Student-Teacher Relationships

Book Links: September 1999 (v.9 no.1)

by Marta Segal

"I am not here to win a popularity contest.” How many times have you heard a teacher say it, or even said it yourself? It’s true, teachers aren’t there to be liked or popular, but they aren’t there to be hated, either. Teaching is about helping students learn, and grow, and part of growing is forming trusting relationships with adults.

“He was a quiet kid, never hurt anyone, kept to himself.” “He was weird, an outsider, nobody liked him.” After every tragic incidence of school violence, we expect to hear one of those phrases about the perpetrator. What if one of those troubled kids hadn’t been so quiet or alone? What if, early on, he or she had felt comfortable going to a teacher and asking for advice or help? What if one of those troubled kids had known for a fact that there was an adult who cared?

Obviously the quickest way to get a class to be quiet is to tell them that you’d like to discuss how they feel about talking to teachers. Directing your students to books that raise questions concerning education and communication won’t eliminate this reluctance, but it might present an opening to talking to your students about these issues.

Most of the books featured here have subject matter that can be applied to other topics and content areas. For example, read Clements’ Frindle along with a lesson plan about word origins, or Peck’s Arly with a unit about the Great Depression. Hentoff’s The Day They Came to Arrest the Book or Avi’s Nothing but the Truth can be read with lessons about civil rights or citizenship. It’s just a matter of picking the book that raises the issue you wish to discuss.

Having your students read the books in this list will not convince them to talk to you or cure communication problems. These books won’t prevent teen suicide or murder. However, reading the books with your class, and having honest conversations with students about the topics covered, may be a good starting point for opening the lines of communication.

Middle-Grade Readers

Clements, Andrew. Frindle. 1996. 112p. Simon & Schuster, $15 (0-689-80669-8); paper, $3.99 (0-689-81876-9); Listening Library, audiobook, $16.98 (0-8072-7993-5).
Gr. 4–up. Nick Allen decides to put his teacher’s assertion that “we decide what goes in that [dictionary]” to the test. Nick’s experiment to see if frindle can replace the word pen in people’s minds disrupts not only his classroom but also the entire town. Mrs. Granger is the sort of “by-the-book” teacher most students fear; the final chapters of the book may help students better understand such teachers’ behavior.

Crew, Linda. Nekomah Creek. Illus. by Charles Robinson. 1994. 160p. Delacorte, $14.95 (0-385-32047-7); paper, $3.99 (0-440-41099-1).
Gr. 4–7. Robby Hummer is a pretty happy fourth-grader, until his teacher decides that he actually reads too much and needs to see the school counselor. The counselor seems confused by Robby’s unusual family, and Robby becomes convinced that she wants to take him and his two-year-old twin siblings away from their parents. This genuinely funny book teaches important lessons about learning to accept oneself, and others. The teachers in the book are caring and sincere, but it’s easy to see why Robby misunderstands their intentions.

Dahl, Roald. Matilda. Illus. by Quentin Blake. 1988. 224p. Viking, $15.99 (0-670-81329-9); paper, $4.99 (0-14-037985-1).
Gr. 3–7. As in most Roald Dahl books, the perspective in this novel is almost completely anti-adult. Matilda, a five-year-old genius, is abused and neglected by her parents, and, like all the children in her school, she is terrorized by the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. The one sympathetic adult in the story, her teacher, Miss Honey, needs Matilda’s help in solving her financial difficulties. The violence and abuse in the book is so clearly over the top that children will be able to laugh at it and discuss it, rather than be concerned that adults would actually behave that way.

Danziger, Paula. Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon. Illus. by Tony Ross. 1994. 80p. Putnam, $13.99 (0-399-22509-9); Scholastic, paper, $3.99 (0-590-45899-X); Listening Library, audiobook, $16.98 (0-8072-7805-X).
Gr. 3–5. Amber Brown’s best friend is moving away, and there’s nothing Amber can do about it. Although they’ll laugh at different things, both adults and children will love this story. In Mr. Cohen, Danziger gives us a role model of a teacher, understanding and creative. His only fault may be his very perfection. The book is not specifically about teacher-student relationships, but Mr. Cohen is a wonderful character to get young students talking about what they value in a teacher.

