What Teaching Means: Stories From America’s Classrooms
Edited by Daniel Boster & Marni Valerio
Rogue Faculty Press, 2012

Linda Christensen, Director, Oregon Writing Project and author of Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom (Rethinking Schools, 2009) and Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word (Rethinking Schools, 2000)

At a time when it seems everyone from computer geeks to talk show hosts pontificate about what should happen in the classroom, the press and the government ignore those who know schools best— teachers. What Teaching Means: Stories from America’s Classrooms, however, chose to ask teachers to tell the stories from their own classrooms. The result is a series of compelling essays that remind the reader that what shapes our nation’s schools isn’t laws or standards, but the lives of students and the teachers who nurture them. For the teachers in this book, classrooms are not about lockstep lessons fashioned by people who either taught decades ago or never taught, classrooms are about the student who learned to write, the one taken away from his home, the one killed in a drive-by, the one whose anger masked her pain. It’s about the messy, painful, sometimes tragic, sometimes delicious work of teaching at a time when so many in our country struggle to survive. Readers will weep and laugh along with teachers who crowd these pages writing about what the do best: Teach.

Dr. George P. White is a professor of Educational Leadership at Lehigh University and the Director of the Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders.

In What Teaching Means: Stories from America’s Classrooms, Boster and Valerio have captured the essence of how teachers view what they do and what it means to them and their students. These short stories, presented by a highly representative group of 39 teachers from all levels of education, focus on a series of critical themes that, when taken collectively, help provide a rich tapestry of what good teaching and learning is about. Honest and raw, these stories will make you laugh and cry while at the same time help you remember the power that a teacher has had on your lives.

This book has value to numerous audiences, perspective teachers, current teachers and administrators, parents, and educational policy makers all of whom should be encouraged to read and make meaning of the messages included in each section of the book. This book should given to all prospective teachers as a graduation present as it will serve them well during their first few years helping them to better understand the real value of teaching and learning.

I encourage principals to share these mini-case studies with their teachers and with parents as a means of beginning discussion on the value of teaching. Teachers should be encouraged to tell their own stories and to share them as a means of collaborative professional development. As parents read these stories, it will help them develop a “walk in my shoes” understanding of the value of relationship building in the teaching and learning process.

A copy of this book should be given to anyone involved in setting educational policy at the local, state and national levels as it will help drive home the point that teaching is about more than just getting good test scores.  It is about learning life lessons that are not always measured by a test and that depend on thoughtful teachers who see themselves as relationship builders, learners and potential developers—individuals who take a holistic, long view of learning.

This is a must read for anyone directly or indirectly involved with teaching and learning. It will become my standard graduation gift for my educational leadership students, so they don’t forget the power of the teacher.


Craig Wiesner is the co-founder of Reach And Teach, The Peace and Social Justice Learning Company,

What Teaching Means: Stories from America's Classrooms offers a compelling compilation of perspectives ranging from witty to profound, heartbreaking to awe-inspiring, with a wild diversity of teachers taking about their best of days, their worst of days, and what keeps them coming back instead of quitting to become chicken farmers.  With American teachers being maligned the way tax collectors were in biblical times, it is critical for us to do what Jesus did and sit at table with them and listen to their stories. This book offers that opportunity with a wealth of different perspectives. The first paragraph of each essay grabs your attention and forces you to hold on tightly and keep reading. Throughout the book you can see the magic these teachers share with their students, making your eyes light up with new insight, causing a brief smile as you recognize a bit of yourself in what they're saying, making you want to dig deeper to understand more, breaking your heart one minute and mending it shortly later, and making you wonder how they keep doing what they do for low such pay and so little respect. Editors Daniel Boster and Marni Valerio have done a great job of representing real lives of real teachers and their students. "You Can't Tell by Looking" is one of the most riveting chapters, as a teacher and student teacher become real people to a classroom full of children living their own nightmarish lives. Some people believe you can't reach children like that at worst, or at best you should stick to the curriculum in the hopes of getting their test scores up a point or two so that you and your school don't go down in No Child Left Behind flames. Yet it is through the creative fire walk that the best teachers do every day that children are moved beyond what is and catapulted to what can be. If you want to understand the hearts of America's teachers, read this book.

