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Reshaping education, in the words of John Merrow

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Are you looking for a thorough synopsis of the topics currently filling the education reform discourse? John Merrow of PBS has a book for you. The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership is a thought-provoking and ambitious attempt to address the current flaws, fallacies, and triumphs of teachers in and out of our American classrooms.

The book, which reads like a summation of all education topics addressed on NPR, is an attempt to look at the teacher debate while being as unbiased as possible (did not succeed, but made a good attempt). The work rummages around topics such as Teach for America’s impact on the teaching profession; the increased focus on literacy and math, specifically in urban school districts; and charter school uprisings. It even looks through the eyes and minds of two notable superintendents as they attempt to navigate the at-times hostile education environment.

The Influence of Teachers, aligning with achievement statistics, looks at effective teachers as having the ability to close the education achievement gap. From the opening dedication to “teachers everywhere,” all the way to the focus on removing ineffective teachers, Merrow reaffirms the tremendous tug-of-war that teachers and school leaders face on a daily basis.

Reflecting on his own teaching experience in a New York City high school, Merrow mentions that although there was a focus on preparing students for the New York State Regents Examination, there was still room to innovate and no “step-by-step curriculum” for his high school English class. Times are obviously different now. While limited, his two-year teaching experience does lend an extra layer of credibility when compared to other books that critique the teaching profession written by those who have no primary or secondary teaching experience.

Although it is thought-provoking and addresses a plethora of topics, herein is the problem. Merrow attempts to address so many topics in a 200-page book that he rarely leaves room for the reader to truly understand the intricacies of each dilemma or understand his own position.

A notable broadcast journalist, Merrow maintains a humble tone throughout the text:

“I like to think that my energy, enthusiasm, and willingness to burn the midnight oil made up for my ignorance of the art and skill of teaching, but of course, that could be wishful thinking on my part.”     

Throughout the text, you will find testimonies from notable education reform leaders such as Michelle Rhee, Albert Shanker, Paul Vallas, Randi Weingarten, Dal Lawrence, and Joel Klein, as well as parents, teachers, and students. Quoting sources helps add context and add realism to the story, but Merrow’s own prose and opinions can begin to sound a little fatigued.

The Influence of Teachers is beautiful for its attempt to look at the teaching profession from several different viewpoints. With his reach as a teacher, journalist, and leader, Merrow provides the reader with a rich discussion concerning the trials, tribulations, and victories that teachers and districts face daily. You will read the book and will run out of space in your margins writing all the questions that eventually arise from each chapter.

This book is the work of a man who has true admiration for the role that teachers play in the crafting of our leaders – and it offers hope and encouragement to those teachers fighting every day. For soon, when the teaching profession is viewed in a better light, “we will likely discover that many teachers now in the classroom have been better people themselves all along.”

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