William Ayers’s new book To Teach: The Journey, In Comics is part autobiography, part education reform tract, and entirely enjoyable to read. I don’t know another edu-book that blends these three elements so well. To Teach updates Ayers’s 1993 book of the same title– except this time around he’s featured in comic panels whose only facial features are dark hair, opaque glasses, and a mustache. It’s profoundly charming.
Ayers leads us on a tour of a teaching life that skips between overflowing love for his craft and pupils and extraordinary systemic frustrations. The first stop: debunking popular myths about teaching. Ayers fights myths that teachers are savior super-genuises that lead classes full of students who are all above average. It’s a fitting opening note for a book that seeks aggressively to confront distortions and impediments to quality classroom environments. Ayers writes, “Myths tower above the world of teaching like giant, fire-breathing dragons. Somehow teachers need to slay these creatures in order to move from myth to reality. And the realities can be harsh. I can think of a million reasons not to teach just off the top of my head…”
That list, which includes pay so low it’s a “national disgrace,” rings much truer. I know quite a few on-the-ground educators who would agree with the Ayers’s succinct sentence: “Teachers often work in difficult situations under impossible circumstances, with too many kids, too little time, stingy resources, and heartless bureaucrats peering through the door.”
And yet… teaching can be an extraordinary, fulfilling job. Ayers told SMITH Magazine: “What we’re trying to do with the book is present the possibility of entering into that contradiction and being successful in your own mind and in your own way with the children, in terms of offering alternatives to the soul-crushing reality of both teaching and schooling as it’s practiced.”
To Teach succeeds.
The author steers us chapter by chapter to different struggles teachers face. He presses teachers to re-think their learning environments– his students’ domain looks more like a learning lounge than a traditionally anonymous classroom. He rejects labeling students “at risk” and insists on the vital importance of getting to know students in a holistic way that celebrates their many good qualities and gives them opportunities to shine. He rails against standardized curricula and shows how unstructured classroom time can allow for priceless discoveries, like when he facilitated an impromptu mission to jury-rig a ramp so his kindergarten class turtle could climb a level of stairs. The kinds of epiphanies his students experienced while working on the ramp for Bingo the Turtle are invaluable, and would never occur at all unless classrooms are liberate from rigidly-structured, “teacher-proof” curricula.
At every turn, there are villains. Several times, Ayers’s class is visited by self-important bureaucrats designed as buffoonish, literally caricatured characters– the female curriculum cop has no nose and a bob approximately twice the mass of her head. The bureaucrats are quick to label an exuberant student as ADD and come across as lobotomized minions pushing “research-based support and coaching in the areas of planning, technique, and assessment.” They never show any interest in kids.
Despite the crushing tide of standardization and distorted expectations placed on teachers, Ayers is optimistic that thoughtful, liberating teaching is possible. His book is peppered with examples of other teachers getting outside the box. Some encounter hand-wringing discouragement; all persevere in the profession.
First-time graphic novel artist (and teacher) Ryan Alexander-Tanner gives life to Ayers’s vision with sharp black-and-white drawings that provide engaging context for Ayers’s assertions. (In one panel, the author is standing on a wooden box labeled “SOAP.”)
To Teach: The Journey, In Comics is a must for educators and highly encouraged for all. As Jonathan Kozol offers in his foreword, “Here’s what I have to say about this largely autobiographical delight: “Super-good! Lots of mischief! Lots of grit and guts and fun! Zap! Bam! Gadzooks! Hooray!”
Dan Brown is a teacher and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.