Not quite three years ago, I became a new corps member in the Teach For America program. Surrounded mostly by recent college graduates, I spent our sweltering Atlanta Institute days trying to absorb PowerPoint presentations, teaching a summer school seventh grade reading class, and planning with collaborative groups for upcoming lessons.
By the time we departed from our five weeks together, most of us were partially adjusted to the ethics of the teaching world, but in the midst of that adjustment, some of us gave up what brought so many of us to it in the first place: our love for reading, writing about, and discussing books. Several months into my first year of teaching—when the stress of what I had taken on was keeping me awake at night—I started reading and writing again. Thankfully, my loss of passion was temporary, but I fear that so many of my colleagues never pick it back up.
But does it matter? Why is personal engagement with books worth holding onto for teachers, given the demands of high-stakes testing and the difficulties of balancing work with family?
After all, we teachers know the importance of literacy more than anyone. The students I taught at Henry F. Kite Elementary and North Shore K-8—both urban schools in Jacksonville, Florida—were as bright as any students anywhere, but somewhere between the family, culture, and education system into which they were essentially born, many of them struggle to learn to read and write. What makes their situation so dire is the striking correlation between literacy and a livable wage, as well as the inverse relationship between literacy and incarceration rates. If we care about our students at all, we know they must leave our classrooms as readers.
But what about us, the teachers who can already read? Should we continue to get better at it, or do we reach a point at which our interaction with literature simply involves a bunch of pedants sitting in circles and discussing detached theories? Perhaps we, like Franny in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zoey, are crying out for “at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time!” That wisdom might be reachable, at least in part, by reading and writing. And that process is part of what it means to love God with our minds, as Luke 10:27 tells us to do.
Teachers’ reading habits go beyond utilitarian desires to earn a livable wage and stay out of prison. Teaching literacy at school without continuing the craft of reading is like being the business professor who never worked in business or the education professor who never taught anything except how to teach. If we do not read often, we lose touch with why reading matters, and we will lack any real and honest answer when that too-smart student asks, “Why do we have to do this? Will I really have to read outside of school?”
At least two answers to that student’s smart-aleck questions come to mind. Contemporary writer Jonathan Franzen in his essay “Why Bother?” gives us one: “That I could find company and consolation and hope in an object pulled almost at random from a bookshelf—felt akin to an instance of religious grace.” Reading and synthesizing what we read can not only feel transcendent, but it is also an essential part of making and finding meaning in our lives. And teachers need purpose and coherence as much as anyone does, especially during the spring, as we limp to the finish line of another school year and ask ourselves why we take this work on, year after year.
Robert Coles, author of The Call to Stories, gives us another reason to keep reading. He tells the story of an Ivy League student who begins to take his reading more seriously as he wades into Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and other classic literature. As he probed the intricacy of good stories, he asked questions that made even his teacher uncomfortable:
There are times when I think the entire exercise is pretty strange. I get an A on a paper about poor Jude Fawley or Dr. Lydgate’s moral decline, when the point is that I am exactly like those Oxford students who ignored Jude, and I’m probably headed in Lydgate’s direction myself. Why don’t all of us—the teachers and the students—try to take these books to heart, not just analyze them and then go on to the next book. We may be smarter, but are we better?
Can we really become better by reading and taking “these books to heart”? Coles, a child psychologist, must have thought so, as he agreed to meet with Ruby Bridges—the first African American girl to attempt school integration in the south—for free.
My own experience confirms the betterment that reading and writing can bring to a life. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird taught me that people with integrity resist society when it mandates that which is not right. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible reminded me of the limits of my own cultural and religious authority. Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow warned me about the implications of personal and societal decisions that further disintegrate local communities. These are just a few of the books that have become what Coles calls “a continuing presence in our lives.”
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that these books have made me “better,” both as a teacher and as a person. May it also be so for you.