By John Thompson.

Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase (1965) is the teachers’ and students’ Catch-22 (1961). She captures the fecklessness of bureaucracies, especially those damaged by a culture of powerlessness. She also illuminates the best single antidote to the situational ethics that dominate dysfunctional education systems – the moral consciousness of children.

During Kaufman’s 15-year high school teaching career in New York City, and in urban districts today, “major issues are submerged by minor ones, catastrophes by absurdities.” As was also explained in Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, real truths are not measurable. But, the more surrealistic the system, the more the persons trapped in it try to seek order by quantifying that which can’t be counted.

A student, Evelyn Lazer, needed to talk with a caring adult but an inane, mandatory faculty meeting took precedent. Evelyn then died of a botched abortion. The school nurse could not have done more for Evelyn than she did when the girl sought help after being beaten by her father. The nurse could only offer the victim a cup of tea.


Syl, the rookie teacher based on Kaufman, saw the rule as a metaphor, “Are we, none of us, allowed to touch wounds?”

“Poor Evelyn Lazer,” Syl lamented, she was “lost in bickering.”

This impersonality was not lost on the students. One, who dubbed himself the “Athalete,” sprained his ankle and complained that the nurse merely gave him tea.

Syl illustrates why the first rule of schooling should be, “listen to the kids and they will teach you how to teach them.” She placed a Suggestion Box in her classroom and collected the teenagers’ comments. Their insights dovetailed with those of her wisest colleagues.  My favorite came from a shy, “defeated looking” Puerto Rican student, Jose, who blossomed once Syl treated him with respect.  Jose said that when a teacher listens to him, “I feel more courage.”

As I learned twenty years ago, the prime rule of schooling actually is that “the feces rolls downhill.” The teenager’s version of that wisdom was expressed by the insightful but troubled Ferone.  Although prone to exaggerate, he articulated truths that adults should dare to face, “We’re just dirt to you, just like you’re dirt to the fatheads and whistle-blowers who run this jail and they’re dirt to the swindlers and horn-tooters who run the school system.”

Syl, her colleagues, and students witnessed this dynamic in Dr. Samuel Bester who “started out to be a great teacher but he’s been soured by the trivia-in-triplicate which his administrative duties impose.” A student, “Lazy Mary,” asked “how come Dr. Bester is so nice and different in class than in his office, he’s a good teacher but you’d never know it looking at him.”

The prime corollary of the key school rule is “feed the teachers or they will eat the kids.” “A Cutter,” observed that teachers “try to make us feel lower than themselves, maybe this is because they feel lower than outside people.”  “A Bashful Nobody,” was more forgiving, “I accepted many teachers with their faults and tried to concentrate on their Dr. Jekile side.”

However, a “Grateful Student” had an unqualified appraisal of one former teacher “who enjoyed himself and didn’t mind being a teacher. He taught with pride.”

Teachers of my generation were warned, “It is better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.” Syl’s career could have been terminated due to a dilemma that my colleagues and students faced throughout my entire career. It seems to have grown more acute as the uncertainty generated by education’s “culture of compliance” is challenged by the rigid, but predictable,  “No Excuses” mentality in high-challenge schools. She trusted Ferone and allowed him to go to the restroom during a test.

Teachers should nurture “creative insubordination.” Too many of today’s reformers, however, see the world in terms of “right” and “wrong.” They don’t seem to understand why trusting emotional relationships with students are so important that they justify such defiance of the rules. But, the student, “Me,” described the transformative effect of a minor interaction. The teacher “just said she’d take my word for it. That gave me a warm feeling inside because it was the first time a teacher took a pupil’s word.”

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase are doubly relevant in today’s era of so-called “accountability.” Now, perhaps even more than ever, the system pressures educators to “teach the subject,” when our real job should be to “teach the student.” As in Kaufman’s time, schools have it backwards and, increasingly, we accept the timorous mentality that the Syllabus is “your Bible.”

If anything, it is more important for today’s teachers to grasp the real meaning of our generation’s ever-present doublespeak. As Kaufman’s “Syl” learned, “’It has come to my attention’ means you’re in trouble.”

