Even if you haven’t read Rob Buryea’s debut novel Because of Mr. Terupt, you are likely familiar with its plot: Mr. Terupt, a fifth grade teacher, is such a phenomenal educator that he manages to bring his students together both as a community of learners and as a family, even as an unforeseen tragedy threatens to tear them apart. Multiple colleagues and friends have sung this book’s praises, many of whom were doing so with eyes that were puffy and red from crying as they stayed up past midnight to finish it.
As much as there is to love about this book (the heartwarming story told from multiple points of view, the themes of empathy and friendship threaded throughout)–and as much as one has to admire the author’s desire to write a compelling story that speaks to the power of educators to change lives–as I read, I couldn’t help thinking about how the fictional Mr. Terupt, who by most (real) people’s standards would be regarded as an exceptional teacher, in fact employs a pedagogy that leaves much to be desired. In short, I couldn’t help thinking how woefully Mr. Terupt misses the point.
Allow me to set aside the snarky suspicion that this book would not have received as well as it has, or potentially even been published, if the book had been called Because of Mrs. Terupt. (Do a quick Google search of the past 25 National Teachers of the Year and–considering that roughly three-quarters of teachers are female–you’ll catch my drift.) The teaching that Mr. Terupt does throughout this book is memorable–even fun, according to his fictional students–but (dare I say it?) pedagogically meh. For example, in one part of the book, Mr. Terupt engages his class in learning about estimation and sampling by having students estimate the number of blades of grass growing in the school’s soccer field. He does this by taking one student’s suggestion that the class count ten-centimeter-by-ten centimeter squares and then explaining how to do so (measuring the squares on large pieces of cardboard and cutting the squares out). Unfortunately, his students would have had a much deeper understanding of both concepts if they had come up with the procedure for estimating the number of blades of grass themselves, been given the opportunity to learn from less successful procedures that they’d attempted, and/or discussed the purpose for conducting such an investigation. Later on in the book, Mr. Terupt asks his students to work in small groups to research various holidays around the world and design a “center” that would teach their classmates about the particular holiday they’d researched. Here he gives his students choice in what holiday they choose to study (good) and in what information to include in their center (also good). However, he fails to allow students to design the components of their centers or even to explain to them why they are studying the particular holidays he’d chosen.
Now, I write this with the understanding, of course, that Because of Mr. Terupt is a fictional book that is not meant to be a pedagogical “how-to” for teachers, but rather an engaging story for the preteen set (and presumably their teachers, many of whom have used or are planning to use it as a class read-aloud). In that regard, it succeeds. My issue is with the fact that this novel, in its quest to deliver important messages about the power of relationships–especially that of teachers and their students– implicitly delivers erroneous messages about what constitutes good teaching. And it does so not necessarily of its own accord, but as part and parcel of a long tradition in popular American culture that perpetuates the myth of the Cool Male Teacher who is everyone’s unofficial Teacher of the Year, a “good teacher” simply because he cares about his students.
While it’s true that the relationships that teachers cultivate with their students are enormously important–and are what both educational research and common sense tell us are key to developing a successful learning environment–I, for one, would like to remind the general population that there is much, much more to being an effective educator. That being liked and admired isn’t necessarily going to lead to deep learning or the kinds of “a-ha moments” that signal complex understanding of a concept (such as what studying traditional holiday celebrations can teach us about the value systems of a group).
You may be reading this and thinking, “methinks she doth protest too much,” and perhaps I doth. As much as I want to jump on the We Love Because of Mr. Terupt Bandwagon, though, and for all the fictional love and joy that our fictional hero brought to his fictional students’ lives, I can’t help wishing that he demonstrated more than just being a stand-up guy who happens to be a teacher. I can’t help wishing that, as a teacher who had a lasting impact on his students’ lives, Mr. Terupt managed to actually–ahem– teach them something.