Books for Teachers

Publisher Crap

A publisher once told me, “Teachers don’t buy books.” I interpreted that to mean teachers are too busy, too intellectually lazy, or too cheap to buy books.

Now that I have written a book for teachers, I interpret the claim differently. Whether teachers buy books or not has little to do with teacher busyness, intellect, or economic priorities. Some teachers are professionally busy, a few are not; some are intellectually vigorous, a few are not; some face financial hardship, a few do not.

Cut the Crap

My new hypothesis is that teachers don’t buy books because books supposedly written for them are an insult to teachers and the art of teaching.

Two types of books

To examine this hypothesis, I will look at two types of books that seem to be written for teachers. The first type is those that chronicle the work of talented, dedicated teachers. The second type reports research findings about effective instructional practices.

Autobiographical examples of the first kind of book are There Are No Shortcuts (Esquith, 2003), Teacher Man (McCourt, 2005), and Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently (Cowhey, 2006).

Among Schoolchildren (Kidder, 1989) is a journalist’s interpretation of classroom life in the same genre.

Hollywood adaptations of this kind of book have been popular for many years. Stand and Deliver is an adaptation of Escalante: The Best Teacher in America (Mathews, 1988). Dangerous Minds is from My Posse Don’t Do Homework (Johnson, 1992).

Books and movies of this type appear to be “written for teachers” because they inspire us with stories about the enormous influence of a special teacher. (If the influence were not “enormous” there would be no book or movie.)

Other books that seem to be written for teachers are those assigned in university education classes. Their underlying premise is that instruction improves when teachers understand and apply the findings of educational research. Examples are Preparing Teachers for a Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and be Able to Do (Darling-Hammond and Bransford, 2005), Best Practices from High Performing Middle Schools (Wilcox and Angelis, 2009), and What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action (Marzano, 2003). The list could go on and on.

Teachers are insulted

Educators are familiar with both types of books. They appear to be “written for teachers;” but they are actually an insult to teachers and their art.

“Influential teacher” books and movies portray what it means to be a teacher, not what it is like to be a teacher. Even the slightest suggestion that classroom life is anything close to what is portrayed in these books and movies is offensive to real teachers.

Every classroom is different, and the differences are at the center of the classroom experience. They are in the webs of relationships, which are always managed and cultivated in ways that depend on the teacher, the students, their lives and their situations. What it is like to be a teacher is completely different in each classroom situation. A teacher’s art is in creating educational relationships and situations. Any suggestion that a teacher’s classroom should be like that of a “storied” teacher is an insult to real teachers.

Writers of the second type of book assume what Cochran-Smith (2002, p. 284) called the “research as foundation” metaphor:

It is assumed first that there is a body of knowledge based on cutting-edge empirical research in various academic disciplines that is relevant to teaching, learning, and schooling, and second, that when teachers know and act on this knowledge, schooling is more effective.

Teachers are socialized into this paradigm during their bachelors and masters degree programs. They are taught to believe that, just as physicians apply the latest medical research to the treatment of patients, they should apply the latest educational research findings in their classrooms.

Many dedicated and creative veteran teachers express resentment toward this paradigm and these books. In my graduate classes they say, “I wish the researchers would come into my classroom. Then they would see how it is in the real world. Their theories say we should do this and do that, but they have forgotten what it is really like.” Many teachers resent researchers and their findings (Sarason, 1990; Goodson, 1993).

Education books for professors and policymakers

If these books are an insult to teachers, who are they for? They are written for professors and policymakers whose interests are served by the research as foundation metaphor. Professors earn tenure and academic reputations by conducting research and publishing findings (Sarason, 1990; Goodson, 1993). And politicians cite research findings to give their politics a veneer of science. Educational research findings are the perfect cover for political decisions that are neither scientific nor educational. Research can be designed and conducted to find support for any political positions, and politicians use the ones they like to appear knowledgeable about improving education.

It is time to expose this metaphor as a hoax on K-12 teachers. Past challenges (Bates, 1984; Greenfield, 1986; MacIntyre, 1981) didn’t reach teachers because they were argued in dense, academic language. The following section uses plain language to explain why education research findings don’t improve education, and insult the art of teaching.

The “research as foundation” metaphor  does not improve education

Education research findings are theoretically true for all situations in which “all other things are equal.” This means one of two things, depending on the type of research.

In quantitative studies, variables are statistically controlled to isolate the effects on one dependent variable. The controls produce theoretical knowledge about what is true, when “all other things are equal.” The problem is that, taking quantitative findings out of the theoretical world strips them of what makes them true – being in a situation in which “all other things are equal.”

Qualitative studies generate a different kind of knowledge. They generate researcher interpretations of what may be true in a specific real world situation. To decipher the usefulness of this knowledge in their specific situation, teachers must use judgment, which puts them right where they started before the study was conducted — needing to use judgment to improve student learning.

Education research finds what is “effective;” but, instead of being the gold ring for classroom teachers, “effectiveness” is an empty concept. It carries only the specific meaning it has in the study — no more, no less. Most of the time “effective” means achieving a certain test score threshold. For example, “effective” could mean students average one or two more correct answers on a 50-question test. Not much “golden” about that.

