Harvard Educational Review
  1. Losing My Faculties

    A Teacher’s Story

    By Brendan Halpin

    New York: Villard Books, 2003. 187 pp. $21.95

    Alternating self-deprecation with critiques of many of contemporary public education’s most difficult issues, Brendan Halpin’s Losing My Faculties: A Teacher’s Story is a frank and amusing account of one young teacher’s nine years as a public school teacher in the greater Boston area. Simultaneously embracing and resisting his internal urge to be the “Great Urban Educator” (p. 60), Halpin traces his experiences as “one of those rare and probably defective people who really enjoy the company of teenagers” (p. 4) to the “front lines” (p. 7) of education. His experiences are shaped by a haphazard mix of interest, need, and blind luck that reveal the logic and illogic of much of the planning and processes that define the teaching experience.

    Losing My Faculties is organized into five parts, each one describing some significant moment in Halpin’s formative experiences as a teacher. Parts One and Two, Prehistory and Newcastle, capture the excitement, fear, and exhaustion that marked Halpin’s year as a student teacher and his first year as a full-fledged teacher in a suburb fifty miles outside of Boston. Readers are able at once to sense the stresses brought on by last-minute teaching assignments, nonexistent curricula, and intrafaculty rivalries — stresses magnified by Halpin’s epiphany about teaching’s “dirty little secret”: “Teaching is a really hard job to do well and a really easy job to do badly” (p. 18). It is the constant attention to the struggle between teaching and teaching well that characterize most of the moments that Halpin shares with his audience.

    This struggle is illustrated in Halpin’s description of drug use by two of his most disruptive male students. The boys occasionally come to his class under the influence of drugs, yet Halpin decides to look the other way. He says, “These kids are fourteen. And they are getting high in school. And I . . . do nothing to try to help them because it’s much easier for me. So much for my heroic-teacher movie” (p. 41). Conversely, in another anecdote, Halpin describes the raucousness that characterized discussions in his classroom, comparing its boisterousness to the relative calm of other teachers’ classes. With a tinge of pride, he says, “As much as I’ve screwed up, I am proud of what I’ve done. I will trade a little bit of chaos for a little bit of student involvement. It’s pretty easy to run an orderly class, but if you want kids to really get involved, it gets messy” (p. 43). And it is a candid picture of this messiness — the destructive and generative sides of it — that Halpin continuously gives his readers.

    In part three, Northton, Halpin chronicles his four-and-a-half years at Northton High School in a White, predominantly Catholic suburb twenty miles outside of Boston. It is at Northton where Halpin experiences some of his more frustrating and uncertain moments as a teacher. How seriously should he take the story in a student’s writing assignment about her committing suicide (he “underreacts”)? How should he respond to the virulent comments that often characterize the teachers’ lounge conversation (he doesn’t)? It is also at Northton where Halpin first feels the tug-of-war between his love of teaching and his growing cynicism about schools. For example, exasperated by mundane discussions during faculty meetings he says,

    So we can talk all day about the hat rule or the new detention slips . . . but we can’t possibly talk about teaching. . . . It just depresses the hell out of me that so much of our collective energy is focused on stupid bullshit that has very little to do with what we’re doing here . . . there is just no energy or passion for talking about working with kids. (p. 92)

    Further disenchanted by the hostility that he senses from his older colleagues, Halpin concludes that even on days when his teaching is at best mediocre, he is “doing a better job for these kids than most of the people I work with” (p. 100). As a result, he wonders why he should strive to be an “excellent” teacher when being “good enough” still makes him “better than most” (p. 100).

    After resigning mid-year from Northton, Halpin accepts a position with the amusingly pseudonymed “Famous Athlete Youth Program” — a program that has partnered with the Boston Public Schools to pilot a truancy-prevention project for middle school students. From the very beginning, however, Halpin identifies flaws in the program’s approach to identifying students (e.g., going on “sweeps” to pick up truants hanging out on the streets in the middle of January) and in its approach to serving them (e.g., few students are actually brought to the program, the program has no formal curriculum, and its “partner schools” never send work for students to complete).

    Ultimately, Halpin laments the fact that it is the students who are harmed most by the administrative and organizational failings that characterize the Famous Athlete Youth Program, while the adults associated with the program go on to other reasonably successful endeavors the following year. Halpin summarizes: “Those kids got screwed” (p. 139) by receiving little second thought from the very educational system that was designed to help them.

    Finally, in Part Five, Better Than You, Halpin recaptures some of his lost optimism. His tenure at the “Better Than You” charter school in Boston is initially shaped by his interaction with a group of caring and dedicated teachers; however, once a new team of administrators is brought in to run the school, the teacher-empowered ethos is replaced by a succession of top-down policies and condescending teacher-training consultants — most of whom have never been teachers themselves. It is here where Halpin reveals one of education’s Achilles’ heels: the perception of teaching as a job in which almost anyone is qualified to dispense advice. He says,

    It’s hard for me to think of another profession where people are forced to have someone who’s never done their job tell them how to do their job. I mean, just imagine doctors going to a conference to get surgical instruction from a nonsurgeon. (p. 198)

    Halpin eventually reaches his breaking point and makes the difficult decision to leave Better Than You after three years. The book concludes with his making his peace with the inevitable highs and lows that come along with teaching. Likening it to a long-term love affair, he says,

    Relationships never sustain the insanity of infatuation. So the school policies and administrators that always come with teaching have . . . driven me nuts — well, lots of people have difficult in-laws. So I’ve just come through a rough patch — lots of relationships have them. . . . Yes [teaching] is screwed up and frustrating, but I am in love with it, and I’m going to keep doing it anyway. (pp. 236–237)

    This love-hate relationship and the ups and downs that characterize teaching are the mainstay of teachers’ experiences, and his descriptions of the day-to-day successes and foibles are where Halpin is strongest. For readers of Losing My Faculties, it may be frustrating that Halpin offers biting criticism but no solutions to the serious issues that underlie his anecdotes. Yet, it is in this silence that we can perhaps glean the path to the answers: that in education there are no pat solutions to the most difficult problems, only a firm belief in the importance of the task at hand and a hope for the unwavering dedication of the people who do it.

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    Book Notes

    Why Is It So Hard to Get Good Schools?
    By Larry Cuban

    Losing My Faculties
    By Brendan Halpin

    Teaching with Fire
    Edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner

    Troubling Education
    By Kevin Kumashiro

    The Promotion of Social Awareness
    By Robert Selman

    Affirming Diversity
    By Sonia Nieto

    City Schools and the American Dream
    By Pedro Noguera

    Adolescent Lives in Transition
    By Donna Marie San Antonio