When Ed Boland left his job in educational administration to become a teacher at a New York City public school, his new career was short-lived. After a year teaching during the 2006-2007 school year, he decided to return to his non-profit roots and give up on his dream in the classroom.
In his new memoir, “The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School” (out Feb. 9 on Grand Central Publishing), the 51-year-old New Yorker reflects on his experience teaching and what, essentially, went wrong.
“I worked in college admissions, I worked for an educational access program, I read all the books, I read all the studies — I thought I knew, but I didn’t have a clue,” Boland says. “There’s a difference between knowing something in the abstract and knowing it face-to-face, and that’s why I wrote the book. You can see in a personal way what kids are up against.”
amNewYork spoke with Boland about his memoir.
Q: It’s been 10 years since you were in the classroom. What led you to writing a book about your experience?
Ed Boland: After I had my failed experience as a teacher, it took me a while to lick my wounds. I really wanted to make sense of the experience. I thought writing about it might be a therapeutic way to deal with my failure. And as I started to share my stories with people, I began to realize that people don’t understand, that good-hearted, smart New Yorkers do not understand the extent to which kids in our public schools show up with tremendous, adult problems every day, and just how many barriers to their education that presents. I just wanted people to understand in a personal and first-hand way just how tough kids have it. So many kids who walked into my classroom, they and their families were facing eviction, unemployment, deportation, incarceration, gun violence, gang violence, poor healthcare. How can kids focus on school when they’re faced with those kinds of challenges? There’s also so much discussion in the educational reform debate right now about who’s to blame. I think ultimately the most important thing I wanted people to understand is poverty is the culprit. It’s not lazy teachers, bad kids or uncaring parents — it’s poverty. We need to address that head on as much as we can within the four walls of the classroom.
Q: The book protects the privacy of the school and students with pseudonyms. Did you consider writing the book anonymously?
EB: Honestly, I thought long and hard about that. I’m critical of many things in the book, I see how the school could have done better, I see how the Department of Education could have done better, but I really see how I could have done better. I think I try to own my own failure, and to do that publically is difficult, but I thought that if I was going to share the details of these kids’ lives, then I was going to share the details of my own life during this short but painful period. I don’t want anyone to read this and think, “That guy had a terrible year, that poor teacher” — that is the last thing I want people to walk away with. The fact that I had a bad experience is irrelevant, the people we should be focusing on are the kids.
Q: What would you have done differently as a teacher?
EB: I would have tried to find a teacher preparation program that was far more practical and less theoretical. In all the hours I spent in graduate school, maybe an hour was devoted to classroom management. I would have sought out more mentors, and I would have really done all I could to learn everything I could about classroom management and classroom discipline, because you could have the best lesson in the world, but if you can’t manage the whole class, it’s pointless.
Q: What are the challenges facing NYC schools right now?
EB: The challenges I faced remain today, and that is that kids [have] far too many serious problems for them to be able to focus on learning. I think we really do need to focus on childhood poverty. It sounds daunting and it sounds large, but there’s a lot we could do that would not be difficult that could make a big difference. What if we passed a living wage, so parents weren’t working two or three jobs and could be home to help with homework and could show up for parent-teacher meetings. What if we ended mass incarceration? The smartest kid in [my] school by far was the undocumented student, [and he] never went to college.
Q: There has been some negative reaction to your book, that it fuels the negativity surrounding inner-city schools. What is your response to that?
EB: That’s exactly the opposite of what I hoped to accomplish. I don’t think people are going to be able to become passionate about education reform if they’re just reading reports and statistics. I want the general public to know just how hard teachers have it as well. When people complain about New York City public schools not doing a good job, I think anyone who reads this book will have a greater understanding of just how difficult it is for teachers. When teachers have actually read the book, they say, “Thank you for taking our everyday reality and making it clear to people how tough we have it, and the challenges we face.”
Q: What are some bright spots in the field that we should focus on?
EB: I think there’s a lot of very exciting educational reform that’s going on within the four walls of the classroom. I think districts are instituting higher educational standards and trying to train teachers better, and that’s great. But again I think what the emphasis should be is what happens outside the classroom more.