Education Opinion

The End of Your Career Book Club: Ten Books That Shaped My Teaching Life

By Nancy Flanagan — July 08, 2013 4 min read
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My friend Claudia Swisher retired after 39 years in the classroom, back in June. Claudia is my reading buddy--and a fabulous educator. We often swap reading suggestions--and we’re in a noncompetitive annual race to see who reads the most titles. I recently finished The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe (a good read--try it!) and wondered if Claudia, who has probably read more books on education than anyone I know, would like to join me in an “End of Your Career” book club. That’s not the right terminology, of course; neither of us feels like our last day in the classroom was the end of our work in education.

The idea was to choose ten books that had an impact on us--books that turned our thinking in a new way, changed our teaching or our beliefs. We would pick only ten, describing the essential reasons they were influential or inspiring. Then, we’d exchange lists and--like any book club--discuss.

Readers are encouraged to join in with their core favorites--or to critique selections. Mine today, Claudia’s tomorrow--then our dialogue to follow on subsequent days.

In the rough order that I read them, my ten:

Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner) As a young, traditionally trained teacher, in the 1970s, Postman and Weingartner’s ideas were thrilling and out of the box: What is curriculum, really? What are kids really learning--and why does it matter? For several years, I read everything Postman wrote. As he moved deeper and deeper into critique, I found that he was generally right. Prescient, even. Two other Postman titles I found shockingly true: Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly.

Schoolteacher (Dan C. Lortie) The first scholarly collection of data on my profession (which Lortie deems “truncated”) I ever read, it was filled with insights for me about the way society saw the job I loved. I re-read a new edition of the book, in 2006, and was disappointed in how little progress the concept of teaching as a profession has made.

On Teaching (Herb Kohl) I read a bunch of Herb Kohl books in the first dozen years I taught. There were always little gems, ideas I could adapt. I loved this one, because in it he says that you don’t really respect your students if you aren’t willing to listen to the music they like. This one concept totally changed the way I understood teaching music.

Change Forces (Michael Fullan) Michael Fullan has also written a boatload of books, but for my money, this one’s the best. Fullan’s prose is turgid, difficult to read--he’s a thinker, not a writer--but this book carries the seminal ideas of how change in educational organizations actually plays out. It was the book that made me realize the seeds of effective change are planted in casual hallway conversations and moral thought --and why organizations, plans and formal leadership roles are often ineffective in changing actual practice.

Manufactured Crisis (David Berliner & Bruce Biddle) My introduction to the idea that someone (who?) was trying to discredit, even destroy what I consider America’s best idea: a free, high-quality fully public education for every child. Still an excellent primer on the roots of what passes for “reform” in education, 18 years later.

Other People’s Children
(Lisa Delpit) There are lots of Angry White Guy books about the mis-education of minority children. Lisa Delpit doesn’t have to be angry on anyone’s behalf--her take on how some children have been underserved since the get-go is authentic. And more useful than righteous ranting.

Who’s Teaching Your Children? (Vivian Troen & Katherine Boles) The book is dated now, but for a few years, I carried it in my take-to-school tote bag. It helped me understand the false-democracy culture of teaching, and is the only book with a chapter entitled “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be teachers.”

Awakening the Sleeping Giant (Marilyn Katzenmyer & Gayle Moller) This book was the first place I saw a coherent theory of teacher leadership, written from a practitioner point of view. There’s plenty of scholarship out there on teachers as leaders, but it’s mostly authored by researchers or administrators and focused on formal leadership positions--using teacher expertise to achieve other goals. The book has been revised twice, and each revision cuts out extraneous material and provides updates. An underestimated gem, especially the first few chapters.

Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (John Kingdon) How policy gets made: the who, the why, the benefactors, the sausage-grinding and the often-brief window of opportunity wherein legislation actually gets passed. It made me understand that genuine, workable solutions to identified problems are often less important than getting credit for “leadership.”

Drive (Daniel Pink) Ever have one of those books where half of each page is underlined or highlighted--and your notes fill the margins? Pink has been criticized for padding his book with lightweight studies, but this book is as good a critique on why public education cannot be saved by tough accountability measures as any of the books written specifically about “reform.” Stripping autonomy, mastery and purpose from teachers’ work has done immense damage to our schools and our profession.

And--a few jewels I just couldn’t bear to leave off the list.

Follow the Teacher (Robert Hess)
Someone Has to Fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling (David Labaree)
Leadership and the New Science (Margaret Wheatley)
The Flat World and Education (Linda Darling-Hammond)

Look for Claudia’s list tomorrow. Agree or disagree on my choices?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.