wrote for The New York Times in March 2020 at the very beginning of the pandemic. For moms who don’t have time to read books, if you want to get a sense of how powerful a profession this is and why teachers stay in it despite the disrespect and how they felt about, not the obligation, but the — I don’t want to spoil it — the reasons they came to work anyway, even when, for example, surrounding cities were in full shelter-in-place, that would be an article that explains their perspective.

Zibby: Amazing. As soon as this comes out — this comes out, what? March 14th? Is that right?

Alexandra: Yeah, Pi Day. That’s the one good day in March. March is one of the worst months for teachers because there are no breaks. Pi Day is the one day people celebrate, even if they can’t recite pi past 3.14, just because it’s something in March to go, yay!

Zibby: I love that. I’ll certainly be giving this out to the teachers in our school. I feel like even if listeners just pick up copies for all of their kids’ teachers, then that’s an aggregate of a lot of teachers out there. Everybody listening, pick up The Teachers, Alexandra Robbins. Give them to your teachers. Start helping make a difference.

Alexandra: Thank you so much.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Thank you, Alexandra. I’m sorry for doing this, again, in the car. Thank you for rolling with it. It was so nice chatting with you. I’m going to go check out your Goodreads page right now.

Alexandra: Take care. I’ll friend you on Goodreads.

Zibby: Please do.

Alexandra: Bye.

Alexandra Robbins, THE TEACHERS: A Year Inside America's Most Vulnerable, Important Profession

THE TEACHERS: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession by Alexandra Robbins

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