My Ideal Teacher Bookshelf

Teacher Bookshelf

It was about this time last year that I came upon a beautiful book in our local public library. It’s the kind of book that captures you with its cover, draws you in by the concept, and makes you feel like you are immediately among friends in this world of bibliophiles. Titled My Ideal Bookshelf, it surveys all kinds of authors, asking them, “What 12-15 books would make it to your ideal bookshelf?” The compelling quality of the book is that as you read, you can’t help but start envisioning your own ideal bookshelf. As I read, I realized that it’s not as easy as it sounds. There are the books that come to mind right away, but then you start to think more deeply and remember the reads that had a nuanced effect on you or map to a certain time in your life. After thinking about my personal ideal bookshelf, I decided to “build” a professional one, and then one for new teachers. To face the challenge yourself, read along and start curating!

Sarah’s Ideal Bookshelf for Professional Reading

(In no particular order. I like my bookshelves to be fluid, scattered even.)

The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, by Parker Palmer

Since the first time I read this book, it’s been a compass for me. I’m constantly reminded of Parker’s premise that “we teach who we are,” and for me that means I can’t only be immersed in content and curriculum. It means that I have to be present in my own life and in the lives of my students so that I have something to teach from. Teaching is a courageous act because it requires the building of bridges, the act of vulnerability, and the tenacity of hope, and this book is a steadfast mantra of those very principles.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck

Sometimes you come across a book that finally validates — with research and a framework — an intuition about learning that you’ve known since you first found yourself in a classroom. Mindset was that book for me. Immediately, Carol Dweck’s research on the potential of a growth mindset versus the stifling rigidity of a fixed mindset made me feel like I’d found a kindred spirit. Frankly, she’s made millions of us feel this kinship with her work, helping educators, parents, and others re-frame what a pathway to success really looks like.

Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach, by Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner

My bookshelf must have inspiration on it. Even though this is a newly published book, Teaching with Heart is a montage of teacher stories anchored by their favorite poems that illuminate, celebrate, and elevate the tenacity of teaching. Whether you enjoy these pieces in five minute increments or for several hours, you’ll come back to them and see yourself in their words and stories.

In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning, by Nancie Atwell

Even though this is a book most often read by literacy instructors, reading Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle nearly 20 years ago gave me a different vision of what a classroom could look like. As a soon-to-be teacher, all the classrooms I envisioned were versions of what I already knew, and what I had experienced. While those experiences were incredibly rewarding, they were all very similar and learning usually looked one way. Nancie gave me a world where students were at the center of the classroom, where inquiry prevailed, and where the teacher worked to nurture a love of learning in each child, starting with what they loved. I keep striving to be this teacher.

Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility, by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey

Nitty-gritty. Where the rubber meets the road. On the ground level. Whatever the descriptor, this book has given me some of the most strategic, helpful, and concrete insights about how to make great learning occur. Many other books speak to the theory, but this one speaks just as loudly to the instructional moves that help us gradually release the responsibility of learning to our students.

Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery, by Garr Reynolds

Several years ago, someone casually recommended this book to me. A slim volume with lots of pictures, I thought it would make for great airplane reading. I didn’t expect to find masked behind this how-to on making great presentations (e.g., alternatives to PowerPoint), was actually a clear and elegant commentary on communication. I’ve internalized Garr’s advice about presentations, but I keep coming back to how he frames communication: simply, but certainly not simplistically.

Democracy and Education, by John Dewey

John Dewey is always there. In the back of my mind, in the ways I seek to understand whatever new text, theory, policy, or idea is in front of me. He reminds me that no matter what we call it, how we organize it, or how it’s dressed, learning is actually about the learner. (I know, it’s such common sense its profundity eludes.) Yet, it’s easy to forget to live this truth that we know, making it all the more imperative to remember.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire

Thinking about classrooms, lessons and assessments can be overwhelming enough, but Paulo taught me it would never be enough. He opened me up to the realities that contribute to how our students come to us, as well as the larger systematic impediments that instigate oppression in the name of equality. This work never lets me forget education must be a piece in the puzzle of social change.

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl

Probably not the book you’d imagine on a professional bookshelf, but this gem is part philosophy, part psychology, part survival story. Through his own experience in surviving the concentration camps, Victor Frankl offers a way of seeing the world that I come back to time and again as I consider the enduring ideas and themes that must emerge from the classroom. Whether he’s speaking on forgiveness, talking about love, or suggesting how to find meaning, there’s a constant reminder about finding center amidst chaos.

Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, by Jonathan Kozol

I remember reading this book with the heaviest of hearts. I opened it believing that schools and public education were the great equalizers for opportunity in this country. With each turn of the page, I felt the crumbling of what I had thought being replaced with what I now know. This seminal work reminds us that while we’ll do all we possibly can in our classrooms, the ideal of equality is much more murky and complex than we often want to admit or talk about.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath

Before long, everyone in education is confronted with change, especially systematic change. Whether you’re the one forging ahead or advocating for a slower pace and reflection, this book takes a look at the organizations and systems that have found ways to create change in infectious, culture-altering ways. With both theory and practical advice, this book is a great read for changing the culture of a classroom, a school, or a system.

The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools that Work, by
Linda Darling-Hammond

No contemporary professional bookshelf should be without at least one title by Linda Darling-Hammond. Again and again, she applies a laser-like precision to conversations about reform, assessment, and the promise of American education. Like John Dewey and others, she continues to remind me of what’s really important, while helping me figure out what to let go of.

Sarah’s Ideal Bookshelf for the New Teacher

My bookshelf for new teachers is a burgeoning example of what happens when passion and the fear of not knowing collide. Here is a short list of books that I share and continue to refer to.

Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year, by Esmé Raji Codell

I loved reading about Esmé’s experiences as a new teacher in a Chicago public school. She has chronicled her first year of teaching with incredible honesty and compassion.

The First Days Of School: How To Be An Effective Teacher, by Harry and Rosemary Wong

I think many teachers remember getting this book as a gift early in their careers. The advice it contains continues to make an impact on readers.

American Teacher: Heroes in the Classroom, by Katrina Fried

This beautiful coffee table book profiles accomplished teachers from around the country. It reminds me that there isn’t just one kind of great teacher; rather, we need all kinds for all of our different learners.

Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People by Robert S. Root-Bernstein and Michelle M. Root-Bernstein

I love the way this book gets me thinking about the dispositions I can work on cultivating in my students.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink

In systems that are often driven by sticks and carrots, Dan Pink offers other ways to think about punishments, rewards, and how to truly motivate people.

Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes, by Alfie Kohn

We all need a read that questions everything we think we know and understand about school. Alfie Kohn doesn’t pull punches as he pokes holes in some of the most common practices in education.

What Learning Leaves, by Taylor Mali

This book of poetry about classroom teaching will delight for sure!

Perhaps you’re even interested in more ways to make use of our Teaching Channel videos. If you are, check out our eBook, Making Sense of the Common Core: An Interactive Guide. And in case you’re ready to record your own first or next year of teaching, I love The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron (or many of its companion books). It’s a great way to help jump start your own writing practices to capture all you’ll learn and grow from.

Whatever your summer reading entails, I hope it brings you closer to the classroom waiting for you. Share your favorite professional books in the comments section below.

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.


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