There is a simple power that comes from teachers reading and talking together. I’m in the middle of a book discussion group at Concordia University Wisconsin, where we are reading and discussing a book entitled The Idea and Practice of a Christian University. It is an excellent and thought-provoking read, but I’ll save my review of the text for another time and place. What I’d like to write about at the moment is my experience with this and other book discussion groups. This is nothing groundbreaking, but I’m convinced that this remains a powerful professional development tool for educators of all types.
Before I explain why I value the book discussion group, I should probably share a little bit about my experience with books. As a kid, I remember teachers and even Saturday morning commercials between cartoons telling me about the wonders of reading, how books can take you on journeys around the world and even through time. I was intrigued by these ideas, but not enough to actually read any books. You see, I didn’t read much of anything until the end of my high school years. Don’t ask me how I made it through countless book reports without reading the books, but in this moment of confession, let me just share that I don’t remember making it through a single book from front to back during high school.
However, one summer right after graduating from high school, I had the opportunity to house-sit for one of my teachers. His basement had rows of books on at least one wall, lots of science fiction and other books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I also had a minor surgery that summer, and I was not as mobile as usual. So, I started reading book after book on his shelves. I read more books that summer than I had in the previous eighteen years of my life.
Over time, I developed a deep affection for the written word. I continue to work through close to a hundred books a year, but I don’t think of it as study or work. You see, a number of years ago, when I was learning about the Lutheran understanding of vocation, I thought about this idea of loving your neighbor, and how our lives are filled with opportunities to love our neighbor. As a student, I asked that question as well.
What does it mean to love my neighbor as a student? How does that affect the way I do something like read a book? I decided to start thinking of reading a book as an opportunity to love one of my neighbors, the author (or authors) of the book. I started to see it as honoring authors enough to carefully read and consider what they wrote in each book, to appreciate their abilities as authors and to learn from and show gratitude for the hard work and time that they devoted to writing it. To this day, I think of reading a book as a conversation with the author, albeit a seemingly one-sided one. After all, listening is an important part of respecting and honoring other people, right?
So, what does this have to do with book discussion groups and the professional development of teachers? While I see reading a book as a discussion, I’ve come to value communities where we can hold one another accountable for reading, studying and discussing a book together as well. The author of the book is our special guest—not physically, but through the words shared in the book.
It needn’t be anything too formal or structured. One person might volunteer to set the meetings and a simple agenda, but then we simply gather and work our way through the chapters. We ask questions. We share examples and illustrations. We challenge and encourage one another. We express where we disagree or look at something from a different perspective. We look at how the ideas might apply to our teaching and context. We find ourselves functioning as iron sharpening iron and become a learning community. This can also be a powerful way for a group of educators to develop shared ideas, a common vocabulary, and even shared practices.
After all, one of the most dangerous things for a teacher is to forget what it’s like to be a learner. Great teachers tend to be lifelong learners. They relate to what their students experience because learning is a lifestyle for them. In doing so, they are also modeling what it means to be a lifelong learner, not doing it for a grade, to earn a diploma, or to pass a test. We do it because we are we learners. It is part of who we are. Such simple forms of reading, group discussion, and learning help us to stay current, to remember the joys and challenges of learning in community, and to further develop our thinking and skills as educators. Along the way, we can enjoy some edifying fellowship with one another.