Education has become about so much more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. These days, educators feel more responsibilities falling heavily on their shoulders— whether they belong there or not. They must teach the basics, but also nurture socially and emotionally healthy children while healing (or at least helping students make sense of) all of our social ills. Teaching certainly isn’t easy, but many of us would choose nothing else because we genuinely value our students and our communities.

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To support this work, we selected our favorite books of 2018 that offer teachers new insights and research-based strategies for cultivating a kinder and more equitable world through education. They focus on qualities like “civic empathy,” purpose, and compassion.

In addition, a fundamental part of our job as educators is being fully present to our students each day—and that can certainly be challenging. Several of the books below also present tools that support your personal growth, prompting you to reflect on who you are as an educator, what you believe about the purpose of education, and all of the ways you can bolster your emotional reserves so that you can do this very crucial, very human work each day.

Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning, by Heather Malin

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Purpose is quickly becoming a hot topic in high schools. Not only is purpose good for teens’ well-being, it can also help drive their motivation for learning. But how do educators help adolescents discover their purpose?

Purpose expert Heather Malin takes on this daunting task and breaks it down into research-based, digestible processes that teachers can integrate into their academic content and classroom climate. She also provides school leaders with ideas for creating schools that support the development of purpose, including a focus on school belonging, student voice, mentors, and compassionate classrooms. To bring this process to life, Malin uses examples from purpose-oriented educational programs and philosophies such as Project Wayfinder, The Future Project, and Reggio Emilia.

However, Malin argues that the task of developing purpose is not relegated to just teens and the adults who work with them. Using findings from developmental science, Malin shows how children are engaged in meaning-making from infancy and how tasks like play and storytelling are critically important to future purpose development.

Fundamentally, purpose is about creating a coherent story about who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going—and then connecting that story to something larger than ourselves.

“By telling their stories, children learn to contribute to social narratives and become adults who can use this ability to shape the invisible structures of society, such as policy and culture,” writes Malin—a powerful use of purpose, indeed.

Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators, by Elena Aguilar

Jossey-Bass, 2018, 384 pages. Read our review of Onward.

Educators looking for an emotional “reboot” this winter holiday might enjoy Onward, a practical, user-friendly guide for teachers’ personal growth. Author Elena Aguilar draws on research in mindfulness, neurobiology, positive psychology, change management, and systems thinking to package a coherent, year-long program for developing resilience.

She describes the 12 habits of emotionally resilient educators, such as building community, being here now, and taking care of yourself. The companion Onward Workbook reinforces each habit through daily activities and practices—all doable when you focus on developing one habit per month.

According to Aguilar, to become emotionally resilient, you must begin by exploring yourself: your values, personality, aptitudes, and skills. “When you know yourself well, you gain clarity on your purpose in life and work,” writes Aguilar. Once you have a better sense of “who you are,” it’s important to understand “how you are”—what sorts of emotions influence your daily life. By spending time observing your emotions, you can begin to understand how they function.

Perhaps what we appreciate most about Onward is that it doesn’t shy away from linking educators’ personal growth to bigger-picture questions, such as the transformation of complex organizational and systemic issues in schools. “In order to create the just and equitable society that I know so many of us yearn for, we need tremendous reserves of resilience,” writes Aguilar. “And to do that, we’ll need all the physical and emotional resources we can muster.”

Educating for Empathy: Literacy Learning and Civic Engagement, by Nicole Mirra

What is the purpose of our empathy? If we’re able to “feel with” another person or understand their perspective, is that enough?

In Educating for Empathy, Nicole Mirra introduces the concept of “critical civic empathy”—a way to “feel into” or put ourselves into the shoes of our fellow citizens while acknowledging the forces that “differentiate our experiences.” This type of empathy calls us to acknowledge and question our social position in the world when we empathize, and to take note of how our power or privilege might influence what we see and feel.

