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Originally published Sunday, August 24, 2014 at 6:06 AM

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Garret Keizer’s ‘Getting Schooled’: a teacher’s return

In “Getting Schooled,” author Garret Keizer recounts the year he returned to the teaching profession, what he discovered and how he tried to arm his rural Vermont students for the world they face.

Special to The Seattle Times


‘Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher’

by Garret Keizer

Metropolitan Books, 302 pp., $27

When Garret Keizer left his rural Vermont high-school English teaching job 14 years ago at age 43, he never expected to return to that noble but exhausting profession. He had put in 16 years. After leaving the high-school hallways behind, Keizer fulfilled his dream, writing full time as a freelancer — two books, regular assignments for Harper’s Magazine, plus assignments from other periodicals, many of them prestigious.

Yes, Keizer had gained satisfaction from his 16 years in the classroom. Even on his best instructional days, however, he yearned to be at his home, writing for adult audiences. “I can’t recall a single year of teaching that I didn’t begin with a burst of enthusiasm accompanied by the fervent hope that come June I’d be done with teaching for good,” he confesses.

But, at age 57, the same high school needed a one-year fill-in; Keizer and his wife needed employer-paid health insurance. The principal of the high school would be one of Keizer’s former students. Everybody trusted everybody else, so Keizer said yes. At the end of the year, Keizer felt positive that a magazine article would emerge — which it did, for Harper’s. At that juncture, he realized he had accumulated enough material for a book.

Writing a book about his re-education became a fortunate decision for a general readership, because Keizer is a first-rate stylist and a keen observer and can offer insights galore about the changing state of K-12 schooling.

Perhaps Keizer’s most important theme is one many (probably most) teachers echo, yet one poorly understood by schoolchildren and their parents/guardians: Teachers can only accomplish incremental change during a limited-hour school day approximately nine months each year. Sustained intellectual, emotional and moral growth must be developed at home, away from the classroom, if it is to become meaningful. In a rural high school within a low-income district, many parents of Keizer’s students have never attended college and cannot imagine their children attending college, either.

Yet Keizer felt determined never to rely on negative home atmospheres as an excuse if his students failed to thrive in the classroom. “Everything a student fails to learn is something a teacher has failed to teach” became one of Keizer’s sincerely felt mantras.

How that mantra would play out during the year of his return kept Keizer interested in his experiment.

After a well-crafted introductory chapter, Keizer organizes the book by month, August through June of the next year. The organizing principle allows readers to follow Keizer and his English students through their successes and failures.

On graduation day, Keizer imagines what he would have said had he been asked to present the commencement speech. He decides he probably would have struck a light tone, because in general Keizer believes teachers should not pontificate — they should “inspire debates” rather than “settle doctrines.” Probably the most positive position he could stake out, given the limited possibilities the teenagers of low-income rural Vermont face, would be phrased like this: “…the society they were living in valued people of their age, region, and class primarily as cannon fodder, cheap labor, and gullible consumers.” The education they had just completed, though, “could give them some of the weapons necessary to fight back.”

Steve Weinberg is researching his ninth book, a biography of Garry Trudeau.

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