The Education of a Teacher

9781450250986_COVER.inddIn many ways, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks) is a forerunner of my Endurance mystery series. A creative non-fiction memoir, it recounts fifteen stories from my life in a small town classroom.

For thirty-four years I taught English at Monmouth High School in the Midwestern town of Monmouth, Illinois. That town is the inspiration for Endurance, minus the murders, of course. (Although, now that I think about it, there was a time or two in my classroom…)

In 1968, at age twenty-one, I was sure I had all the answers I needed to know about teaching five classes a day in a real high school. My memoir shows the stupidity of that twenty-something idea. The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks) is an incredible journey through one teaching life. It describes the town, the school, and the students who molded their rookie teacher into a veteran. Sometimes hilarious and sometimes heart-breaking, these are unforgettable stories from a real classroom that illustrate why teaching is such a rewarding and demanding profession like no other.

Since this book was published in 2010, I have heard from many teachers and pre-service teachers who loved the book and recommended it to friends. It has been used quite successfully in two universities and a junior college as a textbook for pre-service teachers.

Told as entertaining narratives, these stories are based on real events, and they demonstrate complex problems and moral issues that confront teachers. If you don’t teach but love human interest stories, you will enjoy this book. If you are thinking about teaching, you’ll discover it may be different than you envisioned on the other side of the desk. If you are already a teacher in a classroom, you will nod your head at the story outcomes, and feel amazingly comfortable in the world of this book. And if your favorite teacher made it look easy, these stories will demonstrate the truth: it wasn’t. To read this book is a roller coaster journey through one teaching life.

Table of Contents

Chapter One You Are Now Entering the Maple City

In which I reveal how wonderfully optimistic I am at age twenty-one, and sure to solve all the problems of my teaching life. Driving into my future, I have no idea that my optimism is a bit premature.

Chapter Two War and Remembrance

Intellectual Freedom: Do you lose it at the classroom door? How can I justify my inclination to speak out against an unjust war when I am being paid by a community that doesn’t agree with that opinion? And how did that come back to haunt me twenty years later?

Chapter Three  Early Days: Chaos and Confusion

My biggest fear as a new teacher: the Big D. Discipline. And sure enough, while I was worrying about what I would do if a fight broke out in my classroom, one did. Or did it? Enter Dana, the student who can create bedlam wherever he goes.

Chapter Four  “Hi. I’m Barb. I Sneeze.”

How would I ever solve the unique and unusual problem that was Barb? No college text helped me with this one. Her story illustrates how totally alone teachers can be in helping students.

Chapter Five  A Winter Tale

No one said that death always comes to the oldest. One of my favorite assignments in my American Literature classes was to have students write a poem in the style of Spoon River Anthology. It would be an epitaph describing how they looked back on their lives after their imagined deaths. I stopped giving this favorite assignment. This is why.


Chapter Six Past Tense, Future Perfect

One of the scariest experiences of my young teaching life was a drug overdose of a student in my class. Imagine my surprise when I met her many years later. Did she remember that day?


Chapter Seven: Great Expectations

Teaching in a school with a high percentage of low income families, I often wanted so much more for my students. Sometimes, as a teacher, I got a bit too opinionated about what my students should do with their lives. Whenever that happened, I reminded myself of Jim Talbott.

Chapter Eight  Sabrina Fair

Teacher Rule # 1 Beware of making assumptions. They always come back to bite you.

Chapter Nine And the Walls Came Tumbling Down

Of all the stories in this collection, this is the one that seems the hardest for me—or anyone else—to believe. Thousands of schools in this country have financial hardships, and they close their doors or consolidate. But in 1979-1980, consolidation was not a possibility for my district. And so, instead of building a new high school, they tore the old one down around us. Literally. It was a year of black comedy and amazing grace.

Chapter Ten Transitions

This is the story of one Christmas break when two students came to my front door with terribly different ethical dilemmas. How does a teacher walk the line between saying what she thinks they should do and providing them with the help to make those decisions themselves or with their families? And what if that teacher has a huge problem of her own?

Chapter Eleven Mr. Detroit

Always in my teaching life I had students I could not reach. No teacher bats a perfect percentage. I spent years wondering what happened to this one. Only recently did I find out the answer to “the lost years.”


Chapter Twelve The Boy Who Dreamed He Could Run

Into my life came the most amazing teenager who left me speechless. He won all of our hearts even though I was skeptical at first. And all he had to do was move one thumb.


Chapter Thirteen The Mirror of His High School Eyes

Teacher Rule # 2 Remember Teacher Rule # 1.


Chapter Fourteen Mr. Vonnegut and Me

Kurt Vonnegut played havoc with my life and he didn’t know it until I sent him the clippings. This is the story of a book challenge in my literature class. Breakfast of Champions brought into my life a textbook example of a classroom book challenge. From this experience I learned what happens when a community is divided, and parents put pressure on a district to do what they want. It wasn’t pretty, but maybe readers can learn from my experience.

Chapter Fifteen  Postscript (2008) Rockin Out

And now instead of being four years older than my students (see Chapter One), I am forty-four years older. In this story I find out whether I still have what it takes to play electric guitar in a fraternity rock band. Bring it on!