Professional Development: Books that matter

The New York Times has its list out now, and the list includes three books on education. I read a lot, though it’s often online and often things like the BBC, Reuters and al-Jazeera wire service feeds directly. But I do try to find balance in the books that I read, between books that I want to read and books that I should read. These three books are ones that I should read.

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein () addresses the history of teachers in public education. As a parent, this is hugely important to me; we have abdicated a large part of our role in educating our kids to others, for the sake of efficiency and, we hope, effectiveness, and this is largely done through faith in our social contract and the means of public schools. But it doesn’t take much looking today to see that there is cause for concern in whether this faith is well placed; over Common Core, school vouchers, magnet schools, and so on. I am hoping this will be as thought provoking a read as it sounds.

Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher by Garret Keizer () is Keizer’s tale of returning to the classroom to teach in Vermont. Keizer, a successful author, may well have been swept up in the romantic notion of returning to standing with the youth of America, to play a role in teaching them and in their education. And as a skilled writer, I am sure it’s an easy read and an entertaining one. I want to hear more from people who are inspired by the ideas that education is important, that its worth giving as a gift to our youth, that is should be made a priority above other things. And to have a skilled writer tell a personal account of this? This sounds like a magical formula. Bring it on.

Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), by Elizabeth Green (), is the one book of these that I expect will piss me off the most and make me want to throw things. Just reading the description of it on Amazon makes it sound as if Green has found a formula for teaching, as if teaching is a science. Like it’s math, or chemistry, that every other teacher out there has been an idiot for not unlocking these teaching secrets to making teaching easy in their classroom. And now, for just $14 for the paperback, these secrets can be yours! I’ll likely check my library for this, skim it, and try to keep my blood pressure down, because this I know to be true: education is an art. Instilling knowledge in others is based on the two people involved; it always has been, it always will be, and it is always subject to as many variables as the two of them can have, from the time of day, to what each of them last ate, to the temperature of the breeze that just passed outside the window. This is not to say that I poo=poo ideas like this book, that teachers should not look for and gain ideas from the experiences of others – they absolutely should – I just cringe at the idea that one book is going to solve the problems of the world.

But if we’re going to talk about books that matter, and books that we can and should read for our professional development – I’m in the Army, and am in education only as a parent, after all – let’s talk about some other ones. Because reading books for personal and professional development – I see no ability to separate the two, I hope you know – has two great uses.

The first is, there are books that you can read all on your own. Independent learning. Things that stand on their own. Things that are self evident, or things maybe that you chose to read because they fill some void, or scratch some itch, that you identify yourself. Good on ya, as we say.

But there’s also the other kind: books that you read with others, or books that you read with someone. I am less a fan of reading books with book with others, only in that i am a huge fan of reading a book with someone – namely, a mentor. When someone you respect and admire, and who has been offering advice and counsel, comes to you and says that they have a book that you need to read and that they want to read it with you so that you can discuss it as you read it, that to me is pure magic. Pure freakin’ magic.

Do you have to be old and seasoned like Yoda to do that? No. I was a Captain the Army when I started. It takes work, sure – you have to have read the book, you have to have thought through what the value is in the book, in the pieces and parts, how to steer conversations and all the good stuff, but we’re not talking about the same workload as putting a probe on Mars. This is mentoring and coaching. This is growing and developing those around you, for all of the right reasons – whether it’s one on one, or a small group – in your school, online, or through Google Hangout or Voxer. (Or, for the bold, use and make a program – Curriculet kicks soooo much ass, it’s not even funny.)

So, there’s the why. That’s why it’s important. Here’s some of the what. These are books I have gone to, time and time again, with subordinates and junior leaders in the Army, to use with them in talking about leadership, as I’ve tried to help them grow as leaders.

Good to Great, by Jim Collins (). This is a book that is suppose to be about why some businesses succeed when others, in the same sector and that are comparable, don’t. And don’t just succeed, but take off and run away from everyone else in that sector of business, to become truly great. I know, I know – business cases? Sounds boring as hell, but it’s not. It’s well written, easy to read, entertaining even, and tight and concise. But for me, the best part is that the ideas are scale-able. The business cases are often about large companies, but the ideas apply all the way down the small groups or, for me, Army units, but the ideas apply equally well to us as individuals. As an example, Good to Great is well known for its exploration of the hedgehog concept. Hedgehogs do one things phenomenally well, namely, rolling up into a ball to defend themselves. When attacked, no hedgehog ever thinks to try something else. That’s great when talking about paper mills, but also good when talking about you, and what you individually do within your organization.