Hesse, Karen. just Juice. Illus. by Robert Andrew Parker. 1998. 144p. Scholastic, $14.95 (0-590-03382-4).
Gr. 3–5. Nine-year-old Juice rarely goes to school. She has trouble reading and is convinced that it’s more important for her to stay at home and help her pregnant mother and unemployed father. All of the adults in the book, including the teacher and truant officer, are sympathetic and helpful. Though it’s unlikely that students who face issues similar to those Juice copes with will be in school to read the book, the central messages of the story—that ignorance is more expensive than education and that if you need help all you have to do is ask—may reach children in less dire circumstances.

Levy, Elizabeth. My Life as a Fifth-Grade Comedian. 1997. 192p. HarperCollins, $14.95 (0-06-026602-3); paper, $4.95 (0-06- 440723-3).
Gr. 4–7. Class clown Bobby’s misbehavior predictably masks a troubled home life. His older brother has been kicked out of school and home, and his father is verbally and emotionally abusive. The school principal wants to send Bobby to the “School for Intervention—two steps from reform school,” but a new teacher steps in to help Bobby harness his talents into productive efforts. Perhaps the ending is overly optimistic, but Levy does a good job of presenting the teachers as human and fallible, while still likable. Students are likely to be entertained by the jokes sprinkled through the story, as well.

Sachar, Louis. There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom. 1987. 224p. Knopf, $14.99 (0-394-98570-2); paper, $4.99 (0-394-80572-0).
Gr. 4–6. Bradley Chalkers, the oldest boy in the fifth grade, is so hated that his teacher apologizes for making the new boy sit next to him. Desperate for friends, Bradley is a compulsive liar, and a bully. His only hope for some success in school may be the new school counselor. Both the teacher and the school counselor are well meaning, but the teacher is overworked, and the counselor feels misunderstood by the community. Most students will find at least one child in this funny and heartbreaking book with whom they can identify.

Shreve, Susan. The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates. Illus. by Diane de Groat. 1984. 96p. Knopf, $13.99 (0-394-96380-6); paper, $4.99 (0-679-84187-3).
Gr. 3–6. On the last day of summer vacation, Joshua T. Bates finds out he’ll have to repeat third grade. At first Joshua is devastated, but his new teacher, Mrs. Goodwin, makes the situation bearable. Mrs. Goodwin has problems of her own, but finds a way to make Joshua feel comfortable repeating the class, and helps him to improve his skills enough to be promoted. Joshua, a slow learner with a fast temper, is frequently picked on by other kids. It won’t be difficult for students to predict how a kid like this might end up without the intervention of someone like Mrs. Goodwin.

Middle-School Readers

Avi. Nothing but the Truth. 1991. 191p. Orchard, $16.95 (0-531-05959-6); Avon, paper, $4.99 (0-380-71907-X).
Gr. 6–8. Ninth-grader Phillip Malloy is a lazy student who becomes convinced his English teacher hates him. What starts as a simple plan to get transferred from her class turns into a media circus involving the issues of patriotism and freedom of speech. Much of the novel is devoted to the teacher, Miss Narwin, who, after teaching for 21 years, is becoming frustrated. She feels she is no longer reaching her students, and is desperate to find new ways of passing on her love of literature to them. The book is written as a “documentary novel,” and its multivoice narrative and frequent use of dialogue make it dramatic for reading aloud in class.

Betancourt, Jeanne. My Name Is Brain Brian. 1993. 128p. Scholastic, 14.95 (0-590-44921-4).
Gr. 4–7. Primarily a story about dyslexia, this book presents some complex adult-child relationships. A new teacher is the first to discover that sixth-grader Brian isn’t lazy or stupid, he’s dyslexic. Brian is at first scared of Mr. Bigham, the only African American teacher in the school, but later comes to trust and respect him. Minor characters, including a dedicated retired teacher who volunteers as Brian’s tutor, Brian’s overworked and seemingly uncaring parents, and Isabel, the smartest and least liked girl in the class, who decides to strike back at her tormentors, also provide rich discussion material.