And, “’Let it be a challenge to you’ means you’re stuck with it.”

Teachers continue to be stuck with one reductionistic silver bullet after another. When the challenge of pretending that those gimmicks make sense is added to that of educating children, it can become overwhelming. In an era of test-driven reform, we remain incapable of shielding our students from the toxicity that flows down on all of us.

But, perhaps we can emulate Kaufman’s world-weary jest.  When teachers are given the modern version of the mandate to “ACHIEVE A GRASP IN TOTO” and “EVALUATE THE WHOLE CHILD IN RELATION TO ALL HIS AREAS IN THE PPP ON EACH PRC,” couldn’t we just laugh it off?

The teacher’s job is to touch students. What if we refused to accept the increase of test scores and other indefensible metrics as our “challenge?” Could Up the Down Staircase help us to acknowledge that Kafkaesque systems, then and now, prompt good people to commit egregious travesties? Could it help us laugh off the timeless absurdities of systems and help us to simply bond with our students and celebrate their gregariousness? What if we accepted the facts expressed by a teacher and a student that school is “where life is” and that “Man is a gregious animal?”


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. jackwhelan    

    Beautifully said, John.

    Teach the student, not the subject. That identifies the heart of the conflict of mentalities that pits good teachers against administrators. At some point we’re going to realize that all the reform ideas in the world are trumped by the basic truth that teachers will serve our kids best when administrators get out of the way and let teachers do what they became teachers for in the first place.

    On a side note, this piece bring up another theme I’ve been thinking a lot about. Most progressives, especially if they are Boomers or older have imaginations shaped by the New Deal and Great Society, and in that Progressive imagination they looked to Washington for solutions. This in turn has inclined progressives to endorse top-down policy making, which in turn enables systems where technocrats and bureaucrats set their top-down agendas. Common Core, NCLB, and RttT are the result, and there are many people who consider themselves Progressives that support this centralized, top-down approach.

    The Progressive movement developed in the US in response to the Gilded Age predatory behaviors of the 1% who emerged in the decades following the Civil War and came into their own during the administrations of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It’s interesting to me that there was a split among Progressives in their attitude towerd WWI. There were those like John Dewey who supported the war because they saw it as strenthening the federal government, which he saw as the only force powerful enough to overcome the tyrannies of local governments. He was opposed by Progressives like Randolph Bourne who made the case in his famous essay “War is the Health of the State” that you can’t make certain ends justifiable by such means, and that there would be severe negative unintended consequences.

    I think Bourne has proved right in that. But the Dewey faction of Progressivism won, and maybe that was ok for mid-century America. But I think we now see that localism and the principle of bottom up rather than top down is a necessary antidote in the education sphere as well as almost everywhere in our politics. The Feds are useless or harmful. It’s time to fight for more local autonomy across the board. This has been an idea associated with conservatives for the last hundred years, but it’s time for Progressives to own it in their own way.

  2. mranderson90    

    Excellent John, I was listening to the Tom Joyner show this morning and a guess was discussing the problems of Common Core. Seems the system cannot even determine which system to use in teaching. Hopefully they will figure it out before it is to late. Like the writer above stated, they need to let teachers do what they came to do and quit piling on the miscellaneous el-toro poo poo so we can do what we came to do.

  3. crunchydeb    

    I’ve always loved that book. 🙂

    When I “came out” on Twitter as not being a data-driven teacher, I was reprimanded via a phone call from HR, prompted by my superintendent, who’d read the Tweet.

    In the end, the only way I could “refuse to accept the increase of test scores and other indefensible metrics as my ‘challenge'” was to leave my school system outright; now I teach privately (music) and Early Childhood classes, none of which are data-driven – which is what my Tweet was about in the first place. I still miss the classroom, but I’ve found a different joy – just outside US public ed. Odds are I’ll mourn the loss of the career that was my calling for a lifetime – but it’s not the same job to which I was called, not any more. 🙁

  4. kcfeldman    

    I just finished this book a few weeks ago after someone gave it to me in December. I couldn’t believe that I had never read it! It spoke so much to my experience. I was at once encouraged and inspired by it, even as I was depressed by how little has changed.

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