We’ve enjoyed Dennis Donoghue‘s fiction in the past, having published several of his stories here at Blue Lake Review, and this month we're happy to present his new story "Life Coach".
In his book THE FINAL ONE EIGHTY, however, Dennis takes on a subject that is far from fiction and close to his heart, detailing the last year of his career as a sixth grade teacher at a public school.
The book is written as a sort of journal, day by day, as the title indicates, of the last 180 days of his teaching career, as he is heading towards retirement. The book is written with both humor and thoughtful criticism. Throughout the book we see the author’s love for his students, as well as his frustrations with a school system that is rigid and has failed many, it seems, and is run more like a corporation than a facility focused on the individual needs of its students. And, the author recognizes himself, as he is headed toward the end of 37 years of teaching, that he feels somewhat like a prisoner heading toward life in the outside world, wondering how he will manage life in that world, recognizing that he has become somewhat institutionalized by the very system he finds fault with.
The school he teaches at brings together children from various social strata, many of them from poor and broken families who obviously love their teacher, who returns their affection, as much as one can within the school districts restrictions and guidelines.
The parallels between work within a corporate environment and the school system in which Dennis teaches are quite striking. The rules and rigidity of the system, all aimed at making the employees’ methods uniform and structured, without taking into consideration the individual skills/knowledge of the employees/teachers, or, in the case of the school, the individual needs of the students, ignoring, in fact, what will work best for students based on their individual needs. And, for Dennis and his fellow teachers, they are subject to this season’s new “breakthrough” teaching system, entitled “The Initiative,” a system which all the teachers must follow and will be evaluated on following, not allowing them to stray with what they have learned from their experience works best in teaching their own students. In fact, they will be punished for their own initiative in trying to tailor their classes and teaching methods to what they know from experience will work best, contrary to the strictures of the mandated “Initiative.” In this way “The Initiative” almost seems like an evil monster from a dystopian novel, imposing itself on the mental and physical health of all that dare to object to or question its strict application.
In addition, there is the administration of the school, another impediment to the teachers and the students’ learning. The administration official seem more like business executives than public school administrators, concerned most about efficiencies, some of them with very little teaching experience themselves, but, still, without such experience, setting the rules for those working in the system, and expecting, no demanding, that they follow their edicts.
That said, Dennis, the sixth grade teacher in his last year, no longer under the control and subject to evaluation in his final year of teaching, feels he can teach without strictly following the mandated “Initiative,” and takes some apparent pleasure in doing so, assigning books to read that he chooses, that he knows his students will like, while at the same time working as a building representative, questioning why he doesn’t object, stand up to a system that has seemingly failed so many children who really need more individualized attention, but knowing that the answer is his own, in a sense, institutionalization in the school system, having learned during his 37 years to follow rules, be a good worker, to earn his positive evaluations and administrative pats on the backs and raises.
Through it all we get a look at the daily processes and struggles that a teacher goes through on a daily basis. We get to learn about Dennis as a teacher, his compassion for his students, his role, as he says, an entertainer of his students daily, despite how he may feel on any particular day, which is complicated by his own general anxiety disorder, and his frustrations with what he feels, and very much feels like a broken system. And we see glimpses of his own home life, and family, although this is not the focus of the book. We get a bird’s eye view of the struggles of his students who often confide and have no problem relating the problems and traumas of their daily lives to Dennis, the teacher – for example, the girl whose mobile home burned down and who matter of factly tells his teacher, snapping her fingers, Just like that, we got out but our cat died, and then, after being questioned whether they’d managed to save anything else, answers, These, tugging at her clothes.
While Dennis expresses his criticism of the school system, and his frustrations are clear, reflecting on how teaching is no longer what it used to be when teachers were in control of their teaching methods, but is now a structured system leaving little choice to individual teachers, he also sees a glimmer of hope, thinking maybe things will change, improve over the next fifty years (although sardonically noting that if the past fifty years are any indication, maybe that is a pipe dream).
In short, this is an intimate story of a teacher’s final year of teaching, chronicled on a daily basis, which dives deep into a system that many of us, in truth, know little about with regard to its daily workings, and relating with humor, empathy, and critical analysis, but a system that all of us, having children and grandchildren should know more about, and be concerned about, as the students of today are the nation’s citizens of tomorrow. (And, incidentally, we wonder, as does the author, what will he do with himself when he doesn’t have his classroom to return to at the end of the year?)
We highly recommend this eye-opening book about the educational system as essential reading to all who want to learn more about what actually goes on in our schools, and what needs to be fixed to make them better for our children.
See THE FINAL ONE EIGHTY on Amazon.