On this page I have indicated some of the books I’ve read that I felt were inspirational or beneficial to my practice as an educator. If you know of another that you would like to see added to the list, just send me an email!
It seems to me that in every teacher’s career, there comes a desperate moment in which we just want to be understood. We fervently wish that the public, the parents, and the media comprehended just how dedicated we are to our students, and just how hard we work on their behalf, and just how tough the job is. Tony Danza goes a long way to build this understanding in his 2012 book I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High.
Having already earned his degree in history and his teaching credential, Danza accepted a position as a first-year teacher in an inner-city school in Philadelphia, partly because he had always wanted to teach and decided now would be a good time in his career to explore that option, and partly because the experiment could be turned into a reality show that, Danza hoped, could accomplish some genuine good by turning an empathetic spotlight on our nation’s over-worked, over-criticized, and under-paid teachers.
Throughout the book, Danza provides an insider’s perspective on many of the topics that dominate political discussion in the media and professional conversation in the teachers’ lounge, including such topics as funding cuts, high-stakes testing, high absenteeism, student apathy, and lack of parental involvement. It’s amazing how he hit the nail on the head with every chapter.
I loved this book, and how Danza eloquently voiced the frustrations of practically every teacher in America. Most importantly, I loved how much his genuine affection and respect for his students, and his strong commitment to do right by them, shines through the frustrations. It’s an inspirational book I highly recommend. You can find it on amazon at I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had.
Here is a teacher who is truly inspirational: Stacey Bess of Salt Lake City, Utah. As a first-year teacher, Stacey landed in a classroom set up in a storage shed in an homeless shelter. The facility was literally referred to as the School With No Name. As you can imagine, her students wrestled with a variety of issues, including unstable living arrangements, domestic abuse, poverty, and alcohol and drug-abusing parents. Not the most desirable circumstances for learning, but still this remarkable teacher created a safe and loving classroom environment for her kids. She went to battle with the local school board for a more suitable teaching space and better resources. And, oh, yeah, she raised her own family and defeated cancer at the same time. You can read the story of the dynamic Stacey Bess in Beyond the Blackboard, available through amazon.com.
As empathetic Americans continue to look for ways to help fellow citizens forced to rebuild their lives following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, the New York Times today reported that 5,400 New York City students have now returned to their storm-ravaged schools in Brooklyn and Queens.
As I usually do during times such as these, I ask myself questions about what the teachers are doing during these times of upheaval. In this instance, I am reminded of a book I read recently which described a remarkable teacher who opened a school for New Orleans evacuees following Hurricane Katrina.
When surging flood waters from Hurricane Katrina forced thousands of families to flee from their homes, New Orleans residents had their minds more on survival than on whether their children would be missing school. But when a group of evacuee parents who landed in New Iberia, Louisiana, came to the conclusion they would not be returning to their homes any time soon, they realized they had to find a strategy to help their children cope with their enforced and unexpected exile. They pooled their financial resources and hired a fellow refugee, teacher Paul Reynaud, to establish a one-room school for their children in an abandoned office building. The story furnishes valuable lessons for dealing with this latest example of nature’s fury.
The book is entitled Sugarcane Academy: How a New Orleans Teacher and His Storm-Struck Students Created a School to Remember.The author of this intriguing true story is journalist Michael Tisserand, and the volume was published in 2007 by Harcourt. You can find the book on amazon.com.
One of the most well-known teachers in twentieth-century American history, Jaime Escalante, passed away in 2010, but already his story is fading from our collective cultural memory. Recently I conducted an informal poll of my students, and even a few of the younger teachers, at my Southern California high school. “Do you know who Jaime Escalante is?” I questioned them. Almost every one said they didn’t, until I mentioned he was the teacher portrayed by Edward James Olmos in the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver.
