Reviewed by Ariel M. Goldenthal
Barbara Kennard opens Dragons in my Classroom: A Teacher’s Memoir (She Writes Press, 2022), with a scene that sets the reader up for the book as a whole. We see Kennard as a first grader, struggling with perfectionism but finding grace in a teacher who encourages her to keep trying, inspiring her to become an instructor herself. The author draws a stark contrast between her compassionate first-grade teacher and her fifth-grade teacher, who had more strictness than empathy.
Over the course of the memoir, Kennard charts a path between the teacher she is—strict, like the fifth-grade teacher who made her copy fascination 25 times because she reversed two letters—and the teacher she wants to be.
She introduces the reader to her struggles teaching at Fessenden, an all-boys private school outside of Boston, before she takes an exchange opportunity and moves across the pond to teach at a boarding school in Oxford. Landlines, letters, and the lack of overt educational politics immediately situate the reader in the quaint and quiet of late 1990s England.
As Kennard acclimates to English culture and language (the latter exemplified in a hilarious mishap with her middle-school-aged students), she rediscovers her faith in God and her love of teaching. The end of her exchange returns her to familiar struggles at Fessenden, but with her renewed faith in God, she is able to embrace the unknown and make another transition, this time, to an all-girls school.
Kennard’s memoir is powerfully transportive: The visceral details in her writing bring to life the fear of being caught in a rainstorm in an unknown forest and the blissful “aha” moments in the classroom that every teacher dreams of. In fact, even with her uncertainty and self-criticism, Kennard paints a dreamily positive picture about her time with The Dragon School. Issues, both in the classroom and at home, are resolved quickly and civilly, leaving room for self-reflection and self-growth.
Kennard’s prose is simple yet sweet, with an ease that comes from a decades-long narrative distance and a comfort that envelops the reader. It would have been easy to linger on the negatives about her teaching experience (the parental interference, shifting expectations, and the “extra, non-teaching duties” that add to her workload), but by focusing instead on moving forward as an educator, and growing in her faith in God and herself, Kennard’s memoir leaves the reader warm and hopeful.
Reading this memoir, I wanted to resonate with Kennard’s experience, her chance to explore new avenues of teaching in a safe and supportive environment, but there was little room for my own thoughts in the author’s thick prose.
Kennard’s simple and straight-forward narrative would benefit from revisiting the writers’ adage “show not tell.” She employs the same level of detail that deftly captures 90s Oxford throughout the entire memoir, operating at 110 percent capacity with no reprieve. Every scene is rendered to a perfection that feels false and every interaction is followed by a thorough inner monologue debrief, as though Kennard doesn’t trust the reader to interpret her memories for themselves.
The dialogue, too, has been squeezed through this perfection sieve and left with just the facts. Kennard’s colleagues, administrators, and even her husband, speak in manicured sentences with an even-keeled tone and a specificity that leaves nothing between the lines. Most of the time, her students’ dialogue follows this same pattern, and the playful scenes where her class of 13-year-olds shows their humorous sides are a welcome respite. The combination of detail and manufactured politeness makes it easy to imagine the events that Kennard describes, but hard to feel them. She leaves no space for the reader to see themselves in the memoir or to explore the themes on their own.
As a teacher myself, I wanted to love this memoir, to find comfort in another instructor’s perfectionism, and to appreciate the addition to the conversation about teacher burnout, but the story alone wasn’t enough. Barbara Kennard leaves Fessenden for some of the same reasons teachers are leaving the profession today, and finds herself a stronger person and teacher by the end of the memoir, but by telling us everything, she doesn’t allow readers of Dragons in my Classroom: A Teacher’s Memoir, many of whom also are teachers, to experience that meaningful transition for themselves.