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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.

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Ann Sisko's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jonathan Kozol, as usual, is passionately confronting us with something that needs to be said. Over and over again. And HEARD.

As a new teacher, I started out in a "successful, enlightened, nonscripted, non-test-driven" suburban school district. It was a great time and place to be a new teacher. I was supported and inspired by the people I worked with.

I'm still in the same district, but new teachers in my district today find themselves pressured by the NCLB testing, frustrated by pacing charts, and confused by administrative policies that emphasize differentiation yet obsess over test scores.

I'm sure I'm not the only teacher who would like to know whether any successful, enlightened, nonscripted, non-test-driven public schools still exist. If you happen to be teaching in one, please let us know!!!!

Gregg Sinner, North Brookfield, MA's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jonathan continues to get it right. We first met in 1972 at the Shanti School in the south wing of the Union Railway Station in Hartford, CT. Shanti was a regional, alternative high school that served kids from a dozen school districts in the Greater Hartford area that were members of the Capitol Region Education Council. As a scientist and a rookie teacher lured away from the industrial research bench, I learned first hand the lessons Jonathan offers us in his Letters: get to know the kids; let the kids get to know you; find out what they are interested in; have a little fun -- and only then will you learn how to inspire them to rise to your challenge as a teacher...in my case the stuff of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Now - nearly 40 years later - increasing numbers of brave and wonderful teachers, with a little help from their friends, are standing up -- to a status quo that tells them to sit down and do what they are told. Our work now is to make certain that what we know in our hearts and minds is the truth of Jonathan's words work systemically for all kids, by design.

PK's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm in a non-scripted, non-test-driven public high school...Jonathon Kozol has been one of my heroes for twenty years. I read every one of his books voraciously and encourage all to do the same. I've seen him speak, but more importantly, I've listened to his voice in the quiet of my house at sunrise as I sit contemplating another week in this exhausting, but rewarding profession. He's a voice of reason and we need more of them.

I teach in a rural public high school in the wonderful state of New Hampshire where teachers still determine much of what is taught in their classrooms. We are a Professional Learning Community school that has weekly time for teacher collaboration and curriculum work. So this morning I sat with a teacher who also teaches writing to seniors and we talked about how are students did on our last unit (looking at their work against the criteria we believe is important) and planned for our next. We talked about Donald Murray's vision for teaching writing, we talked about my colleague's writing which he shares with his students, and we talked about how to keep track of the independent reading library books that keep disappearing as more students realize what a gold mine we have in our room. Time to have professional conversations leads to excellent teaching.

There are places in this country that do not worship at the altar of NCLB. We work with an at-risk population and struggle to keep too many of them from dropping out, but we do not let federal legislators who are not teachers determine what we do. We seek high standards in every content area, so we provide good professional development for our teachers to help them assist all students in meeting them. Yes, we have a terrific principal who leads us, and yes, we have committed colleagues who want to be exceptional, but we're also in a state where the Department of Education has not taken over local curriculum. And yes, every year we have openings to teach here.

Fight the good fight, colleagues: the one that puts students first and mandates last. Read professional journals in your content area and attend conferences to meet other colleagues with the passion it takes to make a difference in education. The kids are counting on you.

Susan Haydock's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There is not a profession on this planet which is not driven by data today and then responding to that data is documented. As a Senior teacher mentor I still have passion for all those things that are critical today and yesterday and that is building a community of learners from the students to teachers, to parents to the entire community. Teaching learners to celebrate diversity by reading and viewing the words and actions of many cultures through the learning process.

Everything Kozol says was true thirty years ago and is still true today. However, many educators looked on some learners as taking too much effort, or oh look they didn't learn this year let's look back and see what has happened previously. Well surprise today we have Seniors in high school who are reading at a fourth grade level. We have honors students who are poor writers.

Bravo Kozol, your message is true but it has always been true. I expend more time building a strong relationship with learners, getting to know their needs both social, emotional and academic. Creativity and resourcefulness are the by-words in my room. Social responsibility in and out of our room are critical.

The what I teach is only the "what" the how I teach is my "passion".

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