Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students might seem like a scary title for a teacher to read. What awful things might these teenagers reveal about my teaching? Fear not. Kathleen Cushman and the student co-authors from What Kids Can Do have assembled thoughtful and respectful advice on things their beloved teachers do right and mistakes even the best teachers make. Fires in the Bathroom is not so much about curricular suggestions; it focuses instead on the "relationships that make learning possible." The book includes advice on behavior management, gaining the trust and respect of students, motivating students to learn, and teaching English language learners. For example, Alexis gives the book's best classroom management advice, "When you let your students walk all over you, they're not learning the essentials of respect, of how to interact properly." The authors also have some interesting tips, like homework do's and don'ts, possible punishments, and timing of tests. Overall, what comes through loud and clear is that students want authoritative, yet respectful teachers, and that they want to learn, to succeed, and to feel special yet blend in.
My favorite part of the book is the worksheets for teachers. There is one on "Identifying the Assets of your Worst Behaving Students." It aims for the teacher to look at other aspects of the student's life in order to gain insight into the disruptive behavior. Another good one is the worksheet called "I Don't Get It" which helps teachers remember the experience of being confused in order to understand what students may be going through. The worksheets are helpful little homework assignments for teachers.
The book's other strength lies in its use of actual student voices. Most of the advice is given as quotes from the student co-authors. On the other hand, the use of quotes results in a format that is overly repetitive. Except for the worksheets and a few charts, the book is basically a bunch of lists. The authors give a bit of advice, "Care about us and our progress" and then a few student quotes, and then another bit of advice, "Help us keep on top of our workload" and more student quotes. Finally, one glaring oversight is that a few student quotes are repeated word for word in different chapters. I do not see any value in using the quotes more than once.
Fires in the Bathroom does raise two questions. The whole premise of the book is that students have important ideas about their schooling. This makes me wonder how much control students should have over their education. Should they have input about what to learn, when to learn it, and how to learn it? Second, there is a small section in the book on how to teach math. Most of the advice is typical, such as "Use lots of concrete examples" and "Try all different ways to see something." One piece of advice is "Walk us through things." I find this particularly interesting in light of the recent emphasis in math education on problem solving. Alexis writes "He doesn't want to tell us how to do it — he wants us to figure out for ourselves. It's hard. It's frustrating. It feels like he's not teaching." What is the balance between leading students through a problem and letting them wrestle with it? It is a tricky dilemma that math educators need to explore further.
Fires in the Bathroom would make excellent reading for a first year teacher. It is a quick read and would fit well in a teacher preparation program. Any teacher that cares about her classroom relationships could use this book as a starting point for dialogue with her students. A teacher who is feeling discouraged might take heart when advised not to "judge your success by whether students like you." Vance puts it best, "You really affect kids when you just do your job, day in and day out, do it well — and everything doesn't have to be about bonding with the kids and changing their lives. That's artificial. The bond will develop on its own if you just do your job well."
Kara Shane Colley studied physics at Dartmouth College and math education at Teachers College. She has taught math and physics to middle school, high school, and community college students in the U.S., the Marshall Islands, and England. Currently, she is travelling around Mexico, volunteering on organic farms and learning Spanish. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.