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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teaching with Passion: Advice for Young Educators

Jonathan Kozol talks about building relationships, fostering creativity, and standing up for students.
By Lisa Morehouse

Jonathan Kozol

Credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Kozol

"'Start out tough and stick to the prescribed curriculum,' new teachers are too frequently advised. This, in my belief, is the worst possible advice.

Establishing a chemistry of trust between the children and ourselves is a great deal more important than to charge into the next three chapters of the social studies text or packaged reading system we have been provided: the same one that was used without success by previous instructors and to which the children are anesthetized by now. Entrap them first in fascination. Entrap them in a sense of merriment and hopeful expectations."

-- Jonathan Kozol, Letters to a Young Teacher

For more than 40 years, Jonathan Kozol has taught in, worked with, and written about America's inner-city public schools. His straight talk in best-selling books such as Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace has made him a hero of many teachers, and he fiercely opposes government policies he believes perpetuate educational inequities.

In his newest book, Letters to a Young Teacher, Kozol takes aim at the test-driven curriculum proliferating in our educational system. Through a series of personal letters to Francesca, a fledgling first-grade teacher in Boston who invited him into her classroom, Kozol delivers sage advice, sharp criticism of the status quo, and stories of his own early teaching experiences. As Publishers Weekly remarked, it is "an impassioned book, not only for what it imparts of classroom doings but even more so for the obstacles increasingly being laid at teachers' hands."

These obstacles provided the platform for Kozol's talks at the New Teacher Center Symposium, held in San Jose, California, in February 2008. In his keynote speech and a follow-up session, Kozol frequently touched on the "mystical chemistry between students and teacher" he witnessed in Francesca's classroom.

He also seized the opportunity to opine on what he considers two of the biggest problems facing public schools today: staggering attrition rates among new teachers and the rigid instructional methods many schools employ because of federal No Child Left Behind legislation. Passionate, committed educators can attack inequity, he said, and he offered his audience of nearly 1,100 teachers, mentors, school leaders, and researchers advice for building relationships, fostering creativity, and standing up for their students.

"Fifty percent of young teachers in inner-city schools leave within the first three years. That's twice the rate of the nation," Kozol pointed out, revealing last year's findings from the National Education Association, which warned of a nationwide shortage of 3.9 million teachers by 2014. But Kozol noted that most of these new teachers don't blame students or scapegoat parents for why they leave the job: "They love the kids. They cry when they say good-bye."

Why Teachers Leave

Why do new teachers, especially those in high-needs schools, leave? Kozol cited two familiar reasons: working conditions and a test-crazed education culture: "They speak of the lack of structure, of emotional support from real teachers in their own profession." He dismissed the reliance of many school districts on so-called experts dispensing professional development from the outside.

Kozol underscored the importance of collegial relationships among teachers at the same school, which corresponds with the advice he gives in his book that new teachers seek out experienced educators on the staff, even if their pedagogy seems to differ. In Letters to a Young Teacher, he chastises first-year teachers who "look upon the veteran teachers in their schools as unsophisticated or not innovative."

Kozol added this comment about the best veteran teachers: "They bring a sense of personal stability and of assimilated selflessness into a faculty, as well as all the nuts and bolts of classroom management and of the good instructional approaches they've acquired.

"Many also can help first-year teachers in developing relationships with parents in the neighborhood," he said. "Sometimes, they've known three generations of the families who've passed through the school and can enrich young teachers with an understanding of the history of lived experience in the communities they serve."

The second reason new teachers leave the system, Kozol reported, is that they're "driven nuts" by the "miserable mania of obsessive testing being forced on these kids from No Child Left Behind." Kozol is urging U.S. senator Edward Kennedy to write a new education bill that holds states accountable for providing teachers and students with the real resources it takes to educate poor children.

In his San Jose talks, he argued vigorously against rote tests he deems "not diagnostic, not useful," and "a retroactive label of success or failure." Kozol warned against scripted curricula, which have predetermined the questions teachers are meant to ask and the answers students are supposed to give. "Pity the one maverick student with a different answer!" he quipped.

He also dismissed curriculum-pacing guides, which leave no room for students to ask questions or tell stories in the meandering sentences that mark childhood. "Good teachers know that sometimes at the end of these sentences are treasures," Kozol observed. And such educators use those treasures to engage and teach. "But in today's climate, the teacher is under pressure. There's no time," he lamented, adding that students' stories are too often cut short.

