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Roxanna Elden, teacher and author, See Me After Class

Roxanna Elden photo.jpgYou know you're doing something right when Dave Barry (yes, that Dave Barry) calls your first book "very funny." That's just one reason to highlight Roxanna Elden, whose book See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers earned not just Barry's praise but kudos from a host of educators. The audience whose praise Elden most values, though, aren't nationally recognized figures but the novice classroom teachers who are finding a lifeline in her book. At a time when many teachers feel their voices are excluded from public debates about education, Elden, a full-time classroom teacher, is bringing teacher voice to the debate--and is doing so with a good dose of humor, good sense, and none of the sanctimony that so often clouds conversations about teachers and teaching.

Elden, a National Board Certified Teacher and Teach for America alum, has taught for nine years at nearly every level from elementary school to adult education. Outside the classroom, she works to support new teachers through her writing (including a recent guest-blogging stint on Rick Hess' blog), public speaking, and stand-up comedy (a personal interest of hers). A Chicago native, she currently lives in Miami. I would tell you how old she is, but her students aren't allowed to know that until they graduate. [Read more.]

Why/how did you decide to write a book?

See Me After Class was the book I needed in October of my first year of teaching. It is collected wisdom from experienced teachers around the country who admit that they've made mistakes and had bad days, too. The book offers honesty and humor to help teachers deal with unexpected frustrations, but also practical advice that can help them be better teachers on Monday morning. And it's short enough to read over the weekend.

I am currently in my ninth year in the classroom. On the side, I do everything I can to support newer teachers, including speeches at teacher orientations, professional development workshops, and an advice column in Educational Horizons magazine. I also write commentary for blogs and magazines on what happens when well meaning ideas meet classroom realities.

What kind of response have you gotten to the book? What has surprised you the most? What's been the most gratifying?

The most gratifying responses have been from teachers who say the book pulled them back from the edge of quitting. A lot of new teachers feel like they are the only ones struggling and don't know where to turn, and they don't always have mentor teachers they can trust. One teacher told me the book was like the mentor teacher she wished she had.

A recent surprising moment was when a former student got in touch to say her college professor wrote a quote from the book on the board. She said she burst out laughing in class because the quote sounded like something I would say.

Overall, the biggest response has been from experienced teachers saying, "Where was this book when I started teaching?"

Why/how did you come to teach/work in education?

I wanted to be a high school teacher starting when I was in high school. As a college student in Chicago I started tutoring kids and teaching adult ESL classes. Later I taught middle school and then fourth grade in Houston as a Teach for America Corps member, and have taught high school in Miami ever since. The variety of subjects and grade level was helpful in tracking down advice that applied to all types of teachers.

What's next for you? What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

Right now, I don't think any teacher can tell what will happen in the next 10 years, but I hope to see the book keeping more of the potentially great teachers of the future in the classroom long enough to become great.

What motivates you?

Right now half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years. In inner-city schools, half of the teachers leave within three years, taking their experience and institutional memory with them. Teacher turnover is costly for school districts and disruptive for students who need adults they can count on, but teachers need real support to keep going - not just constant reminders of how much is at stake if they mess up. The goal of my book and other work is to get teachers to the five-year mark and beyond with their passion and sanity intact.

Who are some individuals you admire in the education field, or individuals you admire in other fields whose examples shape your work?

Malcolm Gladwell's definition of "meaningful work" in his book Outliers gave me a helpful way to think about teacher support. Teaching attracts people who are looking for meaningful work, which according to Gladwell must include three things: Autonomy, complexity, and a clear connection between effort and reward. I think this explains some of the sticking points between teachers and reformers. Reformers seem to believe that rewarding teachers financially for raising test scores takes care of the effort/reward requirement. Teachers feel that test scores are not the best reflection of our efforts with students. We also feel that the pressure to show "learning gains" on tests hurts the autonomy and ignores the complexity of our profession.

What books, articles, or research have most influenced your thinking about education?

I like books that approach a subject from many angles and show how changes in one part of a system affect the workings of the other. I recently read "The Corner," by the authors behind the TV series "The Wire." It was an incredibly well written, well-researched book that showed how hard it is to untangle issues like poverty, healthcare, education, and law enforcement from one another. I am a big fan of Tom Wolf's novels for similar reasons. On the other hand, I avoid books in which the author is the hero who has single-handedly found all the answers to a complex problem - and whose genius is not appreciated by the other characters in the book. This includes a lot of books about education.

What keeps you busy outside of work?

I have an adorable dog named Rudy, and a sister who is also a teacher and will probably ask why I mentioned my dog before her in this answer. I also spend a lot of time writing and making excuses to avoid the gym. I am a big fan of standup comedy. And coffee. And talking about teaching until non-teachers find excuses to leave the room.

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