The Forward’s Gabriel Sanders recently caught up with Ingall to chat about her book, day-school life and the difficulties faced by today’s young teachers.
Gabriel Sanders: How did you arrive at the title of your book?
Carol Ingall: There was a very popular book written in the late ’60s by Bel Kaufman — a granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem — a classic story of a novice teacher meeting challenges, seemingly being overwhelmed by challenges, but ultimately triumphing over them. That book was called “Up the Down Staircase,” and it ends on a very “up” note. The teacher at the center of the story decides to stay on at her school and make a career out of teaching. My book is about equally committed, equally dedicated, equally idealistic young women, with all the markers that would predict success, but, unlike Kaufman’s protagonist, they can’t make it. So while one is a story of triumph, the other is one of reluctant defeat.
GS: If not teacher attrition, what was your study’s original focus?
CI: I thought I was going to be telling the story of how novices become experts. All three of the students who agreed to participate had a great many qualities that boded very well for their success. As my students, I had asked them to share with me what they were most concerned about as they entered the workforce. What I thought I was going to be studying, as they grew more confident, were the ways in which their fears receded.
GS: Did you ever think that they would end up leaving the profession?
CI: I didn’t. I thought they all had qualities and backgrounds which would serve them well. Each one of them had been a student in a day school. Each one of them had parents who were very involved as lay people in Jewish day schools. They had all been to Israel. They had all had either a major or minor in Jewish studies when they were undergraduates. They had been to Jewish camps. Their Hebrew was good. I thought they had really strong talents.
GS: When it comes to teacher attrition, how do day schools compare with public schools?
CI: We haven’t really done the studies necessary for that kind of comparison, but what was interesting for me was that some of the patterns that appear in the large-scale quantitative research that has been done on public schools were echoed by my three portraits. I’m seeing that my people are leaving before five years, and in the voluminous literature on teacher retention in public schools you see that somewhere between 40% and 50% of new teachers leave between the third and fifth year.
GS: So who’s to blame here? Are graduate schools not preparing their students properly? Are school administrators not taking proper care of their new hires?
CI: Graduate schools can’t give prescriptions for everything that teachers are going to have to contend with when they’re out in the real world. Schools, meanwhile, feel that the young teachers they are getting are finished products. But they’re not. Their counterparts in medicine and law have a much longer period of socialization into their professions. Schools behave as though there’s no real difference between a new teacher and the 20-year veteran down the hall. School administrators and benefactors are convinced that their problem is one of recruitment, but the crisis isn’t in getting personnel, it’s in keeping them.
GS: Are there concrete steps schools can take to help achieve that?
CI: Absolutely. They can enculturate the new teachers into both the school and the teaching profession itself, train and assign mentors and monitor the dyads closely, treat their teachers as well as teachers treat their students. They should help teachers engage in meaningful professional growth.
GS: All three of the young teachers you describe are characterized by an extraordinary emotional and philosophical commitment to teaching. Is it conceivable that their sense of self was simply too intimately bound up with their careers?
CI: Sometimes it can be too much. There’s an important study that looked at nurses, and the nurses who lasted were the ones that had a little less empathy. Those who identified most strongly with their patients were the ones who burned themselves out.
GS: One of the most inspiring things about the teachers in your book is that, as beleaguered as they grow, the matter of a private-school teacher’s low pay barely figured into their discussions.
CI: They know from the get-go that this is not going to be a well-paying profession. As a result, their personal and professional rewards have got to be significant. Ultimately, a huge percentage of their dissatisfaction was because they felt that their personal and professional selves weren’t being nourished.
GS: The day schools you describe in your book — with their overburdened teachers, distracted administrators and meddlesome parents — seem less than inviting. How would you advise Jewish parents looking to find a suitable school for their child?
CI: The time is ripe for some changes, but I still think the day school is the best place for a young Jewish person to gain Jewish cultural literacy. There are lots of places where you can gain a Jewish identity, but in terms of cultural literacy — reading, writing, developing a comfort with Jewish texts — Jewish day schools are the best places.