Teaching well, he claimed, takes "moral and ethical bravado." But Kozol did not suggest that educators ignore testing and run their classes with no compass. Instead, he offered specific advice to new teachers who want to work outside a test-driven curriculum: Make sure students achieve, and maintain a calm classroom.

"If you're going to defy some of this Adequate Yearly Progress madness, you've got to be really good at what you're doing," Kozol said, insisting that principals and superintendents want to keep teachers who ensure that their students achieve. "If you're going to introduce healthy, irreverent merriment, you've got to deliver the goods some way," he pointed out. "If you reject phonics, you have to make sure you teach kids to read. It's not enough to say they're happy. You have to have really high expectations of them."

The Best Defense

Kozol argued that new teachers need to protect principals such as Francesca's, who supported her creativity, by not creating disorder in the classroom. "The best teachers do this not by shouting but by winning the affection of the kids so they don't want to make things hard," he said. "Then parents say good things to the principal, and that's the best defense."

Kozol suggested that teachers can use the time they save by leaving behind the scripted curriculum to delve deeply into great literature and encourage young learners' love of language. That's what he witnessed with Francesca. This woman, Kozol makes clear, is a wonderful new teacher. When he arrived in her classroom, she immediately put him to work. He spoke with a certain reverence about her class, which he described as "a piece of poetry, lyrical and lovely."

Francesca, he said, hadn't bought into the evangelism of certain reading instructional camps, but taught her first graders phonics through classic children's literature, such as The Hungry Caterpillar and Goodnight Moon, plus contemporary writing that reflected the ethnic backgrounds of her students, as well as adult poems from William Butler Yeats and Rainer Maria Rilke.

"Politicians believe that ruthless phonics will cure all ills of society," Kozol said. Because of this belief, educators will not universally accept Francesca's way of teaching. Kozol knows first-hand about teaching against the grain. In the mid-1960s, he was fired from his job in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood for reading a Langston Hughes poem in class. His dismissal, and the state of the city's segregated schools, inspired civil rights groups and normal citizens to protest.

"You're going to need a big dose of mischievous irreverence if you want to survive with your soul intact," Kozol said. "It takes bravery to do what Francesca did." According to Kozol, it's this type of bravery, plus attention to rigor and joy in the classroom, that new teachers and our public schools need.

For the development of new teachers, Kozol suggested showing them models of high-quality, exciting learning environments. "I would try to see if it's possible logistically to bring new teachers at high-needs schools to observe in the most successful, enlightened, nonscripted, non-test-driven, wealthy school districts," he said. "Let them see a different world."

Having witnessed the contrasting environment of well-supported schools, Kozol believes these new teachers will be emboldened to "see themselves not just as skilled practitioners but also as warriors for justice. If they won't speak out for their kids, who will?"

Lisa Morehouse, a former teacher, is now a public-radio journalist and education consultant.

Comments (34)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jon Rex's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe some of the methods used in education are working and some are not. I work in a small school (450 students) that was once part of a large school (2000 students). I feel what we are accomplishing with our students has overall been very positive. Our list of seniors going to a four-year university and community college grows every year. We get to have close relationships with our students at our school, which I feel has helped students become successful by the time they graduate - along with the fact that we help the struggling students make it to graduation where at larger schools, they may drop out. I feel most schools in the nation need to make a couple of key changes in the future: I would like to see most class sizes reduced to about 20 students - if K-12 students could have smaller class sizes, I believe the learning would be much better for students. I find large classes very difficult to manage and teach to every student - I know a number of my students need more one-on-one assistance, but with a large class, this is difficult to accomplish. The second thing I feel schools could benefit from is having the best teachers in lower performing schools. If we can have the best of the best teaching struggling students (and getting paid well for doing it) then there would likely be more students making it to their high school graduation. Our country needs to keep exploring new ways of teaching to reach our youth if we want to stay competitive in our global world.

Leo Lopez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I cannot agree more with this article than I already do. We are told as students at our university and as new teachers "stick to the curriculum!" We are forced to take classes on lesson planning and more lesson planning. It wasn't until I had a psychology course for teachers that the professor explained that "if you think 50 Cent is 2 quarters, M&M (Eminem) is a candy coated chocolate, and Pink is a color then you will not have their attention." These individuals, positive or negative, play an important role in the lives of kids today. If we want them to respect what we believe in, we need to respect their choice in music, sport, television, etc. It is the steps towards making a connection with a student. This is how we begin establishing a "chemistry of trust." Going to the Friday night football game to watch your students play in the big game against the rival school; going to the play that a student is starring in; going to the Division basketball championship game that some of your students play in; these are very important events in the lives of students and if they see that it is important to you as well, the teacher is now seen as a person. I also work at a small school that is part of a big complex. The complex student population size is 3,000, but each small school has approximately 500 students. I believe that, because of the smaller school size and smaller class sizes', building a more personable bond with students was easier which in turn has raised our test scores and attendance rates.

