Want to Be a Better Teacher? Pick up a Book.


Confession time. Who is with me?

Not long ago, only a few years I’m ashamed to say, I was not the reader I once had been.

I was not really a reader at all.

In that respect, I think I was much like many of our students. A formerly voracious reader with vague intentions of spending more time with good books, but I never quite found that time. I found excuses instead.

I didn’t want to read because “I read all day. All I do is read. Paper after paper after paper. I don’t want to read one more word.” 

I didn’t want to read because “There are far more important things I need to do now. Plan, grade, have a life. If I get half a second to myself, reading isn’t top on my list.” 

I didn’t want to read because “I have plenty of time to read over the summer.” 

I was burned out by work. I was betrayed by years of being told what was important for me to read. I was shackled to loving the books I was teaching.

I had become a reluctant reader.

In this way, it would seem, I was also a complete fraud.

Every day, I would walk into my classroom with genuine passion for my role as an educator. I wanted my students to learn. I wanted them to be inspired by great stories and turns of phrase. If only they would connect with language in the way that made my heart flutter, they too would see the great romantic quest that is English. 

A noble pursuit, to be sure…if one is aiming to enlist 200 some students per year into the ranks of English teachers, the chances of which are as dismal as they are ridiculous.

It wasn’t until I pulled my head out of my well meaning behind that I looked around and really saw what I was creating:

A classroom set to run on my love of a select number of texts. A failing endeavor for countless kids in my classroom.

Trust me. If enthusiasm and/or passion for certain texts was capable of making life long lovers of the written word, I humbly submit that I would have been able to do it.

Daisy’s love of Gatsby’s beautiful shirts, pales in comparison to my love of the irony presented in Nick’s claims not to judge.

Pip’s love of Estella pales in comparison to my love of the tragedy that is Miss Havisham’s crushed soul and engulfed bridal gown.

Two roads diverging in a yellow wood present endless possibilities…to me.

The Lady of Shallot is my patroness.

But which kids does this really hook? The students who are likewise entertained and thereby worthy of my continued energy? The students who will “become something” because they “get it”? The students who are compliant? The students who can successfully fake compliance?

love the books I taught, year in and year out, but you can’t make someone love you, I mean the books you teach (flashback to college there, please excuse me), you can only share your love and encourage your passion for the texts. My passion for the whole class novels we worked with was legitimate, palpable, and just not enough to reach all of my students.

Not unless I helped them see themselves as readers first.

I was far too narrowly focused on the texts I had been told were important and had set about making it my job to make students believed in the importance of those texts too.

And along the way, I stopped reading everything else. Well, not completely. Of course, I still read, but I was no longer a reader. I talked with my students about the difference in those two terms, but I was no longer living it.

I wasn’t until workshop and choice became a big part of my daily practice, that I really returned to my life as a reader. Students would need recommendations for books, which meant I needed to have a lot more under my belt that The Scarlet Letter.

However, this is only part of what it means to improve your teaching by reading.

Our students deserve teachers who understand and live the belief that teaching students to read is vitally important, but so is living the life of a reader and being that model of just how many books, genres, conflicts, poems, and symbolic representations of universal themes (sometimes old school dies hard) can be found beyond the canon.

And that making time to read changes who you are in so many powerful and meaningful ways.

These days, the books I know, love, and share are still classic, in some respects, but they are far more broad than that as well.

I’ve learned the following:

Taking time to read is not cheating

If you are grading so many papers that you can’t imagine picking up a book in your freetime, you are grading far too many papers. Small changes in practice can lift that burden and provide much needed time to connect with texts that you can then share with students.

The tried and true are a springboard

Workshop does not mean abandoning all of the texts you’ve worked with over the years. It means making pointed decisions about your belief in the value of whole class novel work, selecting authors to study for craft through mentor text work instead of reading the whole text together, and moving students to some of the more challenging and classic pieces when they are ready. Build readers and then lay the likes of Bronte, Tennyson, and Plath on them. As options. As texts to achieve, rather than endure.

