Classroom Technology Opinion

Do Teachers Read Professionally?

By Nancy Flanagan — April 20, 2016 4 min read
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Short answer: Yes, of course. Can’t get through the day without some educational text or policy idea, relevant to the work.

But--do they read deeply, as a resource for reflection on what is really happening in their daily lives in the classroom? Do they challenge their core beliefs about education on a regular basis, holding their assumptions up to the light of current research? Do they mentally step outside their classroom, looking at their own practice in the context of current policy requirements and practical classroom realities?

Then there’s this: Should teachers have to read professionally, given their overstuffed schedules, crushing student responsibilities, and lack of control over their own work? When teachers finish grading 150 quizzes and planning for the outdoor water-sampling lesson, should they relax with a professional journal? Or is it OK to kick back with Modern Family and a margarita?

A blogger who calls herself The Goddess of YA Literature (a professor of children’s and YA literature in a Library Science department in Texas) writes:

As I review various portfolios and applications, I am struck by something I have not seen before but have long suspected: the professional reading of some educators seems to have shifted over the years. I know that for the 40-some years I have been in education that professional journals tend to stack up and then mock me as they sit on the desk. However, I always made it part of my #bookaday habit to examine the table of contents and read articles that addressed my needs as an educator.

My first thought is that professors do, in fact, have the discretionary time and a distinct responsibility to be on top of current research and practice in the field. But The Goddess makes some excellent points:

  • Teachers who do not read professionally do not have the “ammunition” to argue against [commercially promoted] programmed approaches.
  • Teachers who do not read professionally may feel isolated.
  • Teachers who do not read professionally may not understand some of the “research” is not truly “research.”

In 2015, I facilitated an online graduate-level course called “Teacher as Change Agent,” offered by the Michigan Education Association. (The course was developed at Virginia Commonwealth University by a national panel of teacher leaders.) The first thing participants are asked to do is share their favorite education reading--books, articles, blogs--with their course colleagues. What pieces have changed them, influenced their thinking about teaching and public education?

I have facilitated the course three times, and it’s always interesting to observe this process, as well as consider the literature and opinion writing that teachers offer as influential. It always takes some time for teachers to respond to the assignment--and sometimes, they need to be prodded, or have examples provided.

Typically, several course members will reference a book they read in college--Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (Jonathon Kozol) is often mentioned, as an eye-opening book that challenged the perspectives of veteran teachers. Newer teachers often mention The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch.

In an earlier incarnation of the course, almost half the teachers (from a single state) mentioned Ruby Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty, a book whose ideas and scholarship have been roundly criticized by academics. What to say about that? Payne’s training model had been presented across the state, at conferences and in large districts, and teachers were given a copy of the book. They read it and found it useful.

It was, if nothing else, a window to opening a discussion about the kinds of professional reading that teachers choose--or have chosen for them--and the impact that a popular education author’s claims can have on widespread teacher practice. The beginning of a critical focus, in other words.

The Goddess of YA Literature is right--if teachers don’t read widely, they may assume that a book or article they’re compelled to read as a course requirement or mandated professional development is the latest and best thinking.

I have heard, repeatedly, from teachers that they can’t afford to subscribe to expensive professional journals. I give credence to that argument. The days of the school library stocked with professional reading, or check-out shelves in the teachers’ lounge, are long gone. (Often, the librarian is gone, too.)

“Thinker” books--Parker Palmer springs to mind--have been replaced by how-to cookbooks: there are 290 books with “Common Core” in the title listed at Barnes and Noble alone.

Nobody mentions those as favorite resources for building a practice, influencing teachers’ thinking, or leading educational change. Who wants to read journal articles confirming teachers’ conviction that they have lost control over what should be their work: instruction, curriculum, assessments, teacher evaluation and which qualifications should permit entry into the profession? Not a lot of inspiration there.

Actually, it is difficult, at first, to pry important articles and book titles--even blogs--out of course participants’ minds and memories. We started looking for--and sharing, on Facebook--articles about education, in the mainstream and education press. Then we began dissecting them, in the comments.

Better yet, we started reading and sharing blogs, where some of the most influential (and certainly most interesting and provocative) writing about the classroom and the accountability climate is happening. Peter Greene’s Curmudgacation blog was a favorite.

The last class was held in May, 2015 and the group is still informally sharing articles and observations, a year later. Many of them wrote blogs as part of the coursework, and some of those blogs were published. I would call that...professional reading. And writing.

Maybe we need to start thinking outside the journal box, and beyond the Common Core lesson recipes. There’s a Band Directors Group Facebook page, for example, with 16,000 practicing music teachers--they share articles and tips, and occasionally delve into federal and state policy questions. Starting an after-school book/article discussion group would be an act of autonomous leadership. Or how about turning your colleagues on to a wonderful blog? What do professionals do?

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.