How many of you dreaded the summer reading list during your school years? Be honest! I was a voracious reader, yet would read anything and everything except those titles mandated by next year’s teacher; it was an annual battle each summer. Now as adults, many of us yearn to find the time to pop a squat and get lost in a book. So in the spirit of summer reading lists, we wanted to curate a reading list of stories featuring our favorite heroes — teachers! We wanted to showcase stories about educators, who exemplify grit, resilience, and scrappiness, while facing the multi-faceted demands of teaching. These non-fiction recommendations are designed to inspire you, and let you know that you’re not alone in helping our kids today do their best.
Curl up with an icy-cold cup of lemonade and enjoy our list of non-fiction recommendations (and *movies):
“Treating children equally often means treating them very differently.”
Pulitzer prize-winner, Tracy Kidder, spends a year doing his homework by observing a Holyoke, Massachusetts, classroom. His account of Chris Zajac’s fifth-grade class accurately captures the ups and downs of classroom life and childhood poverty, providing a snapshot of what many teachers know all too well about the disparities of opportunity in America’s public schools.
“The teacher must always be on the attack, looking for new ideas, changing worn-out tactics, and never, ever falling into patterns that lead to student ennui.”
Poetic writer, Pat Conroy, recounts the year he taught 18 African-American fifth-eighth graders. The year was 1969 and Conroy, naive yet idealistic, battles the politics and prejudices in his two-room school, as his families fight the effects of polluted waterways off the coast of South Carolina. Conroy immortalizes his first year as a gifted teacher on Yamacraw Island (pseudonym for Daufuskie Island) in The Water is Wide, earning recognition from the National Education Association.
“The most fundamental thing is just to make sure these kids feel cared for. And it’s that simple.”
Kuo, a Teach for America corps member, reflects with candor on many failures and few successes as a first-year teacher in the Arkansas Delta town of Helena. Yet within the broken school system, she finds inspiration in her students, namely 15-year-old Patrick. Several years later though, as she finishes law school, Kuo learns that Patrick has been accused of murder. She returns to Helena and dedicates seven months to continuing the education of Patrick as he sits in jail. You can read a 2019 account of her work with young Patrick in a New York Times Magazine article, The Lost Student.
“So long as we learn it doesn’t matter who teaches us, does it?”
Based on his own life, Royal Air Force pilot Rick Braithwaite faces limited opportunities as a black man post-World War II. Despite his education as an engineer at Cambridge, England, he became an East End London high school teacher to 46 seniors. His dedication and integrity slowly win over the hostile and racist white teens, teaching them to respect themselves first, and ultimately him as a teacher in turn. The popular 1967 movie of the same name stars Academy Award-winning Sidney Poitier.
“Nobody really knows which is happening when the teacher closes the door. At worst, mediocrity. At best, miracles.”
The exuberant Esmé, better known as Madame Esmé, tackles her first year teaching fifth-graders in a poor Chicago public school with non-textbook strategies and tactics. Her scrappy and unconventional techniques earn students’ respect, school grants, and better test scores, but not the admiration of the administration. With Esmé exiting teaching after just one year, many educators’ reviews of her story are less than enthusiastic about her confident tale. Will you find Esmé’s diary to be motivating or defeating?
“You can’t teach in a vacuum. A good teacher relates the material to real life. You understand that, don’t you?”
Before finding a second act as an award-winning writer, McCourt spent thirty-three years as an English teacher in schools ranging from vocation and technical to the acclaimed Stuyvesant High School in New York City. Teacher Man is the third part of his tragicomic memoir, in which he sums up some of his out-of-the box methods to hook his students’ imaginations. With wit as his teaching and literary tool, he weaves a masterful tale of the successes and failures that define teachers’ daily lives.
What other memoirs have you found to be inspiring or reflective of your teaching experiences? Tell us about some of your favorite titles and stay tuned — next month we will share our Recommended Reading List of fictional tales.