Coleman, Michael. Weirdo’s War. 1998. 192p. Orchard, $16.95 (0-531-30103-6).
Gr. 6–8. Danny and Tosh hate each other, but not as much as they both hate their sadistic gym teacher, Mr. Axelmann. Danny is a brilliant loner, Tosh the not very bright flunkie of the class bullies. Both boys’ parents force them to attend a week of wilderness education led by Axelmann. Through a freak accident, caused in part by Axelmann’s abuse of the boys, the three are left trapped in a limestone cavern. When Axelmann suffers a concussion, the boys have to come to terms with their feelings and decide to save Axelmann’s life.

Danziger, Paula. The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. 1974. 119p. Putnam, paper, $3.99 (0-698-11684-4).
Gr. 6–8. Marcy Lewis is overweight, insecure, and bored by school, until Barbara Finney becomes her English teacher. Ms. Finney is young, dedicated, and creative. The students are excited by her innovative teaching methods, but the rest of the faculty resents her. When Ms. Finney is suspended for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance, Marcy and the rest of her class have to negotiate between their desire to be supportive and the school principal’s penchant for order. Some aspects of the 1970s setting may seem a bit dated, but the book’s humor and Marcy’s personal problems are timeless.

Fletcher, Ralph. Flying Solo. 1998. 138p. Clarion, $15 (0-395-87323-1).
Gr. 6–8. When Mr. Fabiano—everyone’s favorite teacher—doesn’t show up for school, and a mix-up prevents a substitute teacher from being assigned, his sixth-grade class decides to see if it can handle the day on its own. The students goof off a little more than normal, but, for the most part, they surprise themselves with their self-reliance, maturity, and willingness to work. The story is told from the varying viewpoints of different students, each of whom is handling a personal emotional crisis as well as the recent death of a classmate. Mr. Fabiano’s presence and teaching style is felt throughout the book.

Hentoff, Nat. The Day They Came to Arrest the Book. 1983. 176p. Bantam, paper, $4.99 (0-440-91814-6).
Gr. 6–8. A debate over banning Huckleberry Finn ignites concern in students and high-school faculty alike. Although Hentoff is a little heavy-handed with his rhetoric, he provides several interesting adult characters. Unlike those in much of teen literature, the adults in this book are well-rounded, fallible human beings with a variety of opinions on issues.

Konigsburg, E. L. The View from Saturday. 1996. 128p. Simon & Schuster, $16 (0-589-80993-X); paper, $4.50 (0-689-81721-5); Listening Library, audiobook, $23.98 (0-8072-7890-4).
Gr. 5–7. Four sixth-graders form an unbeatable Academic Bowl team and simultaneously help themselves, each other, and their teacher, Mrs. Olinski. Mrs. Olinski has just returned to teaching after an accident that killed her husband and left her a paraplegic. Because every character tells his or her own story in interweaving narratives, the book is easily divided into small sections for class reading. Only when all five stories have been heard do the many connections between the characters become clear.

Paterson, Katherine. Flip-Flop Girl. 1994. 128p. Putnam, $14.99 (0-525-67480-2); paper, $3.99 (0-14-037679-8).
Gr. 6–8. In addition to recovering from her father’s death, nine-year-old Vinnie now must also deal with moving to a new city and school, and with her five-year-old brother’s refusal to talk. Vinnie is a realistically drawn character, full of pain, guilt, and justified anger about the way most of the adults in her life treat her. She focuses her attention on her new, sympathetic teacher, Mr. Clayton, hoping for a special place in his affections, only to be disappointed when she finds out he cares equally about all of his students and is engaged to be married.