The recipient of numerous awards and special praise from President Ronald Reagan, Jaime Escalante was a popular and talented teacher who challenged supposedly “unteachable” inner-city Latino students to achieve beyond a level anyone thought them capable of, eventually leading them to unparalleled success on the extremely difficult Advanced Placement Calculus exam.
When I read this book, I learned some surprising facts about this remarkable educator. For example, the movie never mentions that prior to immigrating to the United States, Escalante earned a degree in mathematics and a teaching credential in Bolivia. Escalante was a veteran teacher with nine years of experience in prestigious schools when he decided to leave his politically unstable homeland and come to America in search of a better life for his family. Once he arrived, unable to speak a word of English, he discovered that his education, training, and experience held no value here. Determined to return to the classroom, Escalante set about learning the English language and earning his university degree all over again. It took him ten years to get back into the classroom, at a significant cut in pay, by the way, but to this dedicated teacher, it was well-worth the hard work.
A well-researched and well-written account of Escalante’s life can be found in the biographical book Jaime Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews. The book is currently out of print, but used copies can be found on amazon and many libraries own a copy. The search is worth the effort, for I believe you will find his story compelling and inspiring.
Etta Schureman was over forty years old when she and her sister ventured into Alaska Territory to teach Native Eskimos in primitive rural schools. After one year, the sister returned to the Lower 48, but Etta, who had met the love of her life and married, settled permanently in Alaska. Eighteen years later, Etta and her husband, Foster Jones, were working together in the remote Aleutian island of Attu when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Empire of Japan on December, 7, 1941, “a day that will live in infamy.” They were slated to be evacuated by the U.S. Navy when the island was invaded by Japanese troops. Although the couple were in their sixties, they killed Foster and removed Etta to an internment camp in Japan, where she was incarcerated with a small group of Australian nurses who were also prisoners of war. The Attuan natives, about three dozen of them, were also taken to Japan, with the apparent intention of assimilating them into the Japanese population. Although the surviving Attuans were repatriated after the war, Etta never saw her students or their families again.
Etta’s intriguing tale of survival is told brilliantly by Mary Breu in her book Last Letters from Attu: The True Story of Etta Jones: Alaska Pioneer and Japanese POW. A fascinating read, to be sure. You can find this book at amazon at the following link: Last Letters from Attu. I have also included a chapter about this fascinating teacher in the book I am currenlty writing, Chalkboard Heroes.
Without a doubt, one of the saddest days of my teaching career was the day our nation lost the first educator to go into space, New Hampshire history teacher Christa McAuliffe. Fairly new to the profession at the time, I was so proud that a fellow teacher had been selected as the first civilian in space, and a little star-struck by the professionalism, intelligence, and infectious enthusiasm of the chosen candidate, selected from among 11,000 highly-qualified applicants nationwide.
While on her mission in space, Christa planned to write a journal of her experiences as an astronaut from the perspective that even an ordinary citizen can take center stage in the making of history. Additionally, she was scheduled to perform lessons and experiments aboard the space shuttle which would be viewed by students in classrooms all over America.
Tragically, Christa was one of seven astronauts killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, just 73 seconds after lift-off. The journal she never got to finish was replaced by A Journal for Christa: Christa McAuliffe, Teacher in Space, written by Grace George Corrigan, Christa’s grief-stricken mother. The book is a tender tribute to an extraordinary teacher. A Journal for Christa can be ordered form amazon.
New York City math teacher Robert Parris Moses was a legendary figure during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, having orchestrated the black voter registration efforts and the Freedom Schools made famous during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. This heroic educator’s revolutionary work, which was not without risk to life and limb, transformed the political power structure of entire communities. Nearly forty years later, Moses advocated for yet another transformational change: the Algebra Project. Moses asserts that a deficiency in math literacy in poor neighborhoods puts impoverished children at an economic disadvantage when it comes to being able to compete successfully for jobs in the 21st century, and that this disenfranchisement is as debilitating as lack of personal liberties was prior to the Civil Rights Movement. His solution is to organize people, community by community, school by school, to overcome the achievement gap and give impoverished children the tools they need to claim their share of economic enfranchisement.