Penny Kittle is a teacher and professional development coordinator for the Conway (New Hampshire) School District and the author of several books including Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing (2008) which won the 2009 James N. Britton Award from NCTE.

My plane bumps along in the clear, black night. I notice a mostly naked Jon Hamm zip by the in-seat movie screen two rows ahead, and yet I keep reading. Really. Not even a second glance, even though we all know he's the reason I have Mad Men loaded on my iPad. I was compelled to keep listening to the heartfelt stories of teaching in What Teaching Really Means because they reminded me of why I love this work--why I will crawl into bed past midnight tonight, but will still be in my school by 6:30 tomorrow.

Teachers need colleagues like these--books like these--stories like these--because we will be better teachers after reading. That may seem like a high mark, but the lessons collected here--in truth, in heartache, and in humor--made me pause to think deeply about students I will greet at the door tomorrow. I am determined to align my invitations to literacy to students' individual journeys and passions because these teachers have reminded me that this profession, at its heart, is about humanity and passion and vision.

I can't fill my school with the colleagues who have written these essays, but for a few evenings their words have invited me into a collective of people who are the best of our profession. The teaching, writing, and sharing in this book will return you to the heart of our work and encourage you to write your own teaching stories.

Dr. Margaret Macintyre Latta is a professor in the Teaching, Learning, & Teacher Education department in the College of Education & Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Compelling essays invite readers into educators’ classrooms from across the USA and reveal their personal narratives of teaching experiences. What unfolds throughout the book are telling tales that disclose the wealth for learning that educators gain from their students, the multiplicity of teaching/learning ways to see and understand oneself in relation to the world, and the tremendous possibilities of seeing with potential in all students, settings, and curricular matters. As educators’ narratives grapple with whether or not they are doing the right thing and how they presume to know, readers access the necessary discernment each educator brings to bear on their teaching practices.  It is such discernment that is at the heart of the questioning, resistance, transformation, and change readers will hear in each tale. Educator discernment assumes that within the changing contexts of classroom life, interpretation, sensitivity, imagination, and creativity are requirements. Thus, educator discernment is critically important to the vitality and integrity of teaching practices as educators stand up and speak out for learners and learning, confront desperation in self and others, and seek meaningful learning connections for all involved. The storied experiential whole exposes the depth of caring and passionate commitment these educators invest within their profession, alongside the primary concern for the interests and needs of their given students.  

As readers immerse themselves in the narratives of teaching experience comprising this book, these are the educators readers will seek for their own children. What Teaching Means collectively voices the importance of teachers in the lives of all of our children and discloses the associated responsibilities these educators watchfully and thoughtfully embrace. These are the educators all children deserve. And, these are the educators we want to ensure remain in teaching and influence generations of future teachers. The book expresses powerful reasons to do so.  But, to act on these reasons, education policies and practices need to entrust teachers with teaching, value educators’ knowledge, and invest substantively in fostering the ongoing development of educators’ knowledge, providing the supports and resources for them to follow through in their classrooms. There is much in education policies and practices today that undermines the needed teacher agency for student learning that educators seek throughout this book. It becomes very clear that the educators represented in this book fear the consequences of not doing so. The book attends to their voices. It is time to listen and learn from them.

The book will interest a wide audience.  Teacher education programs will benefit from the concrete experiential accounts as reflective studies of classroom practice.  Additionally, the book will interest all concerned with productively addressing the complexities of classrooms and building education policies and practices that value and are informed by the insights and experiences of practitioners in the field. The book does not provide answers, but, much more importantly promises to prompt needed conversations among parents, policy makers, administrators, and community advocates, alongside teachers that are genuinely invested in learners and learning and in the future of local communities situated within an increasingly accessible world. Co-Editors, Daniel Boster and Marni Valerio have created a timely and provocative book that will be a catalyst for meaningful conversations about “what teaching means.”

