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It Couldn't Have Been the Pay
New Memoir Begs the Question of What Makes a Great Teacher
What makes a good teacher? What makes a great one? Is a great teacher someone whose pupils score well on tests and get into the best colleges? Or is a great teacher the person who really gets to know their students, understand their hopes and fears, or become friends with them? In the United States, the common answer would probably be the former. In most school districts, it's all about test scores, about the pursuit of academic excellence, about preparing for college. But what do test scores prove? That a student could accurately parrot information and concepts back onto a page? That the limited and rigid curriculum laid forth in government schools really does represent a "good" education—an education that prepares someone to approach the world, to live their life, and to coexist with others?
These were the questions coursing through my mind when I turned the final page in Irving Rothstein's invigorating memoir, It Couldn't Have Been the Pay: A Life of Teaching and Learning in Public Schools. The book, published by Rocin Press, chronicles Rothstein's near 40-year teaching career, which spanned from 1963 to 2002 and centered mostly around inner city San Francisco. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is that neither the promotional materials, nor most of the stories seem to bother identifying Rothstein as a specific type of teacher. The memoir is billed as "essential reading for teachers"—meaning all teachers, not just math teachers, or science teachers, or English teachers, or what have you. How come? Because in these stories, Rothstein may have been employed by a specific school district to teach a specific subject, but he was really teaching his kids about life and how to navigate it.
Instead of focusing on just core curriculum, Rothstein's lesson plans—and his stories—often involve using humor and storytelling to help students to understand themselves, each other, and the world that they live in. As a teacher in San Francisco in the 1960s, for instance, Rothstein often found himself working with minority students in the heat of the Civil Rights movement. In fact, noted historical events from that timeline often play a roll in his stories, from the bombing of the church in Birmingham in 1963—which occurred just a month before Rothstein took his first teaching job, as a tutor for five young black men—to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The latter event brings about one of the most poignant moments in It Couldn't Have Been the Pay—a moment that shows Rothstein's talent for connecting with his students, as well as the way his students could sometimes teach him:
"I am sucking on the dregs [of a cold cup of coffee] when the door flies open and John storms in. He strides over to where I sit ad stands alongside me, shaking. A star student, a star athlete, he played a smooth trumpet and had a scholarship to Harvard waiting for him on graduation.
'Mr. Rothstein!' he says. 'You gotta help me! I'm crazy angry. I feel like killing someone. They killed Reverend King. He was hope and some damn, meaningless cracker shot him!'
I search my mind for a response. Guilt tops my own anger and frustration. My mind is whirling but nothing comes together. What can I tell him? I'm a white guy. And then it comes to me. I say, 'What would the Reverend King want you to do?'
That stops him. He stands absolutely still and states down at me. The tears come, slowly at first, but soon he begins to sob. He pulls out a handkerchief and dries his eyes. He gives me a quick hug and leaves."
In many ways, that passage answers the question that I used to start this review: what makes a great teacher? In a moment where his student is so vulnerable that he is contemplating going off the rails, Rothstein is able to become more than just a teacher, but a friend, a mentor, and a father figure for that young man. He's a shoulder to cry on, but he's also the guy with the concise words of wisdom that can shake you awake, make you consider the consequences of your actions, and get you to take ownership of your own life. Said another way, he's almost like a real-life Mr. Feeny (of Boy Meets World fame)—the teacher that everyone wants, but almost nobody gets.
So, what is the key to great teaching, as posited by It Couldn't Have Been the Pay? On one hand, it's all about personal connection: about a willingness on the behalf of the teacher to engage and connect with their students and to teach them about more than just math, science, or English. On the other hand, though, perhaps a great teacher is made by an X-factor that can't necessarily be explained or taught.
Throughout his memoir, Rothstein describes teaching in a number of different ways: as an Oscar-worthy film production, as con artistry, or even as magic. Sometimes, it seems like he's playing games of chess with his students, or keeping his poker face just long enough to bluff his way out of a bad hand. In almost all of his stories, though, whether Rothstein is preventing his students from turning violent, or harnessing a student's in-class jokes instead of punishing them, Rothstein is improvising, letting his instinct guide his teaching instead of a old, dusty curriculum. Such instinct is rare, but it's the kind of quality that makes students want to strive toward excellence, or even to keep in touch with their teachers years after the fact.
Experience Irving Rothstein's fascinating stories for yourself, by picking up a copy of It Couldn't Have Been the Pay. The book can be purchased directly from Rocin Press, or via Amazon.com in both Kindle and print formats.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.