It’s safe to say that teachers are among the biggest fans of reading. But whatever our literary catnip may be—fiction, history, biography, mystery, science, romance—finding time to get lost in a book can be difficult during the school year. And personally, when I do get around to fall through spring reading, I don’t want it to be about teaching at all (that consumes enough of my mind as it is). Given the choice between a novel set in a middle school, and one about two guys living in a post-apocalyptic airport, I’ll choose the latter.
That all changes in the summer. With extra time to read, and a three-month breather from school, I’m happy to pick up a book set in the classroom. At the same time, I’m still seeking an element of escapism. The solution? A classic novel. Not all of these novels about teachers focus exclusively on teaching, but each features a teacher as the compelling central character.
1. To Sir With Love by E.R. Braithwaite
This novel about teachers is set in 1945. The central character is Ricky, a man born in British Guyana, living in London, and barred by racism from the engineering jobs he’s qualified for. He takes the only position he can find, as a teacher in the rough East End. His students are unmotivated, contemptuous of education, barely literate, and determined to drive their black teacher from the classroom.
But Ricky’s a Royal Air Force veteran. And he didn’t survive the Germans to be defeated by a bunch of teenagers. He decides to treat them as adults, allowing them to choose their course of study, while insisting they treat him and each other with respect. Veteran teachers may raise a skeptical eyebrow at the quick success of Ricky’s plan. But for those who simply want a good read, the turnaround story of these tough students is as satisfying as it is entertaining.
2. The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy
In this memoir, Conroy is “Conrack,” a young teacher on Yamacraw, an isolated fishing island off the coast of South Carolina, who discovers that the local children have been essentially abandoned by the white authorities on the mainland.
The students have been deemed “unteachable.” They can barely read or write, know nothing of life off the island, and live in fear of corporal punishment. But they are also steeped in their rich Geechee culture and have as much to teach as they do to learn.
Conrack becomes determined to open the world to them. He introduces them to classical music, brings in guest speakers, and takes field trips to the mainland. Still relevant today, The Water is Wide is a celebration of resilience—both of a new teacher and of a community struggling against racism and poverty and to maintain a cherished way of life.
3. Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
An idealistic young English teacher just out of college, an overcrowded and underfunded New York City School—what could go wrong?
Kaufman’s funny, touching (and bestselling) novel about teachers is written as a series of inter-office memos, letters, and handouts. We meet the denizens of grim Calvin Coolidge High—young Miss Barrett, her wry colleagues, and the students they teach.
Kaufman’s story hits home with a young teacher’s struggle to adjust. And her portrayal of the conflict between innovating teachers and administrators obsessed with arcane regulations is also poignant. Will they ever get to go up the down stairs?
4. Christy by Catherine Marshall
If you like your fiction historical, with long skirts, horses, buggies, and one-room schoolhouses, this one is for you.
In 1912, idealistic, opinionated Christy leaves her comfortable city home to teach in the Appalachian mountain “hollers” of North Carolina. For Christy, it’s like stepping back in time. The mountain community is prone to feuding, impoverished, mostly illiterate, and superstitious to a fault.
Gradually, Christy comes to understand their pride and to appreciate the Scottish cultural traditions that their isolated existence has preserved.
In this novel about teachers, Christy is a spunky, relatable protagonist. She is dismayed at the high rates of local disease and death, and determined to help. Toss in a love triangle, a gifted student determined to see the world, and a wise mentor, and you’ve got yourself an absorbing summer read.