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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Terrible Beauty by D.W. St. John

This is the most truthful book about teaching that I have ever read. 

D.W. St. John's A Terrible Beauty has been rolling around for a while now. I read what must have been the original imprinting of the book back in 1998. The teacher who was the heart and soul of the 7th grade team at the inner-city middle school I taught at for 7 years found it at her local library, read it and passed it on to the rest of us to read. She liked it so much that when the local library wanted it back she reported it lost and paid for it so we could all read it (remember, this was in the days before Amazon.com was popular - heck, we just got a computer in our classrooms that year!)

What struck us all about the book was the fact that it spoke so much truth about teaching - the mindless meetings, the hovering parents that question every move and every grade on every assignment, the worthless parents that don't even raise their own offspring, the kids who do nothing but expect to be rescued, the kids who do everything you ask and just do so-so but love the class because they learned so much anyway (you just love those kids), overcrowded classes, mind-games from administrators, athletic directors covering for their stars, administrators that don't discipline (Kids sent right back to your classroom five minutes after they called you a motherf*****r because, you are told,  if you taught your class better that kid with a felony sheet as long as your arm would love to learn about French or math or whatever...) and on and on.

The reader is also allowed to see the power of a gifted teacher using a variety of strategies to reach kids and not only deal with the subject matter, but help that student as a person.

Is Dai O'Connel a good teacher? Fundamentally, he is - but he has giant flaws, the kinds of  flaws that will get your fired, and properly so. Mostly, he is the tool in the story that is used to talk about American education and he should only be viewed as such. He takes the reader on a huge tour of the problems and the joys experienced by teachers. This is the most truthful book about teaching that I have ever read.

He is targeted for firing by the central office of his school district because he fails too many of his students. The person sent to fire him is a too-young administrator who admired him from afar when she used to teach in his school years ago. They develop an improbable romance that, while sweet, is far-fetched.

All of that is window dressing, though. This is a book about teaching and the only thing that I want to know is if Mr. St. John would come back and address these same issues but also the climate of standardized testing the rules over everything nowadays (this book was written before No Child Left Behind changed everything, and not necessarily for the better).

I read this on my kindle and whoever scanned the print version of the book into its e-book format did a horrible job. There are numerous formatting and spelling errors caused by computer error.

I rate this admittedly flawed book 4 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on July 3, 2013

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