Sergiovanni (Brandt, 1992) understood the emptiness of “effectiveness” after presenting findings from a leadership study. Throughout the presentation a man kept asking Sergiovanni what he meant by saying something was “effective.” Sergiovanni was annoyed by the question, but he gained the following insight:

. . . while my students and people in workshops were patient and respectful of what I had to say, they actually made a distinction between workshop knowledge and real life career knowledge. In real life they weren’t driven by the theories I taught them, but by other ideas and other conceptions” (Brandt, 1992, p. 47).

As Sergiovanni realized, “effective” was whatever the study defined it to be. If the definition was empty, “effectiveness” was empty, too.

Education research finds what is theoretically true, but teachers need to know what is true in actual, specific, dynamic situations. Teachers’ knowledge is always tempered by the complexities of ever-changing classrooms. Instead of wanting teachers to apply research findings in their classrooms, researchers and policymakers should want teachers to create classrooms so dynamic that they defy the application of research findings.

But that would leave policymakers and researchers impotent in school improvement. Politicians would not be approving the grant money to fund the studies that promote their philosophy. And education professors would not be gaining tenure and scholarly reputations by publishing articles teachers and principals don’t read.

The research as foundation metaphor has been used to address hundreds of debates about how to improve education. Research has found “effective” ways to group students, question them, test them, encourage them, challenge them, reinforce them, and the list goes on and on. These are helpful findings, but they take us to the periphery of what it means to be a good teacher. They distract us from the aesthetic essence of teaching.

An aesthetic paradigm should be at the center of school improvement

An aesthetic improvement paradigm focuses teaching and learning on appreciation, instead of effectiveness. Teaching and learning improve as teachers appreciate their students, and students reciprocate with appreciation for both their teachers and lessons. Think about books and movies about influential teachers. The plot line is never about a great teacher applying research findings in the classroom. Instead, the message is always that a teacher appreciated his/her students, and gained student appreciation in return. Eventually, students appreciated their lessons, too.

So, the first problem with books that describe education research findings is that they are an insult to teachers. And teachers should be insulted by the suggestion that they should pay attention to the findings of a researcher who has never been in their classroom. The second problem with these books is that they promote the wrong approach to educational improvement.  Teaching is an art, so an aesthetic approach is needed to focus on the appreciation that improves education. Research findings about effectiveness belong at the periphery of improvement efforts, with appreciation at the center.


If it is true that “teachers don’t buy books,” it is because books that are supposedly written for teachers are an insult to teachers. Only a few published books respect the aesthetic essence of teaching and honor teacher experience, dedication, judgment, and creativity. Examples are Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach, (Intrator and Scribner, 2003); The Heart Aroused (Whyte, 1996); The Art of the Commonplace (Berry, 2002), books by Parker Palmer, and The Six Virtues of the Educated Person (Hurley, 2009).

Bates, R. (1984). “Toward a Critical Practice of Educational Administration.” In T. Sergiovanni and J. Corbally editors, (1984) Leadership and Organizational Culture: New Perspectives on Administrative Theory and Practice. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. pp. 260-274.
Berry, W. (2002). The art of the commonplace. Washington, D.C: Shoemaker & Hoard.
Brandt, R. (1992). “On Rethinking Leadership: A Conversation with Tom Sergiovanni.” Educational Leadership. Februrary, 1992, pp. 46-49.
Cochran-Smith, M. (2002). The Research Base for Teacher Education: Metaphors we live (and die) by. Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 53, No. 4, September-October, 2002. pp. 283-285.
Cowhey, M. (2006). Black ants and Buddhists: Thinking critically and teaching differently Portland, Me: Stenhouse Publishers.
Darling-Hammond, L. and Bransford, J. (2005), Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Craig Calhoun, ed. Oxford University Press 2002. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Western Carolina University. 16 June, 2005.
Esquith, R. (2003). There are no shortcuts. New York: Pantheon Books
Goodson, I. (1993). “The Devil’s Bargain: Educational Research and the Teacher.” Educational Policy Analysis Archives. V. 1. No. 3, March 5, 1993. Retrieved from the internet, 12/30/2008, 9:49 am.
Greenfield, T. B. (1986). The Decline and Fall of Science in Educational Administration. Interchange, Vol. 17, No. 2. pp. 57-80.
Hurley, J. C. (2009). The six virtues of the educated person: Helping kids to learn and schools to succeed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education.
Intrator, S. and Scribner, M. (2003). Teaching with fire: Poetry that sustains the courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Johnson, L. (1992). My Posse Don’t Do Homework. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Kidder, T. (1989). Among schoolchildren. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
MacIntyre, A. (1981). After virtue: A study in moral theory. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Marzano, R. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Mathews, J. (1988), Escalante: The best teacher in America. New York: Holt.
McCourt, F. (2005) Teacher man. New York: Scribner.
Sarason, S. (1990). The predictable failure of educational reform: Can we change course before it’s too late? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Whyte, D. (1996). The heart aroused. New York: Currency Doubleday.
Wilcox, K. and Angelis, J. (2009). Best practices from high performing middle schools. New York: Teachers College Press.


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