Without a book(s) in your hand and heart, you are cheating

You are cheating yourself and you are cheating your students. I get so excited to book talk new texts, share audiobook snippets with my students, sit down and read next to them, and even to tell them their summative essays will be returned one day later, because I couldn’t put down The Underground Railroad. Students get excited to then share their own reading, in a way that is only really ever achieved because it’s their reading.

When we share our vast and varied reading life, as opposed to saying these are the few books that matter, we are giving students the opportunity to build the love of reading that captures their hearts and minds with high interest material. Yes, we English teachers find Keats to be a master. Many students, with little reading background, find him infuriating and a reason to suggest that “reading is stupid.”

We must give our students time to read every day.

We must talk about books every day.

We must talk with our students about books everyday.

We must read alongside our students.

We must be readers…otherwise, we are in the business of false advertising.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She is currently reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backmanlistening to At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen, and regretting never having read 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher. She’ll be taking care of that later this week. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 


8 thoughts on “Want to Be a Better Teacher? Pick up a Book.

  1. […] in April, Lisa talked about the importance of English teachers being readers. She closed her impassioned post, “We must be readers…otherwise, we are in the business of false advertising.” The same is […]


  2. […] off to new ideas, review of what works, or even the very basics of our craft (Let me hear you : teachers must be readers and writers or we are in the business of false advertising) what unfortunate hypocrisy we make of what we […]


  3. Shana Karnes April 21, 2017 at 4:34 am Reply

    Girl, I feel you! For the first few years of my teaching career, reading anything other than the “classics” felt like a luxury I just didn’t have time for. I’d feel guilty when I squeezed in a YA novel. Most of my book recommendations came from my students to me, not the other way around.

    Now, I am kind of back to the opposite position, and I’m slowly re-reading my favorite classics. I’m just tiptoeing through Walden, The Great Gatsby, East of Eden, and Pride and Prejudice and feeling like those are luxuries I have now that I don’t need to read 200 high-interest books for teens per year!

    I feel like learning what you learned in this post–to be a real reader–helped me diversify my reading life and become a much better teacher and reader myself. Thanks for the reminder!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Amy Estersohn April 20, 2017 at 5:55 am Reply

    Sometimes we can swing in the opposite direction, too – we can read so many books that our knowledge appears unattainable and super-human. I know I can fall into this category, so I push back against that by talking about my own struggles with reading, too.


    • Amy Rasmussen April 20, 2017 at 8:42 am Reply

      Your comment made me laugh, Amy. I think a lot of us have this problem, especially when we have vast classroom libraries and share book recommendations so readily. Often my students ask me if I’ve read all of the books in my library (close to 2,000 books). Of course, I haven’t, but I wear my knowledge of books and how they can benefit out lives like a badge of honor. My goal as I model the life of a reader is to get my students to want this badge, too.

      I get what you say about talking about our struggles though, and this is a valid point. Just like when we model writing, we must model reading strategies so students know how to tackle texts that may seem difficult or boring or uninteresting. It all falls back into what Lisa asserts in this post: To build readers, we must be readers, and model all that entails.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes April 21, 2017 at 4:37 am Reply

      True, Amy (E)! I feel like I used to preface a lot of my recommendations with, “Okay, so I have a lot of spare time so don’t judge me for reading 8 books this weekend, but this book was amazing!”

      Most of my kids didn’t have the time/money/hunger to read as voraciously as me, but as PK says, it’s my job to be the best reader in the room, so I take that job seriously, while trying to temper it by modeling the reason I became that kind of reader–extreme nerdiness!

      (Geekiness? Because I geek out about books? The kids explained it to me once but I can’t ever keep the terms straight. LOL)


  5. Gary Anderson April 19, 2017 at 10:23 am Reply

    I’m with you because too often I’ve seen the baffling irony of English teachers shouting about the importance of “Literature!” when I know for a fact they haven’t read a book in the last decade.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. mrsturnerblog April 19, 2017 at 8:57 am Reply

    Love this! I agree wholeheartedly. (And I just reread 13 Reasons Why this week after watching the show. Enjoy!)

    Liked by 3 people

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