Teaching is a noble profession, but one that rarely receives the sort of nuance it deserves when popping up in fictional works. Archetypes involving the icy schoolmarm, sophisticated professor, and perky idealist all make frequent appearances, but it’s only when educators move to protagonist positions that readers score a view of the profession’s true complexities. Within the pages of the following lay a myriad of fabulous narratives picking apart the various joys, sorrows, and rages present in and out of the classroom. Just about the only thing they share is the desire to showcase teachers as what they really are in the end: all too human.
Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
This PEN/Faulkner Award finalist follows a brand new teacher whose anxieties over doing right by her middle school class will no doubt ring true for far too many readers.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Jean Brodie might be kind of a manipulative educator who enjoys pitting students against her coworkers (and one another), but the novel in which she resides remains one of Muriel Spark’s most beloved works.
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
While not entirely about education, Wonder Boys features a professor protagonist whose life begins unraveling as his wife leaves him, his mistress (and boss!) discovers an unexpected pregnancy, and one promising student winds up losing it completely — all while he’s attempting to organize a writing festival and finish a frustrating novel.
Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
Fans of over-the-top humor should pick up this well-received read about a young troublemaker who winds up taking on a tutoring role for a young boy with a hot mom.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton
As Europe begins slowly crumbling into World War II, a popular teacher at an all-boys public school overcomes his anxieties about his career thanks to a brand new marriage and burgeoning mentor relationships with students.
Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery
The second book in the Anne of Green Gables series sees the plucky red-headed heroine tackling a local teaching position while still facing rejection and prejudice from the community.
Never Fade Away by William Hart
Intricacies regarding the student-teacher dynamic receive an in-depth analysis here in a book that involves a young Thai ESL student and the traumatized Vietnam veteran mentor who hopes to nurture her gifts as a writer.
Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
Up the Down Staircase parodies predictable “inspiringly unorthodox teacher changes the lives of inner-city high schoolers” narratives and the rage-inducing bureaucracy the reality involves.
To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite
In this largely autobiographical novel, a Guyanese engineer fights against the prejudices of post-World War II Britain, falls in love with his white coworker (to much consternation from her parents), and proposes the radical idea that kids like being treated with the same autonomy as adults.
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
At once tragic and hilarious, Pnin features a curious Russian professor whose nationality renders him something of a pariah among his peers and coworkers, making it a sympathetic look at the experiences of foreign teachers in America.
A Terrible Beauty by D.W. St. John
D.W. St. John pulled from his own teaching experiences to deliver a sharp commentary on problems pertaining to the public school system’s devotion to red tape and conformity.
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
A Lesson Before Dying is set during the days of Jim Crow laws and depicts the very painful, conflicting feelings of an African-American teacher whose education isolates him from his community and the cultural hegemony alike.
Schooled by Anisha Lakhani
Watch in humorous horror as an eager young teacher transmogrifies into a materialistic monster after spending entirely too much time working at a private school for New York’s high society kids.
The English Teacher by R.K. Narayan
Based on the author’s own life, protagonist Krishna spends this novel about family, tragedy, career, and spirituality finding the beauty in the everyday and mourning the loss of his adored wife.
We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Even though We Need to Talk about Kevin focuses on families rather than educators, it does involve a thread about a mass-murdering, sociopathic student who fakes molestation charges to get back at a teacher he doesn’t like.
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
This popular slice-of-life warns against professors growing sexually involved with their students and the nasty spirals that can damage innocents caught in the wake.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Personal and professional rival professors clash over religion, race, and pretty much everything else imaginable in Zadie Smith’s take on academic absurdities.
Moo by Jane Smiley
Dozens and dozens and dozens of characters and narratives collide at Moo University, shedding light on how silly such serious institutions often really are once people start thinking about it.
In Custody by Anita Desai
Although his students personally find his Hindi classes dull and insufferable, a professor continues dreaming that he might enjoy an opportunity to meet an Urdu-language poet he absolutely adores.
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte’s very last novel offers up a very Gothic, very psychological take on teaching at an all-girls boarding school and falling for the headmaster.