Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Losing [His] Faculties

A few days ago I finished Brendan Halpin's riveting, expletive-laden memoir Losing My Faculties. It chronicles his 9 years as a high school teacher in the greater Boston area. In his own words:

I set out to write something different from the usual 'I saved those difficult kids in one short year' teaching books: I wanted to show how and why people keep at it, to be honest about what a great job it is without sugarcoating how hard it can be and how easy it is to get discouraged by the other adults. An elementary school principal who reviewed it for the Boston Globe called it, 'Cynical, mean-spirited, and depressing.' I humbly suggest that any book by a teacher which makes a principal apoplectic is worth a read.

Faculties is one of only a few books I've read recently that I didn't want to put down until it was done. It maybe took me five or six hours to read. At one point I read for almost three hours straight. That is rare for me, as my mind usually wanders elsewhere after about a hour or so.

Not with Halpin. His writing was direct, honest, and biting, and it really captured me:

"I have one senior class, and although I am undoubtedly the kind of guy they would beat senseless for fun if I were their age, the boys in the class decide that I'm cool" (60).

"I want to empower them, I want them to be free citizens rather than obedient automatons, and so I am just terribly uncomfortable with the reality of my authority" (39-40).

"Many, many [faculty] meetings degenerate into someone holding forth on the importance of the hat rule. Once I make the mistake of saying that the kids don't really understand this rule, that they generally obey rules that they understand, and that they continually break this rule because it seems arbitrary to them, and if we could just explain it, we might have better compliance. I am shouted down by a history teacher who yells, 'It's about RESPECT!,' thereby ending the discussion without actually saying anything" (91-92).

These are just three of hundreds of nuggets found in Halpin's book. I personally enjoyed it because it gave honest insight about the four different school cultures in which Halpin worked. He doesn't dedicate as much time to describing his lessons as he does to detailing his coworkers' quirks and annoyances, so don't go into it expecting to have profound pedagogical insights afterward.

Read it for his voice. Halpin comes off as idealistic but broken, and he's both bitter and earnest. I think all high school teachers should read this book, as it serves to honestly (and, albeit, quite subjectively) remind what is both great and troublesome about our profession.


happychyck said...

Ha! I found this book as I was unpacking boxes today. I'd forgotten I had it still, but I did recall that is was the specific book that broke me from reading anymore stories about classroom experiences--sugary or cynical. It's not that I didn't enjoy or relate to his book. I truly did. It's that on those bad days when I don't want to teach anymore, I get mad that there are so many others who have already written books (plus escaped education and made money?)with stories very much like my own. ;-) I should find comfort in the common reality, though, shouldn't I? Guess on those days I'm too bitter! BTW, the quotes you pulled are great. Spot on!

EnglishTeacherMe said...

Great, now I'm going to have to read the book :) It sounds interesting -- different than the warm fuzzy books I've had to read as an education major. Thanks for the tip -- I'm going to the bookstore today.

Mr. B-G said...

Englishtecherme - Hey, you're welcome. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts once you're done. Good luck with student teaching!

Happychyck - I hear what you are saying about teaching, publishing, and "escaping." I say all the power to whomever decides to attempt this. I say this because I think we need as much publicity as we can get from those who are in the know.

Despite many of the wonderful things that occur within the confines of a school building, there are a surprising number of inane occurrences too.

Maybe once the parents and taxpayers have a better understanding of what can go on, they can join the new wave of educators in meaningful reform of a system that, quite frankly, is failing those it is intended to serve.

DrPezz said...

I'm going to have to purchase this book as well. The only other teaching narrative I've read is Teacher Man by McCourt. This one sounds like a great read as well. Thanks!

Rita said...

I view my principals as my partners, not my enemies. Is that unusual?

What was stopping him from explaining the reasoning for the rules to his kids? Our hat rule derives from a particular bullying incident in the school, and I tell the kids the story. I write detentions for cells because they're just as rude in my classroom as they are in a restaurant, a movie theater, etc. I encourage them to use ipods, etc. when writing (my principals don't particularly care, but I made a big deal about them not saying anything so that it seems like they're getting away with something) The kids have to drink or they'll dehydrate, but no food because it grosses me out when roaches jump out of the portfolio boxes.

Last year I read a book called Teachers Have It Easy that I thought was very on target. The authors interviewed teachers who had left and teachers who have stayed. It did a good job laying out the pay issues and working conditions that make teaching difficult. FWIW, I think many corporate environments are more poisonous than schools.

Mr. B-G said...

I too view my principals as partners, although I am still cognizant of the power they have, and do my best to show my respect for it.

I would say that the relationship and rapport I've developed with my school's administrative team is one of the reasons I really enjoy and feel comfortable teaching at my school.

For the most part I trust their vision and even agree with the majority of their decisions! Alas, this type of professional relationship would probably seem foreign to Halpin. One begins to wonder, how much of Hapin's negative experience can be attributed to him vs. his working conditions.

As for the hat rule in Halpin's situation, I don't think the rule was ever articulated to him, thus he was unable to elucidate his students...

EnglishTeacherMe said...

Mr.B-G -- excellent recommendation! I picked up the book yesterday (which was quite a feat -- 3 local supersized bookstores didn't carry it) and am halfway through tonight. I have to admit that Halpin's story makes me uneasy as a future teacher (particularly how hard it seems for an English Teacher to find a job), but many truths resound with me -- especially stuff about his students.
I have to say that I think Halpin's negative relationship with his administration and colleagues greatly affects the way he sees education as a whole. I certainly hope this is not the norm! I see a lot of myself in Haplin.

Rita said...

I think having a functional working relationship with one's administration is a big key to enjoying -- and being effective -- in your job. I worry sometimes that these books set new teachers up to view principals as the enemy.