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How textbooks shape teachers — not just their students

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As a recent college graduate in the early 1990s, with fewer books under my belt than many of my students and almost no developed competencies in teaching, I landed one of the most coveted teaching positions in the third-largest school system in the country. I was an English teacher at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, Michelle Obama’s alma mater and the one of the best high school in the state of Illinois.

In this high-stakes environment, where students and parents were feverishly focused on the Ivy Leagues, I cowered in my classroom until it was safe to go out into the English Department area where old textbooks and sample textbooks were piled. I had to get my hands on one of these before somebody found me out. I thought, “Whoever gave me this job really ought to be fired.”

{mosads}If parents only knew that the fate of their children was in the hands of an undereducated novice. I wasn’t just a novice teacher. I was actually a novice in my field of study as well. After all, we hardly had time for English classes, what with the “education courses” and “humanities courses” and even a “running class.” I had no idea what American literature and world literature classes were supposed to be.


No, it wasn’t college or certifications that got me through year one. It was whatever I remembered from my own high school teachers and whatever I could glean from veteran teachers who took me under their wing. It was a very worn copy of an American literature textbook I found in the English Department on day one, and the similarly shabby purple world literature textbook, plus any accompanying workbooks I could scrounge up.

Since this was back in the days when technology meant a Brother word processor, I didn’t create lessons by Googling anything or using a free app. I pulled apart textbooks and typed up my own version of things that seemed sensible for me and my students. I snatched a handout off the copier every now and then, staying clear of stuff I myself knew I didn’t know, of course.

I shared a classroom with a soon-to-retire, hard-core English teacher who had started teaching when she was 19 because she graduated both high school and college early. She was legendary for her harsh but fondly remembered — and later appreciated — grammar penalties. Another “peer” had a doctorate and taught the gifted kids. Still another had spent summer after summer at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre and was doing all sorts of cutting-edge things with collaborative groups.

There were also a few humble mortals at the school. The three African-American women who ultimately raised me as a teacher were the toughest and kindest women I had ever met. They let me pour my pathetic neurosis onto their shoulders and taught me invaluable lessons about teaching: 

  • Classroom management: Never end the lesson with extra time left over.
  • Parent management: Call when you see a D or and F and give the kid a chance or “they” will be marching down here. And make sure you have at least 15 grades in your gradebook.
  • Administrator management: When the boss comes in, you have your blue book open with your plan…and put some nail polish on before you go in there for your evaluation!

For the entire first year, I wore a dress every single day because one of those women told me I should. I thought that was an actual rule. The point I am trying to make is that I had absolutely no clue what I was doing, and those textbooks, and those women, and those smart kids are what taught me how to be a teacher.

In fact, my reliance on a good discussion about a story as a strategy for teaching American literature is actually what gave all those students such a great education. As a Catholic, goodness knows I didn’t know any of the biblical allusions that were buried in Frederick Douglass or “The Grapes of Wrath,” but my Jehovah’s Witness students did.

The teacher’s guide I had just gave me quizzes and summaries, but the students gave me controversy. It was my students who unearthed the power of Ma Joad’s declaration: “If you want help, you go to poor people. They are the only ones who will help.” It was my “inner city” students, as people described them back to me then, who taught me the power of those books. It was the kids who could take a Maya Angelou or Emily Dickinson poem and blow our hair back with a recitation that made me seem like a great teacher.

So, there is my confession after all these years, but I make it to say that the products we use in schools matter. The quality of those resources matter so very much because they are what empower students, regardless of which teacher they end up with. The materials shape teachers and teacher practice, and they shape the teachers they raise through years of side by side work. 

These products must answer to students and teachers as well as buyers — the admins and school boards who are the stewards of our future, our culture, our democracy. Products have material impact on the lives of our children and grandchildren — who will be caring for us and our country in the very near future.

Simply put, reading materials impact the quality of teaching in much more significant ways than you might know.

Eileen Murphy Buckley is the founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA, a blended literacy program built around self-paced and collaborative learning. She is a former teacher and district administrator,

Tags classroom Education Michelle Obama Teacher Teacher education teacher training Teaching textbooks

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