Paulsen, Gary. Night John. Illus. by Jerry Pinkney. 1993. 92p. Delacorte, $15.95 (0-385-30838-8); paper, $4.99 (0-440-82072-3).
Gr. 6–up. This book presents a disturbingly realistic portrait of slavery. After escaping to the North, John returns to slavery for the sole purpose of teaching other slaves to read and write. John’s sacrifice to help others learn will bring up interesting issues of why teaching is important and why individuals devote their lives to the profession.

Peck, Robert Newton. Arly. 1989. 160p. Walker, $16.95 (0-8027-6856-3).
Gr. 6–up. In this heartbreaking story of paternal love and of sharecropping in 1920s Florida, 12-year-old Arly Poole is seen as his small community’s hope. When the town of Jailsville gets its first schoolteacher, Arly learns to read faster than anyone else, and many in the town are committed to freeing him from the grasp of the cruel field boss. Miss Binnie Hoe’s teaching style provides a good opportunity to discuss what teachers expect from students.

Voigt, Cynthia. Bad Girls. 1996. 277p. Scholastic/Apple, $16.95 (0-590-60134-2); paper, $4.50 (0-590-60135-0).
Gr. 6–8. Mikey and Margalo are two new girls in Mrs. Chemsky’s very rigid fifth-grade class. Mikey is obviously aggressive and troubled, resorting to physical violence when she doesn’t get her way. Margalo is equally disturbed, but in a quieter, sneakier way. Mrs. Chemsky tries to help the two girls without disrupting either her control of the class or its natural social order. The book focuses on issues of aggression, bullying, and peer pressure in a nonjudgmental way.

Young Adult Readers

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. 1974. 272p. Pantheon, $20 (0-394-82805-4); Dell, paper, $4.99 (0-440-94459-7).
Gr. 8–up. As in many of Cormier’s books, the theme of evil and its causes is explored here. Thoughtful, unassuming high-school freshman Jerry Renault stuns his small private school community when he defies the school authorities (both student and adult) by refusing to participate in the annual chocolate sale. The teachers in the school participate both implicitly and explicitly in a secret society’s routine torture of the more defenseless students. While the sympathetic characters are interestingly well rounded, the villains are rather simplistically evil. Cormier does an excellent job of showing what happens when what one teacher calls the “invisible line” between students and teachers is crossed.

Duncan, Lois. Killing Mr. Griffin. 1977. 223p. Little, Brown, o.p.; Bantam, paper, $4.99 (0-440-94515-1).
Gr. 8–up. Duncan takes a chilling and surprisingly realistic look at what happens when a teen prank goes too far. Everyone hates Mr. Griffin, the most demanding teacher in the school. Four students hatch a dangerous plot to show him what it feels like to be at someone else’s mercy—the book’s title fills you in on the rest of the story. Mr. Griffin is an intriguing character: he’s clearly dedicated and caring, but he has little understanding of how his students think or feel. Duncan depicts the students’ actions as wrong and immoral, while also pointing out how destructively unaware teachers can sometimes be.

Kindle, Patrice. Owl in Love. 1993. 208p. Houghton, $13.95 (0-395-66162-5); Puffin, paper, $4.50 (0-14-037129-X).
Gr. 7–up. In this charmingly bizarre novel, 14-year-old Owl Tycho is desperately infatuated with her middle-aged science teacher. In addition to the normal problems such a relationship would involve, there is also the small detail that Owl is actually a were-owl—part owl, part human. The fantasy aspects of the book allow Kindle to deal realistically with a teen girl’s crush on a teacher, and the many ways teachers often misunderstand their students. When Owl starts to have feelings for another were-owl, she begins to understand the difference between real love and fantasy.

Mazer, Norma Fox. Out of Control. 1993. 224p. Morrow, $16 (0-688-10206-5); Avon, paper, $4.50 (0-380-71347-0).
Gr. 8–up. Valerie, an awkward and unpopular girl who is interested in art, is sexually assaulted by the three most popular boys in the school. Unfortunately, adults are not much help to Valerie: her father is distant, and the school principal is more concerned with the reputation of the school and shielding the popular boys than protecting Valerie. Valerie has to make her own decisions about how to handle the rage she feels, and she finds a sympathetic group of female friends who have undergone similar experiences. The story is told from multiple perspectives, allowing Mazer to demonstrate the different attitudes of various high-school social groups realistically.

