In too many books about schools, the life of the teacher is missing. We are bold with prescription and pedagogy; we are quiet when it comes to the experience of teaching. When teachers themselves are addressed, it’s usually in the form of nuts and bolts—how to teach certain skills, how to manage a classroom—as if the vision and inspiration for teaching young people just happen on their own. Imagine travel books that focus only on the logistics of travel and never narrate the sights and sounds of new places. Imagine astronomers so fascinated by their telescopes they never aim them at actual stars.
We need more portraits that hold up the experience of school and not just arguments about the purpose of it. Reading books about teaching should not feel like opening instruction manuals or unfolding blueprints. Books about teaching should be full of encounters and awakenings, stories thick with real life. After twenty years in classrooms, I sat down to write a book to celebrate the experience of teaching, as well as the impact of the work. In all the discussions and debates about improving education, it seemed to me we’d been focused on techniques at the expense of the most critical piece, which is listening to what actual people say about the actual teachers who inspired them.
Over the years, when I’ve spoken with people about education more broadly, their reactions have been tired or cynical. When I’ve shared that I’m a teacher, the response has been well-intentioned but still a kind of awkward “good for you.” But when I started asking people to tell me about a formative teacher they had, or an important teacher, or a favorite teacher, the tone shifted dramatically. People light up and lean forward to relate what an eighth-grade English teacher or a tenth-grade math teacher did to change their life. The accounts are inspiring, full of gratitude and lift, and almost everybody has one.
I know I do. An English teacher kept me back at the end of class one day and handed me a book. What she said was so simple: I think you’ll like this book. What I heard was more profound: I think you will like this book. I felt suddenly seen and understood by someone who mattered. To recommend that book, I realized this teacher had to have been paying pretty careful attention to me. She saw something interesting about me, and she held me back after class. Without knowing it, and with breathtaking simplicity, she changed my life. I know I’m not alone. People everywhere have transformative encounters with teachers, and our books need to celebrate those encounters more and celebrate teachers for this almost sacred work.
Great teachers are remarkable to witness. Teaching really is an art form. But there are no galleries to display the real work of a teacher—their students are their gallery—there are no teacher-stages for crowds to gather in front of, no college-style video Great Courses singling out prominent practitioners. It’s a long game we’re in. It is unheralded, patient, unsung work. We need to try to sing it more.
Head of Upper Division
Avenues The World School in New York City
Todd’s book, Teaching Life: Life Lessons for Aspiring (and Inspiring) Teachers is available here.
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