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FINE Newsletter, Volume III, Issue 3
Issue Topic: Special Summer Issue

Book Review

Ashley Chu is an early childhood teacher in Washington, DC, and a former research assistant for Harvard Family Research Project. She recently graduated with a Master’s degree in education policy from Harvard Graduate School of Education. In this review of The Influence of Teachers, Chu provides her personal reflections on the book’s messages and her views on the book’s implications for family engagement in education.

In his newest book, education journalist and blogger John Merrow considers pertinent issues in today’s education discourse, offering direction for the changes society needs to make to improve the lives of children. In The Influence of Teachers1, Merrow reflects on such controversial topics as teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, merit pay, tenure, district leadership, and charter schools, paying particular attention to the important role of teachers in these discussions.

Merrow taught briefly, from the junior high to graduate levels, before becoming an education reporter with NPR and an education correspondent for PBS NewsHour, and it is evident throughout the book that Merrow holds a deep respect for the teaching profession and is troubled by the many ways in which teachers in America have been undervalued. He argues that schools need to be safe places where teachers can create stimulating and exciting environments for children to learn, rather than assessment-focused institutions where children’s natural enthusiasm for learning is under-utilized. Merrow believes that learning entails more than answering questions and filling in bubbles on answer sheets—students must develop the skills needed to think creatively and critically and raise their own questions. If those in charge of education (such as superintendents, political leaders, and union leaders) continue to battle over issues like merit pay, test scores, and union rules—issues that are largely irrelevant to children—then children will lose out on opportunities to learn to think critically in a technologically advancing world.

The Influence of Teachers is a useful read because it presents data and evidence in an accessible manner and provides fresh insights into hot topics in current education policy. With much of the ongoing education policy debates taking place far from the actual work that teachers do daily in the classroom, Merrow sees a need to reposition teachers, school and district leadership, and children at the heart of education reform discussions.

Merrow notes that “the recipe for success includes some mix of strong leadership, committed teachers, an integrated curriculum, the willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and accepted practices, and the moral imperative to care for and about all of our children” (p. 154). In other words, there is no single solution that will fix education, but instead a need for dedication and collaboration to drive change while also keeping pace with the technological changes that we face. According to Merrow, quality teaching is unfortunately missing from many classrooms. His book is a call to educators to refuse to accept mediocrity in the profession and to take action to improve the lives of children.

Personal Reflections on Implications for Family Engagement
While Merrow does not directly discuss the role of families in these conversations, the book nonetheless has important implications for family engagement in education. Through my research on family engagement at Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP), I became very interested in how families are embedded in larger discussions of education policy. And as a new teacher, I am working to improve my own practice in engaging families. As such, I searched for ways to apply lessons from the book to family engagement. Merrow’s discussion of learning as “serious fun” helped me think about the important role of families in creating positive learning environments for children. He talks about creating intellectually safe, democratically run schools in which students and teachers alike are invested in the school and feel a sense of shared ownership and mutual respect. I believe that educators need to expand this idea to include the engagement of students’ families: In order for schools to become the places that Merrow imagines, families must be a central part of the process. Teachers need to work not only with students, but also with their families to create environments in which students can learn and succeed.

Merrow’s reflections on teacher retention also have lessons for family engagement. Merrow writes, “If teacher training were challenging, and if teaching were a well-paid occupation—in which expertise was respected and teachers were given opportunities to collaborate and improve—and if out-of-field teaching were simply unacceptable, there would be no teacher shortage” (p. 86). I would broaden this to say that if teachers were also taught how to effectively engage families, and were supported in their efforts, teachers would be happier with their work. Ongoing research by HFRP and other organizations has shown that strong relationships between teachers and families help schools retain high-quality teachers. A 2009 survey of new teachers found that 84% of teachers preferred a school with higher parental support than a school that a paid higher salary2, and a 2009 study of Chicago schools found that elementary school teachers are more likely to stay in schools in which there are trusting relationships with parents3. Thus, the teacher shortage and retention problems must be addressed by better preparing teachers to engage families and by fostering school climates in which teachers are encouraged to build partnerships with families.

The Influence of Teachers is a thoughtful and enjoyable read. Throughout the book, Merrow pays tribute to the extraordinary work that teachers do in the classroom every day, while also bringing attention to the many flaws and dilemmas that currently exist in education policy and reform. While Merrow does not explicitly include families as an essential element of schooling, his book nonetheless has important implications for family engagement. For schools to become the type of institution that Merrow envisions—safe places where teachers want to be and where children can flourish—education thought-leaders and practitioners need to take action to improve working conditions for teachers, learning conditions for students, and relationships between schools and families and the broader community.

1 Merrow, J. (2011). The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership. New York: LM Books.

2 Coggshall, J. G., Ott, A., Behrstock, E., & Lasagna, M. (2009). Retaining teacher talent: The view from Generation Y. Naperville, IL & Washington, DC: Learning Point Associates & Public Agenda.

3 Allensworth, E., Ponisciak, S., & Mazzeo, C. (2009). The schools teachers leave: Teacher mobility in Chicago public schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

This article is part of the August 2011 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the FINE Newsletter Archive, visit

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project