Drawing on her classroom experiences and her collaborative research with teachers, Mirra proposes several key literacy practices as tools for fostering student empathy and civic engagement. These include 1) responding imaginatively to literature, 2) practicing civic communication through debate, 3) pursuing student-driven research, and 4) cultivating digital literacy. Each chapter features case studies, reflection questions for discussion, and concrete teaching strategies geared to secondary English language arts teachers and teacher educators.

Mirra’s experiences working with students from marginalized communities in New York and Los Angeles inform her focus on empathy and civic engagement as she reminds us that critical literacy isn’t just about comprehending texts, but using texts for “social transformation.” Her book poses timely questions about the role of schooling in a democratic society, and it may challenge you to think more deeply about your identity, power, and sense of civic purpose as a teacher-citizen.

Teaching with Compassion: An Educator’s Oath to Teach from the Heart, by Peter Kaufman and Janine Schipper

Many of us got into teaching because we care so deeply about students and about the fate of humanity. But this lofty and heart-centered purpose often gets lost in an educational system where the focus is almost entirely on cognitive development and academic achievement.

Enter this book by professors Peter Kaufman and Janine Schipper on compassionate teaching. Reading it feels like a warm blanket and a hot cup of tea on a cold winter’s night. They invite readers to “contemplate the two most important and interconnected relationships in the educational process: our relationship with ourselves and our relationship with students,” gently reminding us that we are teaching human beings—and that we ourselves are human beings.

With numerous stories and practical exercises on topics such as listening with intention, practicing self-compassion, leaving one’s ego at the door, and holding a safe space for students, the authors offer a research-informed guide for unearthing the compassion innate in all of us. The loveliest part of the book, however, is the humility with which they offer this guidance. Recognizing how difficult teaching actually is, they don’t hesitate to share their own fallibilities as educators—which makes the reader realize that becoming a compassionate teacher is not only doable, but also a lifelong journey.

The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, edited by Eddie Moore Jr., Ali Michael, and Marguerite W. Penick-Parks

Black boys face unconscionable barriers in the United States—like educators’ negative perceptions of them, harmful discipline policies that target them, and lack of access to gifted or honors and AP classes. The education system today sets black boys up for failure, but it doesn’t have to stay this way. To change the system, white female educators—the majority of the teaching force—need to do the very hard work of understanding race and the impact it has on their students of color.

This is where The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys can help.

Including essays by both black and white writers on topics such as unconscious biases, black boys’ behavior, and classroom strategies, this excellent book edited by experts on race and education also offers very practical exercises that can easily be done by individual teachers or in professional development settings.

Most essays are also coupled with short vignettes, which bring the content to life and help to grow teachers’ empathy by describing what it’s like to live with racism on a daily basis.

Ultimately, The Guide lets white female teachers know that not understanding racism isn’t a question of character, but one of skills and competencies that can be developed. The authors write, “We believe that with the right tools, many teachers will be able to build classrooms and schools that recognize and honor the brilliance of Black boys, their potential for excellence, and their capacity to produce and create.”

The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom: Building Resilience with Compassionate Teaching, by Patricia Jennings

As a long-time educator and researcher, Patricia Jennings introduces her book The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom by sharing her personal struggle as a child who lost both of her parents by the age of 15. “My intention is to provide the knowledge and skills educators need to create a compassionate learning environment in which all children and teens feel respected and understood and are provided the supports they need to flourish,” she writes.

In the book, Jennings draws on extensive research to explain how trauma and chronic stress impact learning. Yet her book primarily focuses on how to address trauma in your classroom or school with “three keys to compassionate teaching”: building supportive relationships, creating safe spaces, and fostering students’ strengths by encouraging self-regulation.

Of course, Jennings reminds us that the practical strategies she highlights really must be coupled with teachers’ ongoing care for their own well-being. Because our students regulate their nervous systems with ours, her book’s final chapters center on developing teachers’ personal strategies for fostering resilience, mindful awareness, and a sense of compassion.

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