Temple, Frances. Taste of Salt. 1992. 179p. Orchard, $16.95 (0-531-05459-4); HarperCollins/Trophy, paper, $3.95 (0-06-447136-5).
Gr. 8–up. The story of Father Aristide and the revolution he led in Haiti is told through the characters of two teenagers. Djo, one of Aristide’s teenage bodyguards, has been horribly injured and, at Aristide’s request, attempts to tell his story to Jeremie. Convent-educated Jeremie has always planned on using education as her ladder out of Haiti, but becoming involved with Aristide and Djo shows her how her education can help rebuild Haiti. The title of the book is a metaphor for education, and the importance of education and teachers is stressed throughout the book.

Thomas, Rob. Rats Saw God. 1996. 224p. Simon & Schuster, $17 (0-689-80207-2); paper, $3.99 (0-689-80777-5).
Gr. 8–up. Brilliant Steve York is about to flunk out of his senior year of high school. His sympathetic but strict guidance counselor gives him one last chance. Steve must write a 100-page paper explaining how a former straight-A student got to this point. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that Steve’s first girlfriend left him for their favorite teacher. The book has interesting things to say about how boring school can be for smart kids, and about how nonconformity is often conformity in disguise. For teens, the book will raise interesting questions about what the teacher-student relationship can and should be.

Westall, Robert. Falling into Glory. 1993. 310p. Farrar, $18 (0-374-32256-2).
Gr. 8–up. Seventeen-year-old Robbie is an excellent student and star rugby player who is dating one of the richest girls in school. Then, what starts as a schoolboy crush on his 32-year-old teacher later turns into an unusual friendship and eventually into a terrifying affair. The story is set in post–World War II Britain, and the slang, descriptions of rugby games, and pacing may slow the reading for some students. However, most teens can identify with Robbie’s changing feelings and insecurities. The book raises compelling questions about what happens when teacher-student friendships cross a line.

Zindel, Paul. A Begonia for Miss Applebaum. 1989. 180p. Bantam, paper, $4.99 (0-553-28765-6).
Gr. 8–up. Henry and Zelda are stunned to find out that their favorite teacher is slowly dying of cancer. When they become Miss Applebaum’s weekend companions, she shows them not only what her life has been about, but what their lives can be. The other adult characters are fairly unsympathetic, but Miss Applebaum’s zest for life and devotion to her students make her shine. The book offers insights into the nature of teacher-student relationships.

Triggering Discussion

The following are ideas for starting discussions about some of the books. Discussions are helpful only if all participants, including teachers, share their thoughts and respect each other’s opinions.

For books such as The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, or A Begonia for Miss Applebaum, all of which deal with teachers’ lives outside of school, consider having discussions about how students view teachers’ lives. What do they think you care about? How do they think the job of a teacher ranks against other jobs?

Books such as Frindle, Arly, or Killing Mr. Griffin, which focus on teachers’ expectations, are great jumping-off points for discussions about what students think you expect from them. Do they think most teachers’ expectations are reasonable, or unfair?

The Chocolate War and Weirdo’s War both have examples of teachers who participate in or condone students’ cruelty to each other. It might be helpful to use these books as openings to find out if your students feel teachers engage in this behavior. Similarly, books such as Out of Control can be used to discuss how involved teachers should be when students abuse each other.

In both Bad Girls and The Flunking of Joshua T. Bates, teachers interfere in some of the social structures of their classrooms. It might be interesting to discover whether students think this is appropriate behavior for a teacher.

just Juice, Nekomah Creek, and There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom all have school officials who involve themselves in students’ home lives. This can often be a source of anxiety for kids. These books can provide a good starting point for talking with students about a teacher’s responsibility for a student’s well-being.

Marta Segal, a former teacher, is the director of a reading motivation program, That’s a Fact, Jack: Read!