For TEACHER APPRECIATION WEEK – May 3-7
The Class - A Life-Changing Teacher, His World-Changing Kids,
and the Most Inventive Classroom in America
By Heather Won Tesoriero
The Class is such a pleasure. Fifty years ago I loved reading about inspiring teachers working in the inner city (36 Children, The Way it Spozed To Be, How Children Fail). To now read of another extraordinary educator—albeit in an entirely different setting, a wealthy suburb in Connecticut—is uplifting. It is not the story of a superman. The ten or so highly motivated teenagers we follow during their academic year, 2016-2017, are also thoroughly human; it is a relief to see they can procrastinate and screw up as well as the rest of us at age 17! And yet what this teacher and the students in his high school science class achieve is nothing short of amazing. I recommend The Class to anyone worried about the teaching profession, and to all who need a reminder of what is possible, in our schools, at their best.
Andy Bramante is the 50-something teacher. After “two decades as an analytical chemist in corporate America,” he wanted something more rewarding. He became a teacher. By the fall of 2016 he had been teaching high school for over a decade.
Five moments that especially ring true for this former teacher.
Tesoriero’s account takes us to (the high drama at) a number of these fairs where Bramante’s students compete. The book concludes with a stunning list of their prizes, medals, and scholarships from, to name just a few: Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, International Sustainable World Project, Regeneron Science Talent Search, Google Science Fair, and Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair.
1. Bramante’s desire to connect with his students during their year-long investigations, as they prepare for competitive science and engineering fairs.
“To him, the whole reason he got into the teaching business was to work side by side with kids, to develop the relationships and let the science unfurl in all of its glorious unpredictability. He thrives off the connections and the adventure—for both, he’s willing to go where few would and has put up with a good deal of shit in the process.”*
[What did we just read? Which is why you must see how the next paragraph begins….]
*Excerpts from THE CLASS: A LIFE-CHANGING TEACHER, HIS WORLD CHANGING KIDS, AND THE MOST INVENTIVE CLASSROOM IN AMERICA by Heather Won Tesoriero, copyright ©2018 by Heather Won Tesoriero. Used by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
2. You can be honored for your successes as a teacher, and no rookie, and still experience what teachers across the country complain about: a lack of respect.
“Is he widely known as a superstar teacher? For sure. But the prior year, there was an incident that for him cast serious doubt on whether the powers that be actually value him, as opposed to the glory his program bestows on the school.” (129)
Later, the remarkable 15-year-old Ethan is writing a paper that he hopes to submit to a scientific journal. Andy and Ethan drive up to New Haven to visit a Yale professor who might oversee Ethan’s work. The Yale prof meets with the two of them. He is clearly impressed by the teenager’s understanding of membrane technology, but turns to Andy and says: “Why are you here?”
“The exchange produced a sour aftertaste in Andy that hasn’t faded since. [He] sensed that the professor had no interest in or respect for a high school teacher. Of course, [the prof] likely had no prior knowledge of Andy’s career, but regardless, his apparent disregard for someone teaching high school science bugged the hell out of Andy. While most of the time he can set aside his ego, this kind of disregard inflamed it….” (136)
allows us to see the students mature during her year with this class. By June,
a little wiser. More confident. As teachers we are often too much in the moment
to see it. In looking back on a year— or even better, on how those once frail 9th
graders are now seniors, the young men and women walking across the
graduation stage—we are moved, deeply grateful to have played a role in their
“Sophia’s never been a bold or supremely confident personality, despite her winning combination of beauty and brains… She tends to fold her body inward when sitting as if she’s trying to make herself as small and discrete as possible. She’s not boisterous and she never, ever brags...”
“But when she works in the lab, there’s a palpable, visible difference in the way she carries herself. She has presence; she stands taller. She moves carefully, but with no hesitation.”
“Her parents have noticed. ‘First of all, Andy has brought her out,’ says [her mom]. ‘He gets them to push themselves.’ When [her mom] took Sophia to the Norwalk Science Fair at the end of Sophia’s sophomore year, she was stunned to see her little girl in a suit, about to expound on her complex science project.” (181)
4. Several parents in the privileged community where Bramante teaches can be unjust, even vindictive, such as when they blame him if their child does not win at one of the competitions. After one fair, when his own high school daughter did not make the cut, he feels responsible. [So many hours spent with his students, not enough time with his own child.] And then he gets a phone call.
“It was a mother who launched into a bitter tirade about how he had not properly vetted the projects because had he done so he would have seen that her child’s project was too similar to another research kid’s, thereby squashing her child’s chance for a win. He had no capacity to take on the crazy mother. On a good day he was aghast at this kind of entitled behavior. But on a day when he and his kid were hurting badly, he could offer nothing to this woman. He quickly and pointedly told her he had his own problems and hung up.” (214)
As I said, no superman. But so real.
5. When we choose to teach later in life. Bramante’s career shift into teaching—in his 40’s—is unusual, but less rare than might be supposed. I have loved meeting folks in Colorado who chose this profession in their 30’s, or even later. The Class sheds light on the transition for Bramante—perhaps many others.
A close high school friend, Vinnie Bucci, had gone on to Brown University for a master’s degree in education and had taught high school English ever since.
“Teaching has been Vinnie’s life work. He loves it. And it was Vinnie who was the first person to sense that his old pal, Andy Bramante, might be a gifted teacher…”
[Each year Vinnie and his wife invite
friends to gather. Andy and his wife would attend.]
“… For years, Andy had been listening to stories from Vinnie’s teaching friends and colleagues about what they do, and in many cases, the stories culminated in some talk of making a difference in a kid’s life. These accounts seeped into Andy’s brain and stood in sharp contrast to his working life. He had had a good run, sure, but there was nothing in the way of changing anyone’s life.
“So …knowing his corporate life was looking and feeling bleak, nothing but a dead end staring back, he started to put a plan in motion.” (188)
No one can predict when or how the shift takes place.
When it does, for many, it is a renewal. A second chance. A blessing. Nice,
isn’t it, to hear someone say they “found their calling”—at whatever age.
Bramante reflects on the school year
Bramante has much to be proud of. Tesoriero imagines how he might look back on the school year.
“What he’ll mostly remember are the moments that happened far from the award stage—the ten P.M. night when Collin’s project came together, working with Romano in the woodshop to saw those windows into his test tubes, that cozy winter day with his hardworking female superstars. He’ll remember some of the tears over the various teenage crises, a clutch last-minute prom date he helped broker, his sense that he may never again have a class like this year’s seniors, with whom he formed an especially tight bond.”
Tesoriero lets us know that Bramante is trying to figure out his future role in the school. But as she sees it: “… he can’t leave the kids. They are the ticket to his happiness. They’ve become such a central part of his identity, and most critically, they’ve given him that elusive thing so many of us seek: a tangible sense of mattering in this world.” (392)
A special THANK YOU to Ballantine Books for permission to use so many quotes from The Class.
Excerpts from THE CLASS: A LIFE-CHANGING TEACHER, HIS WORLD CHANGING KIDS, AND THE MOST INVENTIVE CLASSROOM IN AMERICA by Heather Won Tesoriero, copyright ©2018 by Heather Won Tesoriero. Used by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.