Moses’s book, Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project written with fellow Civil Rights worker Charles E. Cobb, Jr., can be found easily and reasonably-priced on amazon. A fascinating read for anyone who is interested in Moses’s story, either past or present.
One of the most fascinating books I have read in recent times was Sister to the Sioux. This book is by an inspirational teacher who was born and raised in New England, but decided to give up all the comforts of home to travel to a South Dakota Indian reservation. She wanted to establish a day school for Sioux Indians because it was her strong belief that it was better to educate Native Americans in their tribal environments rather than follow the alternative practice of the time, which was to send these Indian children far away from home and family to Indian boarding schools.
After a relatively brief time as a classroom teacher, this talented educator was promoted to the position of Superintendent of Indian Education for the Two Dakotas. While serving in this capacity, Elaine witnessed the Wounded Knee Massacre, and with her fiance, Santee Sioux Indian Dr. Charles “Ohiyesa” Eastman. Together, the engaged couple nursed the Native American survivors back to health. Great story, well worth taking the time to read. You can find this book on amazon.com at the following link: Sister to the Sioux: The Memoirs of Elaine Goodale Eastman
Just about everyone has heard of the best-selling book The Freedom Writers Diary, written by teacher Erin Gruwell and her high school class of inner-city at-risk students. This collection of student experiences, which will tug at any teacher’s heart strings, was also depicted in a movie starring Hollywood celeb Hilary Swank. This story really zeroes in on some of the challenges our kids face when they are not in school, and how much a caring and dedicated teacher can help them overcome those challenges. The movie delves a little more into the personal life of the teacher, and aside from the suggestion that you have to work three jobs and give up your marriage to be a good teacher, it’s pretty inspiring. What I think is amazing is that my high school students love this book just as much as my fellow teachers do! The Freedom Writers Diary is easy to find on amazon and at just about any brick-and-mortar bookstore.
If you haven’t read this book yet, run, don’t walk, to your nearest brick-and-mortar bookstore and buy it right away! I absolutely loved this action-packed true story about a young teacher, Anne Hobbs, who travelled to the Alaskan wilderness in the 1920’s to teach in a frontier school. Besides encountering the expected lack of teaching materials and frigid temperatures, this young educator heroically battled rampant prejudice against the Native Alaskans. As much an adventure story and a romance as it is a chronicle of early Alaskan history, this tale will keep you on the edge of your seat. Don’t miss it! If you are good at deferred gratification, you can also order Tisha on Amazon.com, but don’t wait too long to delve into this exciting story!
Most people in Western cultures have heard of Malala Yousafzai, the teenager from Pakistan who was targeted by the Taliban simply for claiming that education for girls is a human right. Her recently-published autobiography details her life in Pakistan under the Taliban, her struggles to advance the cause of education for girls, the attack that nearly took her life, and her road to recovery. The book is a riveting testimonial of the resiliance of this remarkable young woman.
Like many memoirs of this kind, Malala begins with a description of her life before the Taliban took control of her native valley of Swat, focusing on family, home life, and school. She details how the region’s political and social unrest impacted the lives of everyone in her community. Without the dryness of a history book, the volume presents a brief history of Pakistan, emphasizing how precarious life is for everyone who lives there, especially women, and the men who advocate for them. She includes a discussion of familiar current events, such as the devastating 7.2 earthquake in October of 2008, the 9/11 attacks, the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and the removal of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Throughout the narrative, Malala maintains a clear, determined, but humble voice insisting that all children, boys and girls, have the right to be educated. And that’s why the Taliban targeted her for assassination.
Malala is not a teacher, but she certainly is a champion for education. And her valiant campaign, despite the dangers, on behalf of equal education for girls presents a lesson in courage for us all.
The book, entitled I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, was published 2013 in New York by Little, Brown and Company.