The 5 Most Influential Books for Educators that Weren’t Written for Educators

This weekend, I found myself with an almost unheard of opportunity. I was at home… alone… with no work to do. (Okay. I had work to do but compared to what my weekends usually look like, “work” was a misnomer.) I spent most of Saturday morning lying on the sofa in my pajamas eating cereal, napping, and watching documentaries on History Channel 2 until I found myself bored and in need of something to do. Yes. I could’ve taken care of my “work” but I chose a far more imperative pursuit. Cleaning. Anyone who’s ever seen my classroom can tell you that it’s best described as “organized chaos.” I don’t operate well in a completely sterile environment so my room is always a little on the disheveled side. Home is no better. Actually, it’s worse. Much worse. I’d like to say that the array of books and paper piled up in every corner of our home is simply a result of my daughter being in high school and both my husband and I being educators. However, I blame this phenomenon on my parents, my father specifically, who said, “We Sims’ have never met a piece of paper we didn’t like,” the truest statement, to this day, I’ve ever heard.  Miles of paper marked the entrances, exits, walls, and floors of my parents’ suburban New England home to the point that I’m certain our humble house was a bon fire waiting to happen.  So, the fact that my current home takes on the same appearance should be no surprise. But, this weekend, it all became too much even for me so I put on my sweats, grabbed the Swiffer Duster and got to work. As I was battling a very well-armed battalion of dust bunnies, I came across a book I hadn’t seen in some time, A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech. My father first gave me a copy when I was in high school as a way to preserve my creative inquiry and when I started teaching I used it to come up with creative ways to make my teaching, and my students learning, more interesting. While I flipped through the dog eared pages and read the notes I’d scribbled in the margins I began thinking about other books that had, in some way, positively impacted what I do in the classroom and realized that, with the exception of one, none of them were written by or for educators. Here’s my top 5:

#5: A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech

A Whack

If you are looking for a way to get the mental locks off your students’ brains, you have to first remove your own.  One of the quotes in Chapter 1: “Students enter school as questions and come out as periods.” The first time I read this, I read it as a student. Reading it as a teacher was an entirely different experience and made me ask what type of students I wanted to have at the end of the year; those who take everything at face value or those who have the courage to question and explore.  The second point in the chapter challenges us to look for the second right answer which, in my classroom, sounds like “We’re not looking for the right answer. We’re looking for a right answer.” The first says, there is only one; the second, there’s the possibility of many. If you are trying to create a culture of creativity and critical thinking this is a great place to start.

#4: Toy Box Leadership: Leadership Lessons from the Toys You Loved as A Child by Ron Hunter, Jr. and Michael E. Waddell

toy_box_leadership2I stumbled upon this little gem at a book kiosk in the Dulles International Airport. The title intrigued me so I bought it. Within 48 hours I had read it not once, but twice, and spent what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation covered in highlighter marks and sticky notes. From the first chapter, I immediately started seeing connections between the skills you needed to be a great leader and those, I felt, you needed to be a great teacher. For example, in Chapter 5 “Mr. Potato Head©” Hunter and Waddell focus on communication, “The Right Face for the Right Place.” Facial expressions and non-verbal communication can make or break a business deal; they can also make or break a student. For people, like me, who can speak volumes without ever opening my mouth, this was a good lesson I’m glad I learned early. But, this is just the beginning. Check out the rest of the book for some great tips to keep you on top of your educational game.

#3: Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee

Primal Usually, when you hear the term Emotional Intelligence or EI, it’s in reference to the world of business and those who work there. However, it applies to the world of education as well. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, Emotional Intelligence, according to our authors, is simply “how leaders handle themselves and their relationships.” Chapter One begins:

“Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision, or powerful ideas. But the reality is more primal: Great leadership works through emotions.”

While this might be true for business leaders, simply replace “leaders” with “teachers” and the premise does not lose its value.  Understanding how you deal with your own emotions is a powerful skill when dealing with people in general, but even more so when working with students. It is one of the keys to building strong relationships. (See my blog “You Get What You Give” for my thoughts on how to do this).

#2: Critical Thinking: 180 Easy-to-Use Lessons and Activities by The Editors of Spark Notes Critica

Okay. Remember when I said that none of my books were written by or for educators except one? This is that one. Because I believe in taking the locks off my students’ minds (see #1) every Wednesday is Critical Thinking Day in my class. On these days, students are given an activity from the book as their warm up and are encouraged to come up with as many “right” answers as possible. They may work alone but usually choose to work with a partner or with the people sitting in their groups. When I first introduce the idea to my 9th Graders, inevitably, I am met with groans of “this is too hard” and “I can’t figure it out.” Aside from being extremely convenient (There are 180 on purpose. One for each day of a standard school year) the best part is being  harassed by my students if a Wednesday comes and I forget to give them a problem to solve. Students who previously complained become the first ones to say “Don’t tell us the answer! We want to figure it out!” Doing these on days when I want them to analyze a text means I get richer, more in depth, and thoughtful comments than on days when I don’t. (Check out Barnes and Nobles for other Daily Sparks. They have topics on everything from US History to Algebra)

#1: Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students by Kathleen Cushman and the students of What Kids Can Do, Inc.

Fires I know. I said there was only one book that wasn’t by educators for educators but this one doesn’t apply. It’s by students for teachers and it is the one book that has impacted my teaching more than any other. So much so, I give it to new teachers along with Harry Wong’s The First Day of School. Broken up into a series of topics, Fires in the Bathroom is everything your students would tell you about how to teach if they were ever asked. Chapters like “Knowing Students Well,” “Motivation and Boredom,” and “When Things Go Wrong” provide you with honest insight into what students want and need in a teacher for them to feel and be successful. Of course, you could just ask your own students but if you’re not quite ready for that, this book is an excellent alternative. (For my Middle School Teachers, they have one for you too. Fires in the Middle School Bathroom follows the same premise)

I Almost Forgot… Primal

As I was finishing up this post, it occurred to me that I forgot another very important book: The Primal Teen by Barbara Strauch. I was introduced to this book when my daughter was going through that horrifying metamorphosis we call puberty. It seemed like my sweet, well mannered, academically astute child turned into anything but overnight. The Primal Teen was instrumental in my understanding of why when I’d ask her why she’d done something, her very genuine, very sincere, tearful response was always “I don’t know.” This book looks at the most recent discoveries about the teenage brain and what these discoveries say about our children. Understanding that a crucial part of the teenage brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25 helped explain the off kilter behavior I was seeing in my daughter; and in my students. (It didn’t make it go away, but it did at least help me explain to others the increased number of gray hairs in my head.) Do you have any books that have had an impact on your teaching? Share in the comments. I’m always looking for something new to explore. Happy Reading!


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