JOHN GODAR asked his fellow public school teachers a few questions. And they talked. And talked. And talked.
They talked about classes that are too big and salaries that are too small.
They talked about too much work and too little support.
They talked about stress that is too high and status that is too low.
They talked about apathetic kids and pushy parents.
They talked about administrators ruled by budgets and curricula determined by test scores.
And when they were finished, Godar had 900 typed pages of answers from 282 teachers. He had answers that coincided with his own feelings of burnout and frustration that had prompted him to take time away from the classroom and pursue ''a real odyssey'' through the schools of America.
Godar had answers. But he did not always have solutions.
''It was not meant to solve the problems; it was meant to enter the debate,'' Godar says of the book that resulted from his year of listening. ''Teachers Talk'' (Glenbridge Publishing, Macomb, Ill., $19.95) is a collection of conversations Godar had with teachers in dozens of public schools; the teachers remain anonymous -- ''teachers are very very scared'' -- though they are often identified by age, experience and location.
Godar introduces each teacher and then lets them talk about their experiences, frustrations, joys and cares. There are young and veteran teachers from elementary and secondary schools.
One of the most poignant is Ms. M, a single mother who after 13 years of teaching moved from junior to senior high school English and has four separate lesson plans for the six classes she teaches daily.
''She had no social life and she felt like she was neglecting her own two children,'' Godar writes. ''It had become necessary to see a professional psychologist to deal with all the stress.''
Ms. M: ''My standards are such that I can't live up to my standards. It's causing me a lot of trouble. It was my choice to go into the high school. I knew it was going to be difficult, but I didn't think they would give me this many classes . . . I come home and I run and then I cook dinner and then I prepare for the next day by reading -- say the act for 'Julius Caesar' that we're going to be talking about -- again for the umpteenth time so I can get everything out of that I can get out of it . . . Then I usually have papers to grade. I have 67 book reports in there to grade. I have 22 mysteries to grade. And I have about 40 chapters of a book that they wrote . . . . So I spend about an hour grading papers at home though sometimes if I wait too long . . . I go to bed . . . I get to talk to my children for a few minutes during dinner. Really, I have neglected my children because I have worked so hard. This won't go on . . . I mean, this can't go on.''
Godar says that this woman, who gave up her one free night a week to talk with him, is typical of the good teachers in the classroom today. ''Teachers are these wonderful, caring people . . . very caring, very involved. A good 50 percent are working their butts off,'' he says.
Although Godar didn't necessarily intend it, the book turned out to be, if not a love letter, then at least ''a pat on the back,'' for teachers. "I'm more impressed with teachers. My picture of teachers is better'' now than when he left the classroom in 1986, he says.
Godar's father had died, his lover had left him, he was working for a principal he did not like and feeling more and more that teachers were ''being sluffed to the side'' when it came to curriculum decisions and education reform.
''I've got to take some time off,'' Godar remembers thinking. He had been teaching English in a Cincinnati high school for a dozen years. The idea for the book ''just came to me'' and he set off, contacting teachers through local associations. ''I went where ever I could afford to go,'' spending $5,000 to $10,000 of his own money along the way.
Godar was amazed at how universal were the teachers' complaints about class size, lack of status and money.
He discovered another thread running through their conversations. Whether from urban or suburban, city or rural schools, the teachers ''understand there's a different kid coming in'' nowadays.
''The society has changed greatly -- in divorce rates, in double-parent working families, in single-parent families, in a lot of drugs and alcohol problems, in teen pregnancies. All those things have multiplied. We all know that. But what people forget is that kids are being affected by those in negative, negative ways,'' he says.
''I find many of my kids today very isolated, very alone and independent because their parents aren't home,'' he observes. ''We have to acknowledge it's a different kid we're dealing with.''
On one hand, today's kids ''are a lot more hip, a lot more worldly, know a lot more,'' says Godar, who returned to the classroom for two years after researching his book.
On the other, he says, they lack the stability that families used to provide.
''If you go in any public school, you'll see the kid that sits in the green Army jacket and he never takes it off -- summer, winter, fall -- and that kid never talks and that kid has no friends. And there's one of those in every classroom where I've taught. And that kid needs to be dealt with. . . . I'm a pretty good teacher, but I fail with every one of those. I do not know what you can do with a kid who's so isolated for whatever reason.''
As teachers, ''we're not trained in psychiatry,'' Godar says. ''Some feel very inadequate, and I can't blame them.''
Divorce, pregnancy, drug problems, suicide. ''That's hard to lay on a person who specialized in math.''