News & Politics

A New Book Captures the Tough Lives of Teachers

Alexandra Robbins goes to school in her revealing latest work.

Photograph of Robbins by Susan Hornyak.

As a substitute teacher in the DC area, Alexandra Robbins knows firsthand how teachers are struggling these days. The Bethesda native’s ninth book, The Teachers, follows a year in the life of three educators: an East Coast fourth-grade teacher, a sixth-grade math teacher from the South, and a middle-school special-­education teacher from out west. These are excellent, devoted professionals—but impossible demands at work are unraveling their personal lives, wrecking their health, and threatening to drive them from the career they love.

What surprised you in following the lives of these teachers?

Well, the way these highly skilled workers are treated is just astonishing. For example, a male administrator in our area—in Maryland—told female teachers he needed them to not get “really sick or pregnant this year” because he couldn’t find subs. It’s unbelievable that about 70 percent of teachers have had to work a second job just so they can afford to keep teaching. Teaching is the job we should prioritize above all others—everybody needs a teacher.


What do you think are the biggest problems facing schools right now?

A big thing is shoddy pay for teachers. There’s also rising unmanageable workloads, as administrators keep piling on responsibilities that teachers can’t possibly complete within their paid contractual hours. Insufficient support staff and resources, which has gotten worse because of the pandemic. And just this general demoralization—teachers aren’t being treated like trained professionals who should be trusted.

Photograph of book cover courtesy of Penguin Random House.

A lot of these issues could be solved with bigger budgets for schools, right?

Yes, if districts spend that money in the right way, instead of on the latest newfangled shiny curriculum, or professional development that doesn’t actually relate to teachers, or in the case of counties like Montgomery County, spending that money on administrative bloat—you know, hiring more people for the central office rather than giving those resources to teachers. But if we can improve teachers’ working conditions, that would improve all schools, period.


What can people do to support schools and teachers?

Teachers need supportive voices—parents, community members, graduates—to fight for their rights and well-being. The voices coming out against teachers right now are so often nonsensical and unhinged, but they are also galvanized and loud. We need to be even louder. This is actually going to be my last book for a while because I’m going to focus on organizing that fight to get teachers what they need. The book has totally changed my trajectory. I think that a key to fixing schools is to focus on teachers, because if you have happy, well-equipped, well-funded teachers, then the sky’s the limit—they’re going to give kids the best education they possibly can.

This article appears in the March 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer