There’s no shortage of children’s literature featuring horrible, cruel, nasty educators. Unfortunately, ineffective and sometimes down-right mean teachers are part of the educational landscape. Most people have their own personal stories about teachers who abused their power, meted out extreme punishments, or used more subtle strategies to belittle or marginalize their students. My 6th-grade teacher compared me unfavorably to my two older sisters. In front of my classmates. Daily. She was relentless. Her behavior took its toll on my self-esteem and my love for school, but in the end, that teacher was the reason I decided to pursue a career in education. I vowed to be the most nurturing, patient, fun-loving, creative educator—everything my 6th-grade teacher was not. As educators and parents, we needn’t shy away from books that include mean-teacher-characters such as Miss Minchin from A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Mathilda, and the Juvenile Detention Warden from Holes by Louis Sacher. Those novels provide windows for middle-grade readers, reassuring them that they are not at fault or alone when adults abuse their power.
Fortunately, most teachers do not abuse their power; they care deeply about their students’ well-being and achievement. They work hard every day to build relationships, trust, and a love of learning. So, where are the novels that feature characters who are amazing teachers? And not only those kooky picture book characters who drive magic school buses or turn into swampy substitutes when Miss Nelson goes missing. Middle-grade readers need to read about teacher characters who model respect, curiosity, nurture creativity and a deep love for learning. I try to include both good and deeply flawed teachers in my contemporary novels. In Chester and the Magic 8 Ball, my main character’s math teacher, Mr. Burnett, injects self-deprecating humor, Dad jokes, and plenty of fun into his classes. He encourages student collaboration and conversation. He helps his young mathematicians understand the real-world applications of math. He’s patient and kind, gives helpful feedback by using rubrics instead of grades, and has earned the respect of his students.
As part of my teacher-resource packet, I’ve included several questions and enrichment activities, designed to help readers analyze the characteristics of both effective and ineffective teachers. Here are some examples:
COMPARE/CONTRAST: Georgia’s math teacher, Mr. Burnett, is different from her 5th-grade teacher, Mrs. Robins. Compare/contrast those two teachers. What are some of Mr. Burnett’s traits and quirks that his students appreciate? Would you want a teacher like Mr. Burnett? Why or why not?
RUBRICS: Georgia’s unhappy with the pass/fail system for Chester’s pet therapy training program. Create a rubric to help your pet (your parent, sibling, or teacher) improve their behavior.
Here are some other titles, some old, some new, featuring teacher characters who make us proud to be educators and who exemplify the best of our profession.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio: Auggie’s English teacher, Mr. Browne, maintains an inclusive classroom and uses many effective teaching strategies. He will always be remembered for his monthly “precepts.” Starting the year off right in September, Mr. Browne teaches his students the most important life lesson and value: “When given the choice between being right or being kind choose kind.”
Mr. Terupt series by Rob Buyea: This young, new teacher is brimming with good intentions and energy. He focuses on teaching his students about personal responsibility, and he earns the love and respect of even the most challenging students. One of Mr. Terupt’s students put it this way: “This year, for the first time in my life, I started thinking school could be fun.” And who wouldn’t appreciate a fun teacher?
The Way I Say It by Nancy Tandon: Mr. Simms is Rory’s new 6th-grade speech and language teacher, helping him with his articulation challenges and supporting him as he navigates friendships, bullying, and middle-school life. The fact that Mr. Simms is also a cool guy who uses unorthodox strategies, plays the guitar, and relates to his student’s interest in boxing legend Muhammad Ali, makes this book and this memorable teacher extra-entertaining and inspirational.
Published February 9th, 2023 by Black Rose Writing
About the Book: Twelve-year-old Georgia is convinced her toothless, rescue dog can tell the future with a spin of her Magic 8 Ball. She wants to believe Chester when he reassures her that the “outlook is good” for her parents’ troubled marriage. But when it becomes a matter of life or death, Chester stops cooperating, and Georgia must learn the difference between probability and magic. She’s determined to increase the odds of a happy ending by relying on her own powers. This contemporary novel with a hint of magical thinking, explores serious topics with sensitivity, humor, and heart.
About the Author: Lynn Katz is a former teacher, curriculum writer, and school principal. She is a member of SCWBI and her local Board of Education. Her first novel, The Surrogate, a domestic thriller for adult readers, explores the psychological profile of a young, would-be mass shooter, and the high school teacher who tries to help him. Chester and the Magic 8 Ball is her first middle-grade novel. www.lynnkatzauthor.com
Thank you, Lynn, for this wonderful look into great teachers in books!