Things are tough right now in education. The pandemic exposed and intensified the cracks in a system that has long been in need of an overhaul.

Our favorite books this year offer not only inspiration and hope, but also practical things education professionals can do to change the system. As we reviewed the books, we realized that reading them in a particular order offered a “macro” to “micro” path forward, starting with Steven C. Rockefeller’s Spiritual Democracy and Our Schools. This beautifully written book offers a vision of what the U.S. (and other democracies) can become, and education’s role in making that vision a reality.

We suggest that you next read Let Your Light Shine for a reality check of how far we still have to go. Sharing the powerful origin story of the Holistic Life Foundation, the authors hold nothing back as they talk about the impact of systemic racism and structural inequities on youth—and how yoga, mindfulness, and a lot of love can help heal.

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With a vision and a reality check in place, the remaining three books are about rolling up our sleeves and digging into the work of redoing our educational system. The highly practical Reconnect focuses on how educators can create classrooms of belonging, centering on specific techniques, virtue development, and group engagement. Cultivating Kindness reminds us of the need for and power of kindness in schools—something that makes the path forward a little gentler. And, finally, Surviving Teacher Burnout gives educators research-based tools and insights for building their own inner resilience—so they can do the hard work that transforming education takes.

Education is on the cusp of dramatically shifting how we teach our students. We hope these books offer new ways of seeing and thinking about education, and the inspiration to keep going.

Spiritual Democracy and Our Schools: Renewing the American Spirit With Education for the Whole Child, by Steven C. Rockefeller

ClearView Publishing, 2022, 123 pages.

At the root of America’s disunity, argues scholar Steven Rockefeller, is “the erosion and weakening of America’s moral and spiritual foundation, reflecting estrangement from our better selves and one another and the larger community of life on Earth.” The issues we face stem from our failure “to respect and honor the inherent dignity and equal rights of the other.” In other words, “America is a nation in search of its soul.”

Rockefeller urges a renewed sense of shared values and common purpose of living out the ideals of democracy. Integrating these ideals into education with “relational spirituality” (foundational human values like respect, care, and gratitude) can help to solve the problems we face and lay a firm foundation for a more unified nation. That’s because it will set students “on the path to authentic freedom, responsible democratic citizenship, and caring, creative leadership of their own lives and their communities.”

Science-based educational initiatives such as social-emotional learning, mindfulness, and the burgeoning “spirituality in education” field play a key role in carrying out this work.

This free, downloadable book expands on the ideas expressed in the author’s keynote at the first Collaborative for Spirituality in Education conference in 2019, hosted by Teachers College at Columbia University.  For educators who are feeling demoralized, this book reminds us of the bigger “why” of what we do.

In this time of extreme challenge, educators can take heart that they are contributing to the excruciatingly difficult work of rebuilding the foundation of this country. As Rockefeller writes, they are helping to foster “an American democratic culture that cultivates reverence for the mystery of being, a sense of belonging in the universe, gratitude for the gift of life, a love of Earth, and an ethical commitment to respect and care for the greater community of life and to practice sustainable development.” —Vicki Zakrzewski

Let Your Light Shine: How Mindfulness Can Empower Children and Rebuild Communities, by Ali Smith, Atman Smith, and Andres Gonzalez

TarcherPerigee, 2022, 336 pages.

In 2001, brothers Ali and Atman Smith and their friend Andres Gonzalez started the Holistic Life Foundation to enhance the well-being of low-income, underserved communities through yoga, mindfulness, self-care, and other programming. Let Your Light Shine is the extraordinary story of their journey, with research, practical exercises, and ancient Yogic science and philosophy woven throughout. Hands down, this is one of the best books on the mindfulness-in-education movement I have come across—because it is so honest and real.

The authors argue that “the best solutions are the home-grown solutions,” meaning that the people within a community are best suited to help heal the community. They began their program in the Baltimore neighborhood where Ali and Atman grew up, working with local students who were highly traumatized due to systemic racism, structural inequities, poverty, and many other challenges that no child should ever have to face.

They don’t hold back on how phenomenally challenging this work has been for them. They are adamant that educators must not only have a mindfulness practice of their own, but also have done “the personal work of working through [their] own triggers, traumas, resentments, and fear.” Why? Because “traumatized kids can trigger the *&^% out of you.” But, in the end, they argue that “love is the most powerful force in the universe” and that their work is “creating love zombies; we want to infect people with love and have them go around spreading it—minus all the eating people and stuff.”

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I also appreciated that the authors didn’t shy away from sharing aspects of their own spiritual path. They agree that the spiritual aspects of this work should be kept out of schools, but there is much to be learned from understanding the original wisdom out of which these practices grew. And as research on the importance of cultivating spirituality within students expands, this may be the next chapter in the field.

Overall, the authors’ story is grounded in wisdom, love, humility, vulnerability, and a powerful inner strength cultivated from years of balancing the external work with the internal. I hope you will laugh, cry, and ponder over this book—and then be inspired to do your own inner work so that you can better help others, too. —Vicki Zakrzewski

Reconnect: Building School Culture for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging, by Doug Lemov, Hilary Lewis, Darryl Williams, and Denarius Frazier

Jossey-Bass, 2022, 272 pages.

