Two great reads on the teaching profession

Still one of my very favorite stock photos when you Google “teaching.” It just screams, “Why, yes, Johnny, that IS South America!”

I’ve launched headlong into my 2015 Goodreads Challenge of reading 52 books in 2015. So far, I’m on a roll: I’m four days in and I’ve already finished two books! Of course, my highly developed sense of guilt won’t let me feel too proud about that: I grabbed these books from the library on my way home from the last day of school on December 19th, so it feels like I’ve procrastinated as my winter break ticks to a close.

The books I just finished are terrific and I highly recommend them. The first is Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. It’s a history of the teaching profession in the United States, and it’s as much a history of teaching as it is a cultural history of social justice in this country. Goldstein traces the history of American education from Catharine Beecher to W.E.B. du Bois to Wendy Kopp, and her book is a thoughtful look at the social, cultural, and economic pressures that have made teaching, as she calls it, “America’s most embattled profession.” I finished this book inspired and enlightened, and I’d highly recommend it as a reference for the office. The epilogue offers a list of eleven “lessons” that this history can teach us and which can propel teachers, education reformers, and policy makers to thoughtfully shape American education in the years ahead.

While The Teacher Wars was a great thoughtful read, Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher was one of those rare fire-in-the-belly books that had me texting my ed reform-minded friends late into the night. Luckily, they’re like me, so they welcomed my elated messages late on a Saturday night gushing about how good this book is.

I read a lot of books about education reform, education policy, educational innovation, and edtech. I read those books to get inspired and to get informed, and they’ve helped me feel engaged in my work as an educator and they’ve helped me fill critical gaps in my knowledge and skills. Few books, though, deal so much with the nitty-gritty of what happens in a classroom as Green’s book does. I’ve read a lot of books about character education, about how we can organize schools to better challenge, nurture, and inspire children, and about how different teachers, policies, and tools have transformed classrooms for the better. Very few books, though, talk in as much detail and with as much clarity about the what of teaching. This is a book that talks very specifically about what’s hard about teaching–namely, exactly what you do with a roomful of kids for 45, 60, or 80 minutes of classtime. This book talks about different teachers’ approaches to doing just that, and the evolution of different methods of teaching (including TKOT, or “This Kind of Teaching”) and their impact on the classroom. The exploration of TKOT dives deep, and its focus not on classroom management but on the academic stuff of teaching was especially compelling to me. It made me reflect on my own teaching practice both in larger classroom settings, in my college essay seminar, and in one-on-one work with my current students. Green speaks so specifically about the strategies and skills teachers can develop to unpack complex concepts and explore them in detail with students. It also resonated with my own biased perspective that teachers need to be both skilled in content delivery and also subject matter experts in disciplines (like math or foreign language) in order to be effective teachers. It’s not enough just to know about classroom management or to know a lot about history. And it’s not just about being enthusiastic or nice, either. To be a teacher is to be endlessly curious, perceptive, and self-reflective. You have to know your stuff, know your kids, and know how to connect the two. 

I occupy an interesting space in the education universe. I attended a prestigious graduate school of education but I didn’t take a traditional path to teaching. I do not have teacher licensure in my current state of residence, partly because I just moved here, but also because I didn’t take the traditional ed school path to becoming a teacher. My undergraduate degree is in a discipline (liberal arts and English, minors in French and Classics), and my graduate degree is more disciplined (cognitive science and education) than broadly focused on teacher education. None of my formal education included classes in classroom management or assessment. However, I did learn those things, both as a tutor and a classroom teacher.

I’m a capable teacher, though certainly not a spectacular one, and I don’t think I got that way by being a “natural” or by being especially friendly or enthusiastic. (Though I like to think I’m both.) I got that way because I read, studied, watched, listened, and worked. I read other people’s lesson plans, textbooks, project outlines, and tests. I wrote and rewrote my lectures and the project rubrics for the History of Art, Music, and Science class I developed at Saint Thomas Episcopal. I filled two notebooks and a very detailed spreadsheet with my plans for my French class last year at Convent. I didn’t always succeed. Sometimes, my lessons failed spectacularly. But I got good reviews from students and feel like I did reasonably well by them because I had a lot of tools to draw upon. I could refer back to things I learned in school–both the things I was graded on and the things I learned from emulating some truly spectacular teachers.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done as a teacher, but I’m keenly aware that I could always do better. I think that’s what has made me a good teacher: I have good background knowledge in pedagogy and content, but I’m also deeply worried that I’m not doing enough and that there’s always more to know. This hunger or paranoia or curiosity–whatever you want to call it–means that I’m constantly reading and searching and asking to know more about how I can do better by my students.

Elizabeth Green’s book spoke to my hunger as few other recent reads have. This is a meditation on what’s worked in education, what it looks like in real time, and how we might structure teacher training to impart these same skills to more teachers. I love any book that challenges the idea that people are “born” to do certain things (I’m a disciple of the growth mindset, after all), and Building a Better Teacher talks about teachers who have honed and shared strategies that can turn enthusiastic neophytes into effective educators.

Read this book; then convince all your friends to read it too so we can talk about it together.

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