Dear Sarah,

What books, texts or experiences have most shaped you as a teacher?


What Shaped You?

Dear What Shaped You?

My greatest hope for this column is that your question will ignite in our readers a long list of resources in the comment section below! (Yes, readers, our colleagues need your insight!) However, I’m excited to start the sharing, even though the idea of compressing the list of my influences is daunting. In fact, I need a disclaimer: this is my list today. Tomorrow I know I’ll think, “How could I have forgotten?” And it’s not nearly inclusive. So think of me as the malleable clay, grateful to have been in the hands of these artists.

The Writers

    • Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle was the first pure book of teaching I fell into. She helped me envision a classroom that was different than the ones I had been in as a student. She gave me a framework to both embrace and discard the countless models of teaching and learning I’ve encountered in the last 18 years.
    • Parker Palmer’s Courage to Teach, hit me at just the right time. Nearing the end of my second year of teaching I found his mantra that “we teach who we are” to be a compass of not losing my humanity amidst the sometimes-machinery of the profession. He gave me permission to see there’s spirituality in this work.
    • Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol stopped me dead in my tracks. Beyond having to confront the realities of public education, it sent me into a space of disillusionment about our American story and forced the asking of tough questions. His work allowed me to pursue my passion with open and often times skeptical eyes, rather than a debilitating fairy tale.
    • Anne Lamott. Her library. It’s human. It’s wise. She teaches without a classroom and I clamor to be there as often as I can. Her influence is clear: every story is a lesson, every child is a story.

The Experiences

    • Becoming an NBCT. This process changed me as a teacher, although I misunderstood it when I started. At first, I thought I was pursuing certification for confirmation that I was doing a good job. I quickly learned, however, that I was on a journey to learn how to pay attention to individual students, to become reflective and certification was a byproduct of the real purpose.
    • Joining the Iowa Council of Teachers of English. I presented at my first ICTE conference before I even began student teaching. This was the first community of teachers who lifted me up, nurtured me, helped me remain steadfast on tough days. They also gave me the space to grow as a leader, always reminding me of the necessity of professional organizations.
    • Getting a master’s degree in literature. It’s not so much the masters as it was the decision to get an advanced degree in my content area. This work heightened my understanding of myself as a reader, a writer, a literary critic. Ultimately, it was this deep content knowledge and practice that allowed me to let go of lock-step curriculum and learn to pay attention and respond to my students as a person leading a literary life.
    • Serving as the 2010 National Teacher of the Year. Most certainly this was an honor, but far more importantly than that, it was an opportunity to face every fear and insecurity I’ve harbored as a teacher (and often as a person). If it’s true that confronting what you fear the most will set you free, then this was the doorway. Walking through that door that has made my classroom a lot larger and challenged me to stretch, grow and learn in ways I never would have imagined.

The Unlikelies

    • Becoming a mother. Okay…for anyone who is a parent, this one may not be unlikely. But it’s true. I gained the ability to ask the Lauren question (my daughter) every time I found myself confounded about what to do in the classroom: What would I most want for Lauren? Without hesitation, being a mother has made me a better teacher and being a teacher has made me a better mother.
    • James Lipton. So, I haven’t met him (although I’d really like to). But, his conversation on Inside the Actor’s Studio taught me the difference between scripts and craft. The more I understood this dissonance, the less I felt compelled by perfect designs.
    • Dropping out of college. Sometimes life is unexpected, the universe unfair. Sometimes we take care of ourselves by walking away. And then returning with verve. Sometimes we learn to extend empathy because it was given to us.

The People

    • My students. Past, present and future. They teach me everything I need to know. All I have to do is slow down enough to pay attention.
    • My teacher-mentors. It has been my incredible fortune to have had teachers who mentor and mentors who teach. Through example and warmth, these people have forged paths, walked beside me or shared a light.
    • My tribe.  They get it (teaching and learning). They get me in it because they’re in it too. They celebrate and question, they keep me honest and remind me to sleep. They push my thinking and encourage my voice. Kate, Melissa, Deb and Bruce. Megan, Angie, Jennifer and Jon. Nancy, Chris, Rachel and Byron. You’re the amazing lights I get to reflect.

All right: now it’s your turn! What books, texts, experiences, people have shaped YOU?



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