If you’re like most teachers, much of your reading is done to keep up in your field.
For ELA teachers, that typically means reading books about schools, about best practices in education, about new developments in teaching English and communications, and, of course, reading literature, particularly new fiction and your favorite classics.
Most of us, at least for our first decade of teaching, attempt to apply the new ideas gleaned from our reading to teaching today’s students yesterday’s curriculum, since keeping curriculum current costs much more than many schools can afford.
Before too long, we begin to realize something isn’t working as well as we had hoped. Despite the fact that most teachers improve with practice, many of our ranks don’t improve enough in their first decade to do the kind of teaching they envisioned they’d do when they decided to become a teacher.
Those folks may look for another job in education where their degree of teaching skills is adequate—have you ever noticed how many ex-teachers on the professional development lecture circuit left the classroom after fewer than 10 years?—or begin searching for a way to do a better job with the skills and constraints they have.
Read around, not just in, your field.
For those who want to do a better job now with the skills and constraints they have, one of the best—and the cheapest—ways for teachers to acquire new ideas for updating their curriculum is by reading around their field.
Reading around your field means reading nonfiction books on topics that aren’t normally part of your discipline, but which:
- are related to your discipline, or
- have relevance for your discipline, or
- can be used to provide relevance to students.
For the ELA teacher, related topics include media history, forensic linguistics, content marketing.
Topics with relevance to ELA include photography and illustration, opinion polling, and digital communications.
Topics that can be used to provide relevance for ELA include business, the arts, sports, and other aspects of contemporary culture.
How reading outside your field helps you
Working within just one career field for as long as a decade is liable to restrict your interests and your knowledge. The value of reading outside your field is that it opens you to different perspectives that you might never encounter in your chosen field.
For many ELA teachers, it’s eye-opening to find that terms and practices which the education community considers very positive are considered negative within, for example, the business community.
Teachers whose classes include ESL students can lay the basis for better understanding of those students by reading about the history, culture or language of their countries of origin.
Teachers who have students preparing for careers as something other than English teachers—that’s most of us, right?—will find it valuable to learn how people in different occupations think about and approach problems and how those people communicate with their publics.
Such reading might, for example, encourage an ELA teacher to deviate from the typical assignments for teaching purpose and audience by allowing students to investigate how people in a career that interests them regularly communicate with their publics. That’s information that our students will need to know, and which they probably won’t resist learning.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another value of reading outside your field: You will find some great writing in fields outside English and in formats other than fictional narratives.
Finding nonfiction writing whose language can be savored—historian Philip Jenkins’s The Great and Holy War comes to mind—may make you want to devote the rest of your teaching career to growing great expository writers.