Maria Popova, a Bulgarian-born American writer, once said, “…it can take us years or decades of hindsight and reflection to arrive at the truth of our experience, any experience, and all the more so the greater its complexity and its toll on us.”
Teaching, whether in a public or private school, exacts a toll on even the best of teachers. The beauty of Barbara Kennard’s latest memoir, Dragons in My Classroom, lies in the truth-telling of one teacher’s commitment to tackle head on the challenges of striving to become the best educator she can be. This desire transports her to Oxford, England for a teacher exchange program. It is here that she begins to reflect on her practices and comes to see the beauty and solace that some levels of imperfection can provide. The students enrolled at the Dragon School are affectionately referred to as dragons and, at twenty-five per class, their imperfections quickly become visible. The Dragon is a private boys school where “Ma Kennard” finds her charges quite lively and prone to pranking. Her colleagues speak plainly and supportively, answering questions to help ease Barbara’s transition to their school while impressing upon her the idea that “what seems to matter at the Dragon are knowledge and effort, not arbitrary things such as percentages or grades.”
Kennard’s perfectionism, perhaps a vestige of her upbringing, somewhat diminishes as she realizes the English system places more responsibility on the students for their own progress than she is accustomed to relinquishing in the States. She is instructed by her peers not to spend too much energy on students who “muck about” when they should be working. Their marks will reflect whether they need to work harder next time or not and are not a reflection of how hard Ma Kennard tried to teach them. The need to work harder when one has disabilities is a mantra she shared often with students.
Dragons in my Classroom is written in a conversational, accessible first-person voice, and organized chronologically according to Kennard’s pursuits for excellence. This memoir will speak to many teachers who may feel out of place with their current assignments or who long to try something different or go somewhere new. Although the dialogue at times may seem a bit stilted, overall the story remains engaging throughout. Kennard’s faith and supportive husband are delicately woven into her memoir, helping her battle self-doubts about her teaching practices. Ma Kennard begins to see these doubts as her own personal dragons to slay.
This book is an endearing testament to the power of personal growth and reflection in one teacher’s incredibly rich professional life. As it turns out, facing the Dragons in that Oxford classroom ended up being one of the most memorable and favorite of all of Ma Kennard’s teaching experiences.