Getting Things Done, by David Allen (). This is about time management, and task management. And that, I know, is about as unsexy a topic as it gets. But it’s also about as important a topic as there is, especially when it comes to coaching and mentoring, because those are hard things to learn. Allen does not offer up a prescribes solution – here, do this exactly as I say, and all of your problems will be solved – but instead he talks about the business of and ideas behind managing tasks, and then talks about ideas for grappling with this. And through the book, it’s easy to come to grips with news ways, new ideas for wrangling the things in your life. because really, managing the tasks in your life needs to be as individual as you. Whether you keep everything in your iDevice, you you write things on scraps on paper – reading this book and, as I suggest, reading it and discussing it with someone, is a great exercise in exploring the ideas of doing it. Because afterwards, you’re probably going to come back to this book a couple of times, as I have, as you get into different phases of your life, as things and variables in your own life have changed, and you want and need to relook what you’re doing to see if you can tune up your own process. It’s good stuff.

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell (). If you’ve never spent any time learning how the brain works, this is a great way to start. Gladwell talks about how the brains takes in information on new topics, until it recognizes a pattern, and then sort of… stops. Once the brain sees a pattern, it sticks to the recognized pattern as the answer, and wants to cling to it, even when there’s contradicting new information coming it. These are huge ideas to understand, and gaining insight into and understand of these go a long way to changing how we look at the world, and reshaping how to process the information we gather every day. And reading this along with someone else, who has read it before, and who can help shape discussions with you on it? Mind. Bending.

The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki (). It’s crazy, that Surowiecki developed the ideas for this book while writing for the New Yorker. But he did. But in this book, he lays out how and why crowds do better than groups of or even individual experts, even when the crowds lack all of the facts. So, I would give this book to my mid and senior intelligence analysts, whose job it was to distill tons of information into key and critical assessments – to make wise and key findings that they themselves assumed were correct, because they were that expert. And I would go through this book with them, as a means to remind them that, for all their reading, all their efforts, sometimes people outside of the business could see their errors even before they could. And I would do this, because 1) that’s important to learn, and 2) it’s humbling to learn, and 3) it’s better to learn it in a book instead of when lives are on the line. But this same thing carries over to being the expert standing in front of 30 kids in a classroom.

Stalking the Vietcong, by Stuart Herrington (). Yes, I love books about insurgencies and insurgent theory. I love looking at the exploring why people fight, about what makes people take to arms. But it’s actually a book about affecting change. And that’s a tough concept to grasp. It also helps that it’s a fascinating read, being a wonderful first-person account of amazing adventures in Vietnam. But the deep, underlying these of affecting change really to play out, and make for such a great learning and discussion opportunity.

Not a Good Day to Die, by Sean Naylor () or Roberts Ridge: A Story of Courage and Sacrifice on Takur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistan by Malcolm MacPherson (). The Naylor book covers all of Operation Anaconda, the March 2002 surge into Afghanistan’s Shahikot Valley. But the last 1/3 of the book, and all of the MacPherson book, cover the events on Takur Ghar, when things went really wrong for some Navy SEALs trying to insert for an OP, and for the US Rangers sent to get them out. I favor using the Naylor book, as it explains the full situation and why the SEALs ended up there in the first place, why the whole thing was SNAFU, and really puts things into context, but Roberts Ridge is a fine book, as well. This is a story chock full of leadership lessons, things that can be discussed over dozens of pots of coffee. There’s great stuff in here, amazing stuff.

So, there’s some thoughts on professional reading – conventional wisdom, my take, and my recommendations on how to really run with it. Don’t be shy. read to develop yourself, read with others for their good and the good of your profession. Invest – it’s important.

2 thoughts on “Professional Development: Books that matter

  1. Art, I love people who read. Unfortunately, I teach 9th grade boys who would commit hari-kari before cracking a book for pleasure. A couple of issues that I think were missing from Green’s book. 1) 30% of public school teachers pay for their children to go to private school. 2) Private school teachers make less and receive less benefits, but are more satisfied with their jobs than public school teachers. BTW, parents are their children’s first and most influential teachers. Your kids have an advantage over most pub schooled American kids in that they have traveled abroad and experienced different cultures. Most Americans never do that. In fact, most are satisfied with their public schools. They think it is the “other” schools that have slipped. I had a friend Alice, who’s mother was the original Tiger Mother. She assigned her kids 3 hours of homework on her own, every day, because she didn’t think the public school had enough rigor. I don’t want my children to hate me that much.

  2. True, indeed, about the role experience plays in the overall concept of education. I think that can’t be emphasized enough.

    And you’re right about public schools vs private – why is it that there’s this rush to put kids into private and charter schools, huh? Gosh, Bill Gates, aren’t out public schools awesome enough? I am guessing they aren’t, if your kids aren’t in them. And if they aren’t – then do something about it now.

    I know that Gates (and others) is throwing mad money at education, and at Common Core (which i do not see as the answer, by the way), but that’s a long view. A very long view.

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