“The point, I tell them and you, is to be in the game, to be at the table, to be a part of the conversation, to contribute what is yours to give to help all those who come along behind you – to not just be part of the story but to be one who helps write that story.” -Jim Burke, The English Teacher’s Companion
“The best teachers are the ones whose professional lives are as big as their teaching lives.” -Kelly Gallagher to me at NCTE 2015
The scope of education is broad. From grades K-12, students are immersed into worlds of literature, languages, history, mathematics, sciences, humanities, physical education, and the arts. Students spend thirteen years of their lives studying content to cultivate their minds. Each content area gives students another lens through which to see the world. Our classrooms should be places of conversation, writing, critical thinking, and collaboration; together with students, we should discuss the larger issues in our world, using each content area as a lens to view those issues. Unless we, as teachers, devote time to establishing and maintaining a professional reading life, the impact we make will be limited.
I truly believe that teachers want to challenge their students. As a neophyte in the teaching world, I was adamant that my students read rigorous literature. I created multiple forms of assessments and handouts to distribute, certain that such activity would stimulate thought and provide a challenging learning experience for all my students. I am continuing to grow as an educator and reflective practitioner; I see the error of my former practices and I’ve learned that more does not always equal better. Giving students more information or more pieces to remember isn’t challenge, it’s an exercise in memory. We do have a responsibility to help students develop their memory skills, but that alone does not broaden the mind. Going over content in class, then providing a chance to work problems in notebooks or complete more of the same ideas in groups is not bad teaching, but when that comprises the preponderance of a teacher’s instructional practice, little is gained as far as mind cultivation goes. And students lose a year of true critical thinking.
The teacher provides the heartbeat for the classroom. Our decisions and talents guide our instruction, and if we expect a lot from our students, we must expect even more from ourselves. Last November, I traveled to the NCTE conference in Minneapolis, MN. My dear friend, Martha, and I waited in line to get autographs and speak briefly with Kelly Gallagher, one of the strong thinkers in English education. I had a copy of his newest book, In the Best Interest of Students, tucked under my arm, eagerly waiting for the moment he would sign it. When my turn came, I approached his table; he smiled as I walked up. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries; then I handed him my book. “How many years have you taught, Travis?” he asked as he inscribed the front page. “This is my 8th year,” I said. He smiled again, handed me my book, and said, “Well, Travis, I’m glad you’re here. I’ve found that the best teachers are the ones whose professional lives are as big as their teaching lives.”
Although we spoke briefly, his words left an indelible mark, one that haunts me as I write this blog post. Our professional lives are the significant force behind our students’ success. The words and voices of these professional writers linger in my mind long after each school day. As I wade through stacks of papers, consider novels for book talks, think about my students’ interests and how I can direct them to a more intense book love, the professional reading I have done provides a touchstone to direct my thinking. At the foundation of every content area is literature that explains and extends the tenets of the subject. I know that we want what is best for our students, and in their best interest, it is important that we know the literature of our content areas and seek out other readings that will enhance what we already know.
Our greatest professional obligation is to our students. All teachers are responsible for providing sound instruction and continuing their education. I’ve often heard teachers say that their lessons have worked for years; why would they change? I hear their point, but I also hear an excuse for stagnation. The professional reading life of a teacher requires responsibility, and it goes beyond an internet search for lesson plans and information about content. The internet is one of my larger resources, but it is not the only resource that informs my instruction. At this point in my career, my lesson plans and instruction are formed by the professional voices I have read, my experience, and the content I know, as well as the process I use to deliver that instruction to my students. There is so much talent among teachers, and I am confident that this talent can be further developed by reading the writing of professionals in our fields.
My suggestion: find the strong voices and thinkers for your content area. Read the newest research about teaching your subject. Seek out conferences that will supply you with a deeper sense of your curriculum and renew your passion for teaching. We prioritize what we value, and when we do not value reading or learning, it shows. Our instruction is a mixture of what we have read, and when our reading lives are shallow, so is our teaching. It isn’t an insult; it’s the truth.
Our professional reading lives should be a light to others in our field, and together, we should build a community of thinkers, readers, and teachers to illuminate a path of understanding for our students. Should, in this case, is a saddening word, because when used, it indicates something that is probable, not what is happening. We don’t need probability; we need responsibility. I challenge each teacher to begin a professional reading life, finding content-area literature that will enhance your teaching process. As reflective practitioners, we must seek out the best resources to cultivate ourselves and our students. If we aren’t strong readers, we won’t produce critical thinkers. Competency on an end-of-grade test is not proof that we have produced strong students, it just proves that our students can take tests.
I realize that as teachers, we are pushed beyond reasonable limits at times. We are responsible for lesson plans, paperwork, assessments, grades, meetings, committees, differentiation, and bringing rigor to our classrooms. On top of that, we are parents, husbands, wives, children, community members, and leisure readers. Asking you to pull professional reading into a life that is overflowing with responsibility is, I’m sure, another burden. But if I didn’t believe it would work, I wouldn’t suggest it. Finding time to peruse websites and books related to your content area, will make a significant difference in your teaching life and the success of your students. No one appreciates the hard work of educators more than I do. I see the dedication of teachers, the meticulous lesson planning, the hope that each student will succeed. Carving out time to read professional material can be challenging; I know from experience. Finding even the smallest amounts of time, however, will enhance the great things you are already doing. I have found the following suggestions to be helpful when looking to bring professional material into my reading life.
- Set aside time one day each week to read professional materials on websites, especially the national sites that have links to standards, lesson plans, and professional development. The information is free and it uses technology that most teachers already have in their classrooms.
- Find a professional book that correlates with a topic in your content area that you are passionate about. Determine how long it will take you to read it and set a personal goal for finishing.
- Reflect on your lesson plans and determine the type of professional material that would make your teaching even better. Write those ideas on your lesson plans so you have a goal.
- Seek out a reading community in your school. Even if it’s just you and another teacher, it’s better than being alone. Read the book together and discuss how it can be used to inform your teaching.
- Establish time for independent reading in your classroom. Read along with your students!
I have seen the benefit of my professional reading life in my classroom, and I am confident that you will see it in yours. I want nothing more than to support what is already happening in our classes. We are in this together and I know we are working toward the same goal. So what do you say? Will you help me write the story of success for our students and for everyone else who comes along? I’d love it if you would.
I have started a spreadsheet of professional reading. Currently, it includes books and websites. These are professional resources. You will not find books full of lesson plans, ready-to-go arts and crafts, or printables. You will, however, find a wealth of knowledge from writers and thinkers from different disciplines. This is not a comprehensive list. As I continue reading and learning about different professional development books or websites, I’ll update the spreadsheet. Just check back periodically to see if anything new has been added!