Book Review Up the Down Staircase

Up the Down Staircase is a book I happened upon by chance. I bought a Kindle Paperwhite for myself as a Christmas present (some of the best money I’ve spent, ever) and when the device is untouched, ads for books sometimes appear. The ad for this book came up as a Kindle daily deal (I want to say it was $2.99) and after reading the reviews, I knew I had to read it.

Bel Kaufman wrote the book as a piece of fiction in 1965, but it was based upon her experiences as a public school teacher in New York City since the early 1930s. In her Introduction, which was written in 2012, she expresses how she is often surprised at how little has changed in public education, and education overall. Sure, we now send faculty emails instead of memos and we take attendance on the computer rather than in a “Delaney Book,” but the problems with our educational system are (sadly) much the same.

The structure of the book is the part that I loved the most. Rather than a narrative, the book in the following ways:

  • Intraschool Communications and notes that the main character, Sylvia Barrett, sends & receives from various colleagues and administration, most often her neighboring teacher and friend, Beatrice Schachter.
  • Lengthy and passionate letters that Sylvia writes to her college friend (who is not a teacher), Ellen.
  • Circulars from the administration that give teachers directives, announcements, reprimands, etc.
  • Suggestion box responses that her students leave for her.
  • Student responses, or compositions, that her students write on topics she has assigned them.

There are a few other types of narratives that appear as well, and all of them serve to tell the story of Sylvia’s first semester (September through December break) teaching.

I laughed, I cried, I pondered. This book had me thinking. Every couple of chapters I posted a quote from it on my Facebook page to share with my fellow teachers because I knew they’d understand and benefit from reading it to. Rather than tell you the story, I leave you with a short collection of my highlighted quotes from the novel. If you are a teacher, a parent, a student, anyone who is interested in our educational system; I highly encourage you to read this book. It is as powerful and relevant today as it was when it was published in 1965. I loved it.

“‘Those who can, do; those who can’t teach.’ Like most sayings, this is only half true. Those who can, teach; those who can’t- the bitter, the misguided, the failures from other fields- find in the school system an excuse or refuge.”

“But I am busiest outside of my teaching classes. Do you know any other business or profession where highly-skilled specialists are required to tally numbers, alphabetize cards, put notices into mailboxes, and patrol the lunchroom?”

“And that’s it; that’s why I want to teach; that’s the one and only compensation: to make a permanent difference in the life of a child.”

“Trouble is… a teacher has to be so many things at the same time: actor, policeman, scholar, jailer, parent, inspector, referee, friend, psychiatrist, mentor, wielder of minds, keeper of records…”

“You showed me that writing clearly means thinking clearly, and there is nothing more important than communication.”

“But whenever I feel too frustrated to go on, I find unexpected compensation: a girl whose face lights up when she enters the room; a boy who begins to make sense out of words on a printed page; or a class that groans in dismay when the end-of-period bell rings.”

“…everything I believe in as opposed to all that is petty, regimented and rote in the school system; all that degrades the dignity of my profession, and consequently, of my pupils; my desire to teach well, as opposed to bureaucracy trivia and waste.”

“Whatever the waste, stupidity, ineptitude, whatever the problems and frustrations of teachers and pupils, something very exciting is going on. In each of the classrooms, on each of the floors, all at the same time, education is going on. In some form or another, for all its abuses, young people are exposed to education. That’s how I manage to stand up and that’s why you’re standing too.”