Brian Pedersen is a claims representative at State Farm in Omaha, Nebraska, and is considering returning to graduate school to become a teacher.

Scared of School: A Non Teacher’s Review

I’ve got a confession of sorts: I was scared to go to school when I was a kid.  To actually walk inside was mind boggling to me.  But let me give you a little background.  It wasn’t my school.  It was the school my mom went to.  She grew up on a farm near Beatrice, NE and her schooling consisted of a one room schoolhouse that happened to be in the pasture of my grandparent’s farm.  When I was a kid, my grandpa used this schoolhouse as a place to keep grain out of the elements.  In the summer, if we wanted to get some milo or oats for the livestock, Grandpa and I would get into his rusty old red Chevy pickup truck. We’d head out across the dam of the pond, through a couple barb wire gates and head over to the old school.  The school was in disrepair (to put it kindly).  Besides housing grain and the ghosts of learning, the old school was also inhabited by families of rats, birds and raccoons. The building itself wasn’t scary but getting to it was.  If I was feeling brave, I’d get out of the truck and wade into the tall grass and other vegetation that surrounded the school.  Normally by July I’d be shorter than the stuff I was trudging through.  And the grasshoppers!  That was the scariest part!  They’d jump all over me, latch on to me.  Spit black goo on me ( I hope it was spit!) and to top it all off, this seemed like the funniest thing in the world to my grandpa.  He’d laugh and laugh and try to goad me into coming up to the porch of the school.  I guess serving in the Army during WWII makes you invincible to the terror that is a grasshopper.

So, how does this tie in with a book about what teaching means? Well, it goes something like this. I have been thinking for years about going back to school to potentially become an English teacher.  I was presented with an early copy of this book of essays by Dan Boster and Marni Valerio.  It was a peek into the teaching window I normally wouldn’t be afforded.  I have a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice and never took a single Education credit.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book and honestly it’s not the sort of book I would normally read.  By page 7 I had experienced goose bumps.  By page 30 I had serious doubts teaching was for me. I changed my mind numerous times throughout the book. Almost every story touched on the thing that has been hanging me up, kids who don’t want to or choose not to learn.  Reading these stories struck a chord with me in ways I wasn’t ready for.  Would I be the kind of teacher who spends my own money for school supplies?  Would I be kept awake at night wondering if I was making the impact I could? The prospect of failure, of failing a child, is daunting.

My current job involves me sitting in a cubicle and working on a computer all day.  I know what I will be doing tomorrow, next week and next year.  I don’t feel like I’m being challenged in a way that lets me showcase my skills.  I don’t get to be creative.  This book also acted like a siren song to me. Reading about late nights, coming up with lesson plans on the fly and one on one sessions with students sounds much more gratifying than anything I do on a daily basis.  But if I fail at a task at my job, it’s likely it could be remedied the next working day. With teaching, if you fail a student, it may not be possible to get another chance. I don’t want to come across as a slobbering softie, but I don’t know how I’d deal with the deathly quiet kid who’s asleep in the back row or the disruptive girl who won’t stop texting in class.

Like my 8 year old self, I again face being scared to go to school.  I thought reading this book would cement the idea of going back to school as a positive.  Instead it’s left me wondering if teaching is for me or if I could handle it. I’d love for the answers to be yes.  I’d love to be able to know, without a doubt, that I’d be able to make a difference or that I’d be the kind of the teacher I wished I’d had as a kid.  That remains to be seen.

So after reading this book what does teaching mean to me? It means staring failure in the face and having the skills and knowledge to not flinch. It means touching lives each and every day, for better or for worse. Teaching to me is a daydream that might be better left as such.

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