How can we cultivate a sense of belonging and connection at school? This is a question on the hearts of many educators as they face a sharp decline in post-pandemic student learning and well-being. In Reconnect, Doug Lemov (of Teach Like a Champion fame) and his coauthors focus on what belonging can look like and sound like—while students are learning.

Although the authors devote a portion of the book to problematizing cell phone usage, the meat of Reconnect features case studies, free videos, and classroom discussions that model concrete belonging “signals” to “rewire” classrooms and enhance group learning.

For example, some of the techniques they offer include snaps of appreciation, smiles, and “tracking” skills (showing interest through eye contact and body posture). They also emphasize the value of “talking to and not past someone” with discussion role scaffolds like “builder” (“Linking to that point, I think…”), “challenger” (“I disagree with you because…”), and “summarizer” (“The main ideas raised today were…”).

The book’s focus on “social engineering” and the repetition of call-and-response techniques may make some readers uncomfortable, yet Lemov and his team argue that these rituals can have a strong auditory and visual appeal—as a cultural outgrowth of communal chants and songs that create a sense of connectedness.

Lemov and his team also draw on Angela Duckworth’s definition of “virtues” (like gratitude and resilience) as “ways of thinking, feeling and acting that we [can] habitually do that are good for others and good for ourselves.” They prioritize virtue development as a way to enhance school-wide social and emotional learning, and they advise every school to choose five to seven virtues and belonging cues that reflect their own mission, values, and culture.

In Reconnect’s most inspiring segments, however, the authors highlight examples of positive group synergy, active learning, and deep group engagement (or “flow”)—moments where students are jointly absorbed in rich discussions of mathematics. This book helps educators to see that belonging cues and learning techniques can complement and build on each other. —Amy L. Eva

Cultivating Kindness: An Educator’s Guide, by John-Tyler Binfet

University of Toronto Press, 2022, 248 pages.

The immense need for John-Tyler Binfet’s book Cultivating Kindness: An Educator’s Guide is found in the dedication. When asked by Binfet for a definition of kindness, one student wrote, “Kindness is making someone feel like s/he belongs or feels special. Like the world didn’t make a mistake.”

As human beings, we deeply crave kindness. So much so that kindness is the number-one quality we look for in romantic partners. And yet, in education, kindness often gets the short end of the stick, seen as irrelevant to academic success or too soft for the workplace. However, pointing to years of research—including some of his own—Binfet makes a strong case for cultivating kindness in schools and how it can contribute to student and educator well-being, positive peer relationships, and an inclusive school culture. He also shares examples of how students of all ages describe their experience of kindness, both giving and receiving it from peers and teachers alike. As he wryly points out, helping students to learn, rather than giving them fancy field trips and extra recess time, is how teachers can demonstrate kindness.

In addition to the research, Binfet also includes practical examples of how to foster kindness in students and schools, such as helping students create a “kindness action plan” for performing intentional acts of kindness over a specified amount of time. He notes most students will choose their close friends as recipients of these acts, potentially leaving out students who already feel excluded. Hence, to foster a sense of belonging, educators should encourage students to go beyond their peer group.

My favorite part of the book, however, is Binfet’s discovery of “quiet kindness”—those acts that go unseen and unacknowledged and, as he notes, require advanced social and emotional skills, but ones that students can learn. To me, helping students internalize kindness to such a degree that they don’t look for outer rewards is one of the most powerful ways we can create a kinder world—one in which no one feels like a mistake. —Vicki Zakrzewski

Honorable Mention:

Surviving Teacher Burnout: A Weekly Guide to Build Relationships, Deal with Emotional Exhaustion, and Stay Inspired in the Classroom by Greater Good’s own Amy L. Eva

New Harbinger Publications, 2022, 224 pages. Read an essay adapted from Surviving Teacher Burnout.

Pulling on her experience as both a classroom educator and teacher educator, Amy Eva masterfully weaves together the science and practice for how teachers can build a strong inner life—a life that can help them not just navigate the storms and trials of teaching, but also find renewal and hope in the darkest days. (Only those who have spent time in the classroom can truly understand how hard this work actually is.) Indeed, I wish I had this book when I was training to be a teacher. Not a single professor or master teacher ever mentioned the emotional toll that teaching takes—instead, like many teachers including the author, I learned it the hard way.

Eva provides 52 weeks of topics, from being with difficult emotions to learning to forgive to feeling empathic joy, that include practical exercises and the scientific “why” for each one. This book could and should be woven into teacher education classes—it’s the missing piece that may be the most important part of a preservice teacher’s preparation.

For in-service educators, Eva provides insight into why so many are feeling exhausted and demoralized, but also how to heal and move forward with stronger clarity and the resilience to change a system that no longer works. And for educators who are implementing social-emotional learning—you will have the added benefit of understanding even more the science behind it, helping to deepen your work with students.

I have had the pleasure of working closely with the author for over half a decade and I can truly say that the best of her is in this book: Eva’s deep empathy and concern for educators, her ability to connect with her audience and to help them connect with each other, and her extensive and practical knowledge for strengthening the lives of teachers. “Hope doesn’t have to perch quietly in each of our souls,” she writes. “We can share it and live it, collectively. As an African proverb says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’” —Vicki Zakrzewski

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