to kill a mockingbird December 18


The Power of a Teacher by Tammy Mulligan

My 9th grade son is reading To Kill a Mockingbird in his English class.  When I saw this book, it reminded me of all the classic novels I didn’t read in high school:

  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • The Catcher and the Rye, J.D. Salinger
  • Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  • And many others…


You see, I could read but I chose not to.   I found no enjoyment in reading and didn’t see its purpose.  I got through my English classes like many other students – I went to the bookstore and purchased the yellow and black striped books, the CliffsNotes.   When I got home, I memorized Cliff’s interpretations of the books and spit them back out on the tests.   My system worked and I saw no need to change it.


So when did I learn to love reading?   I wish I could remember the exact name of the college course or the name of the professor who taught it, but I can’t.   After so many years, all that has stayed with me are the feelings of learning to love reading.


I remember picking up the books for this course at the college bookstore.  As the stack of newly published paperbacks grew in my arms, the panic in my head also grew, as I realized Cliff and his notes were not going to save me this time.


I remember setting the books down next to the syllabus and calculating how much I needed to read each week in order to “get through” these texts.  I made a new reading plan – start reading and keep going.


As I spent hours and weeks reading these texts, I began to see the power of reading.   The more I read, the more I looked forward to reading and eventually I became a reader who loved to read.


During this class we discussed these texts and debated ideas back and forth.  Since these books were newly published and related to events happening in the world, the classroom conversations bounced back and forth between ideas in the texts and current political events.  Course expectations were simple and clear –  Read a lot and come to class prepared to share ideas.


This professor, his high expectations, and his teaching methods changed my reading life.    Suddenly, I became someone who read and someone who discussed books.   This new identify began to transfer beyond the classroom walls and into my every day life.  I remember coming home from college and talking to my uncle about one of these texts.  The joy of being able to recommend a book to someone else was a feeling that has stayed with me all of these years.


As I reread To Kill a Mockingbird and talk about this classic piece of literature with my son, I remember the power of expectations, the power of talk, and the power of a teacher.   Our expectations and the way we design learning experiences for our students can change a reader’s life.   I always want to remember, “We get what we expect.”


Tammy Mulligan currently leads Teachers for Teachers with Clare Landrigan. They provide professional development to several districts as external staff developers. Tammy and Clare are the authors of Assessment in Perspective: Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers.You can find more of their writing at