Did you know award-winning novelist Dave Eggers taught Louisville rock royalty Jim James how to play guitar? Well, he probably didn’t, but Eggers jokingly made the outrageous claim recently in an email to Insider, and the two are, in fact, old friends.
You’ll be able to see them both on stage Friday, Nov. 11, when Eggers and James appear at Play Dance Bar for a candid evening of conversation, all to support Teach Kentucky, a local nonprofit aimed at bringing teachers to Louisville and keeping them here.
Insider also spoke with Elizabeth Mays, Teach Kentucky’s outreach coordinator, about the nonprofit’s mission, her friendship with James, and inviting Eggers to speak.
Mays is a former teacher herself, so she knows how difficult the job can be. A big part of what Teach Kentucky does is help teachers succeed by providing extra training, as well as social and emotional support.
The nonprofit was started in 2003 by social entrepreneur Rowan Claypool. In its first year, the program only brought two teachers to Louisville, but now it hosts a yearly cohort of 25-30 new teachers who converge here for an intensive summer session at Bellarmine University that prepares them for their first teaching job.
It also connects them to other teachers, creating the kind of social network that will help them deal with the high stress job of shaping the city’s future, one kid at a time.
While the program doesn’t specifically support public schools, Mays says they are proud of the work they’ve done with Jefferson County Public Schools, where the graduates of the Teach Kentucky program make up approximately 15 percent of the workforce.
“Most of our teachers are placed in the priority schools, which are the schools that perennially do not score well on statewide tests, and you tend to see higher teacher turnover,” says Mays. “They can be challenging teaching environments.”
Mays joined Teach Kentucky just under two years ago, but Friday’s event has its origins even earlier, when she became interested in another nonprofit.
“Jim has been a friend for a number of years, and a few years back he found out I have an interest in 826 National, an after-school program focused on writing and literacy that Dave Eggers started years ago in San Francisco,” she says.
826 now has chapters in many large cities, and Mays hoped for a while to start a chapter in Louisville, though eventually decided family concerns would keep her from devoting enough time to that project.
Eggers spoke to Insider about his philanthropic interest in teaching and writing.
“My mom was a teacher, and a lot of my friends and cousins are teachers,” he says. “I kept hearing from them about their struggles to keep their struggling students at grade level, especially in reading and writing. Again and again they mused about how they wished they could clone themselves to provide more one-on-one attention to their students.”
After Mays connected with Teach Kentucky, she started thinking about Eggers’ commitment to education, leading her to ask James to invite him to speak. She admits she doubted it was going to happen, even after Eggers said yes.
“I couldn’t even believe it was happening,” says Mays. “I was afraid to tell people. (I thought) for sure, oh one of them is busy, or something will come up.”
When asked about Eggers’ friendship with James, the author demonstrated his irreverent sense of humor, which his readers first fell in love with in his Pulitzer Prize-nominated debut, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”
“Jim first came to me for hairstyling tips and advice on beard maintenance. When we met, he was clean-shaven and liked to wear his hair short. He used a lot of gel,” joked Eggers. “He came to me and said he wanted to switch to a more earthy, hirsute feel, and many years later, we achieved the look he now sports. He was a project, but I think it’s been worth it. And I taught him how to play guitar.”
But the novelist was just as quick to get serious, like when he talked about the rate of burnout among teachers.
“But right now, almost 50 percent of new teachers leave within five years. That’s a catastrophic statistic, but it’s indicative of how unnecessarily difficult we make the profession,” he says. “We underpay and under-support teachers, and then we expect miracles from them. There’s no other occupation where we pay so little and expect so much.”
That burnout rate is something Teach Kentucky combats, and it is also the subject of “American Teacher,” the documentary Eggers produced with 826 National co-founder Ninive Calegari.
“The goal of all this is to make sure the teaching profession is attractive to the best and brightest, and that we can treat teachers right,” says Eggers. “If we pay them well and give them professional freedom and allow them to be creative, we can keep them in the profession.”
Eggers also will stop by Carmichael’s Bookstore on Frankfort Avenue (Friday, Nov. 11, at 2:30 p.m.) to sign books while in town. He spoke of his love of indie book stores: “I only do events at indies. They are crucial community hubs, they’re crucial to the unique identity of any city, and, just as importantly, they have the smartest and best-looking staffers.”
Catch the cheeky humor and sincere commitment to the issue of education on Friday, Nov. 11, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Play, 1101 E. Washington St. Tickets are $30, and the money goes to a good cause.