The Battle for Room 314

Full disclosure: I worked briefly (and happily) for Ed Boland, the author of The Battle for Room 314, after leaving my South Bronx classroom. He is a longtime senior executive with Prep for Prep, a heralded nonprofit that seeks out talented students of color in New York City’s public school system, grooms them for placement in elite private schools, and shepherds them into the best colleges in the nation. It’s the closest thing in education to finding a life-changing golden ticket in a Wonka bar.

Beset by a “nagging feeling that the program, as worthy as it was, just wasn’t reaching enough kids or the ones who needed the most help,” Boland starts to wonder if he’d missed his true calling. Raised in a Catholic family of teachers and do-gooders, he sets his mind (and resets his household budget) on becoming a New York City public school teacher. First he works nights and weekends to get his teaching degree. Then he quits his job hobnobbing with the city’s elite and trades his “comfy bourgeois life,” for a job teaching ninth-grade history at “Union Street School.”

To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. Chantay climbs on her desk and taunts Boland with a crude sexual gesture and unprintable (here, not in the book) language. Gang member Kameron is an “unalloyed sociopath”; Boland admits he was “genuinely afraid of him from the minute [he] set eyes on him.” Jesus is a “perfect shit” who “executed his role as tormentor of adults seriously, almost professionally.” Readers conditioned to expect affirming tales of the bloodied but unbowed teacher be warned: No fourth-act scene of hope and redemption comes to Room 314. An administrator cuts short her formal observation and gives Boland a withering dressing-down about his terrible classroom management. “I used to teach juvenile delinquents in Vermont who had huffed half their brains out on glue,” she seethes. “They acted better than this.” Boland soldiers on, but his despair is palpable. When he is offered his old job back, he briefly balks before accepting that everyone would be better off—him, his family, and his students—if he just admits defeat and goes back to his comfort zone.

The book has already provoked angry reactions.  After an excerpt appeared in the New York Post, one veteran teacher wrote to criticize Boland as having “no real classroom management strategies at his disposal” (true) and deemed the book “an obvious money grab” (untrue and unkind). To be clear, The Battle for Room 314 is best read as a memoir—not a “teacher” book, and certainly not a policy prescription. While Boland is clear-eyed and candid about his failure, the one false note is a list of “pressing priorities” at the end of the book (integrate schools, rethink funding, and “end poverty, the root of educational failure,” etc.), which feels like it was forced upon him by an editor hungry for a hopeful takeaway.  Such prescriptions might bring sympathetic nods from millionaires at Boland’s next Waldorf fundraiser, but they are unlikely to change conditions on the ground for the students at schools like “Union Street” anytime soon.

One of the heartbreaks in the book is a student named Byron, who is clearly out of place in Room 314.  Talented enough to be waitlisted (with Boland’s help) at Ivy League schools, but stymied by his undocumented immigration status, he doesn’t go to college at all.  As of 2012, Boland reports, Byron is living in Florida, having done “very little of anything except go to the public library and help his aunt sell meat pies from time to time.” In schools where chaos and disorder reigns, those who suffer the cruelest fate are invariably quiet, studious, and largely ignored students like Byron. Attending to their untapped potential invariably seems less urgent than reining in the misbehaviors of the Chantays and Kamerons. My one disappointment with Boland’s well-written and unflinchingly honest book is that he didn’t honor his initial impulse in his recommendations: Worthy programs like Prep for Prep don’t reach enough kids. For every kid they pluck from New York’s public school system, there are a dozen Byrons—maybe a hundred Byrons—who wither on the vine. Here is my challenge for Boland and his colleagues: Take what you’ve learned in decades of preparing kids for New York’s most rigorous academic challenges and use it to help thousands more kids. It might be the difference between attending a first-rate college and selling meat pies in Florida.

If you want to take a lesson from The Battle for Room 314, it should be alarm at how poorly we prepare teachers for the reality of inner-city teaching—and the maddening futility of expecting any teacher to “meet the needs of all learners,” from Kameron to Byron, amid such rampant dysfunction. Careful readers will note that Boland was not a New York City Teaching Fellow, Teach For America corps member, or other “alt cert” instructor. Those who are eager to criticize those programs will have to explain why a smart, dedicated, traditionally trained teacher like Boland flamed out so badly, and what we can learn from his experience.

SOURCE: Ed Boland, The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School (New York City: Grand Central Publishing, 2016).

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.