Leo Lopez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Testing is a tool for teachers to determine how he/she and the students are doing. It determines if he or she has taught well and determines if the students learned from the teachings well. As a teacher you use the results to graph where your strengths and weaknesses are and where any individual student's weaknesses are. You use the results to change your teaching style and focus more on the areas that the student s did not do well on and to work individually with the student that did not perform well in an area. Standardized Testing only creates anxiety among the students and the teachers. Testing was not intended to determine whether kids are smarter than another percentage of students in the state or that a teacher or schools are better than others. Testing is a tool.

John Michener, San Diego's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Having been educators, both Kozol and Morehouse know what it takes to be successful in the classroom. So, why is it shocking that teachers in inner cities are leaving? While I agree that added stress ("just get through the curriculum for the test") caused by factors such as NCLB is probably a major factor in teacher attrition, it is the OVERALL climate of inner city schools that makes 50 percent throw in the towel.

Most aspiring, rookie, and veteran teachers have the same vision (even more so in the inner city); to educate thus empower youth to break various family and societal cycles. Call it a realistic Utopia. Yes, we love our kids, but witnessing the other life obstacles our 150-200 students have each year can become overwhelming. Now, add "a test-crazed education culture" and stir.

Beginning teachers that leave decide that they can only mentally handle one job or role. They decide being a Social Worker, Teacher, Father, Brother, Friend, Credit Counselor, Lawyer, Banker, Loan Officer, Nurse, Counselor, Secretary, Police Officer, and Transportation Manager is a little bit more than they bargained for.

Thankfully, many of us are still realistically striving for an edutopia.

Andrea Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Being a former student of Lisa Morehouse, in which I too will become a High School teacher soon I strongly believe that variety of different tactics to engage your students to be more passionate about learning is the way to go. I've been told that teachers are required to stick to a strict teaching plan (I'm not sure of the truth to this) but I have witnessed instances where there is little room for teachers to free style, to teach in more modern, interesting ways that may appeal to the students.
I just hope that when I become a teacher, I can have space to do my job. that is, not only to teach but to broaden my kids thinking and to give them tools to become passionate or in the less interested.

K Propeck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kozol's statement that you must be really good at what you're doing it you want to defy the AYP madness, makes complete sense to me. If you are able to use innovative methods and add fun to learning, yet still make the necessary gains, it validates your teaching methods. To say you are going to teach to the tune of your own piper and then have students failing would be useless. By holding students to high expectations, regardless of the methods we use, they will be more successful. I have been teaching almost 5 years and depend on the stability and advice of many veteran teachers. I have seen first hand how they handle classroom management, incorporate lesson plans across subject areas, etc. I appreciated Kozol's thoughts on delving into rich literature to teach reading. I have found my students respond to good literature and learn more in the process.

Andrea Heath's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One thing that really stood out to me from this story is Kozol's emphasis on the environment. He states that we need to keep a level of excitment in our classrooms in order to stay motivated and in this profession. It's not just the curriculum or standardized tests that matter, but those things going on in the classroom. Find some way to relate to the students and make time to laugh each day. This will make the learning more meaningful and more easily grasped.

Dahna R. Willis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Relationships, creativity and advocacy - a trifecta for success in the classroom and community; Kozol is right-on in elevating such practices. What, I wonder, might be his take on the Teach for America program? Presently exploring a position within that organization, I understand the reason for great controversy among diverse stakeholders within the system of public education. Opinions, observations, shared experiences would be most welcome. Peace...

Mohammed Rafiq's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really appreciate and like your views and ideas

Rajat Mishra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Practical ideal...I find this article very close to my heart. Teachers in India face the same problem. They give up in order to survive. To satisfy the curricula, to help achieve big scores is the main mantra. Here, you have rightly suggested that a new teacher should aim at both. I mean, to be quick enough to complete the syllabus and then with a relaxed mind teach the heart of the matter, heart of the subject, share the heart with the blooming hearts.

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