How teachers can rediscover the joy of recreational reading

Educators, particularly English Language Arts teachers and librarians, play a critical role in cultivating students’ love for reading. Studies have shown that teachers who are passionate readers bring valuable literacy practices into the classroom. However, in their efforts to improve students’ reading abilities, it is important not to overlook the reading habits and needs of educators themselves. Even though most teachers understand the importance of reading for fun, a study looking at teachers’ reading practices found that nearly half of teachers do not read for pleasure regularly.

“You have to do things after work to pour into your spirit, and reading may not be at the top of that list,” said literacy educator Lois Marshall Barker, who has over 14 years of experience as a classroom teacher, instructional coach and professional development and curriculum specialist. Despite a recent RAND survey indicating that teachers’ stress levels have returned to pre-pandemic levels, 23% of teachers said they intended to leave their jobs, with stress being one of the top reasons. Research shows reading can relieve stress and help people develop overall empathy skills. And a well-developed school culture around reading can help teachers access these benefits and avoid burnout, according to Barker. At the bi-annual Education Collaborative Gathering last spring, she outlined ways teachers can carve out space to nurture their reading habits.

Examine your reading journey

Every reader has a relationship to reading that has changed over time. Barker calls this a reading journey. By reflecting on the events that have shaped their journey, teachers can gain insights into their own reading habits and preferences. She encouraged teachers to think about questions like, “When did you first encounter reading?”

Equally important is examining the factors that might hinder teachers’ reading habits. By thinking about questions like, “What prevents you from reading?” teachers can identify potential obstacles, such as lack of time and competing priorities, that might impact their reading.

Additionally, in many parts of the country, there has been an increase in efforts to ban or censor certain books, which has had a direct impact on teachers’ freedom to engage in open discussions about their reading choices. In a recent survey by the RAND Corporation, one-quarter of teachers said that restrictions on how they talk about race and gender have influenced their choice of curriculum materials and discussion topics. A subset of the teachers surveyed — most of them language arts or elementary education teachers — described how the restrictions have made teaching “more stressful, fear inducing, and difficult.”

Responses Barker collected from her coaching sessions and professional development debriefs with teachers are consistent with the survey data. A ninth grade teacher in Florida told her that teachers at her school used to have a robust reading culture with book swaps. However, the recent push to ban books has led to a sense of insecurity among teachers. “Now we don’t feel safe even talking about what we read. We are frustrated and so are the kids,” the teacher said to Barker.

To the extent that teachers feel safe, staying active in the conversations and legislation on book bans can help teachers feel more empowered and informed, said Barker: “Flood your politicians’ emails, phone lines, mailboxes, letting them know the harm that their actions and their words are having on students and our communities.” For teachers who are in riskier settings, she recommends finding or creating a community they can trust and avoiding sharing specifics on social media.

Be open about what reading is for you

Many educators, faced with busy schedules and numerous responsibilities, may opt for shorter reading options like magazines or online blogs. Barker acknowledged that teachers may feel shame about their personal reading choices because they see these texts as less rigorous. These feelings can ultimately deter them from reading altogether. “However, shorter reading selections can still contribute to personal growth and development,” Barker said.

Additionally, she encouraged teachers to embrace diverse reading formats and not be bound by traditional notions of what “counts as reading.” Whether through audiobooks, e-books, or reading on their smartphones, teachers have the freedom to explore different mediums that fit their lifestyles and time constraints. “Yes, we like a solid book,” Barker said, tapping the cover of a book for emphasis. “But it’s okay if we don’t always have the time.” She urged teachers not to think about what “counts as reading” because it can be limiting. By embracing alternative reading methods, teachers can still engage with literature and continue to expand their love for reading.

Keep a reading chart

Barker said it’s helpful for teachers to keep track of what they read. She shared an idea from an elementary school teacher in Nevada who suggested using a bulletin board with three reading lists:

  • Fun reads that showcase books teachers are reading purely for pleasure. This allows teachers to display their personal reading choices, which can spark conversations with colleagues and students about shared interests.
  • Growth reads that include books for professional development. Actively documenting these books helps teachers prioritize their ongoing learning and professional growth, and it serves as a reminder to dedicate time for self-improvement through reading.
  • Student-friendly books, that are suitable for the grades they teach. This list ensures that teachers continue to foster a better understanding of their students’ needs and interests.

Creating a board like this encourages teachers to read a variety of materials while being aware of the balance between their personal reading choices, professional development, and students’ needs.

Find a reading community that works for you

Barker suggested that teachers find a reading community where they can connect with other book lovers and get new reading recommendations. Teachers may find it beneficial to join a professional book club with colleagues or a personal book club outside of their school. Barker said that a book club does not necessarily require physical books. She’s seen successful audiobook clubs and blog book clubs. The key is to create a space where members can come together to share their reading excitement and enthusiasm.

For teachers who can’t make time to meet regularly, there are also online communities of readers on social platforms that make it possible to connect with educators and book enthusiasts across the country. For example, teachers Joel Garza and Scott Bayer started #THEBOOKCHAT on Twitter as a space to recommend books, host discussions and facilitate conversations with authors.

Initiate conversations with school leaders

Teachers can advocate for a more reading-friendly culture within their schools by engaging with school leaders. For example, teachers may advocate for the creation of a reading community at work. This might involve exploring ways to make school meetings shorter or even replacing some meetings with email communication, said Barker. Additionally, teachers can propose that professional development sessions include dedicated time for reading and discussions about books.

Teachers can also ask for teacher-centric spaces around the school. Barker recommended establishing a “book nook” in the teachers’ lounge, providing a cozy and inviting environment where teachers can relax and read before and after school and during their lunch period. She urged school leaders to “transform the day to day so you can create space for teachers to become readers and talk about reading.” Their efforts can demonstrate the school’s commitment to teacher wellbeing and promote a community-wide love of books.

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