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
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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 (35) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Robyn E's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I saw this blog I knew I had to reply. I read Kozol's book Savage Inequalities in my undergraduate studies. His words are inspiring and should be heard by the nation. I agree with Kozol that districts are treated unjustly but it is not just the inner-city schools, it is the rural high needs schools as well. I am a first year teacher in one such NY school, rural and high needs that is. I think that through it all, teachers need to feel that the job they do is for the betterment of the child, and not just the achievements on the standardized tests. At times I feel that there is not enough time as Kozol suggested. He mentioned "in today's climate, the teacher is under pressure. There's no time...and that students' stories are too often cut short." This made me reflect on my own teaching and realize I need to put aside the pressures every once in a while and soak in the stories in order to gain a better understanding of my students, build trusting relationships, and provide an environment where all my students feel secure enough to engage in their learning and explore.

Debbie Leonard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What an empowering article. I now want to read more of what Kozol has to say. What is Savage Inequalities about? Anyway, I too reflected on the importance of making time for my students and their stories. Building the relationships with them and letting them know that they are important is just as essential as the content that needs to be learned. Putting the pressures aside and taking more time to listen to the students will allow me as a teacher the ability to know more about what they need as learners.
I also agree that our novice teachers need more support and encouragement so that they do not feel alone.... Making time to help new teachers is an important part in this world of education.

Sharon M Rawls's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your concern for the time constraints of "fitting in" the curricula and giving the students time to respond and/or add to the lesson. Also the time necessary to build a trusting relationship between teacher and student. As educators, the amount of material we are required to cover keeps us moving as a fast pace. If we focus on the amount of content we are covering, are we really acomplishing our goal? Do the students really learn the material? Can they relate and apply the lesson to their lives. I do not have the answer to this problem. I do know it is more important to connect with the students and give them a sense of purpose for their learning. I have found hat an organized, structured classroom will facilitate the time management.

I also strongly agree with Kozel on the idea of having new teachers observe successful teacher who are in similar classroom environments. Most of my early success came from imitating teachers who look like they had figured it out. As a new teacher the one area I needed the most help with was behavior management. I found out very quickly that shouting was not going to work. In fact, I found that when I lost my temper, I lost control of the class and all academic learning stopped. Now the class was learning how to draw me out of instruction. Observing teacher with experience gave me the benefit of their wisdom. The wisdom that may have taken these experienced teachers several years to aquire, I could now learn without the pain and time of trial and error.

frank Marrero's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The Art of Teaching
There is an art whereby a teacher elicits learning, elicits participation, elicits creativity and growth. It is the art of openness, challenge, and invitation. In developing this art, the teacher sees through skin color and gender, sees through the facade of social faces, and sees through every act of need and fear. The teacher sees clearly the spark or light that is at the core of each and every one, sees how to invite that livingness into openness and trust, sees how to tend that spark into a fire and that vibrancy into genius.
When the teacher matures in this dual-sensitivity of graciousness and growing demand, she or he becomes a kind of priest or priestess, artfully attending the sacred fires who are their students. To invite children into the joy of continual growth, one must be involved in a practice of continual growth. Inspirational teaching is spiritual, attending to the spirit of each student. To lead children out of inability and reactivity to response-ability is not openness only, but openness joined with spirited challenge and gracious invitation.
A great teacher's "spiritual x-ray vision" sees clearly a unique moment in the interaction with children: the first split second when your eyes meet theirs. For if you look through your social face and theirs, you can always see the question that riddles the flesh and complicates every soul: "Are you going to hurt me?" Capturing that initiation, the great teacher is prepared. Deep in her or his heart, he or she is already chanting, "I see you, I'll care for you". In an instant, the student sees the teacher as a friend and the teacher's caring eyes plant a seed of hope in their heart. The first split second when your eyes meet theirs is a great opportunity, and only care and vigilance are required to catch it.
The art of teaching is to tender that place in every child that nobly responds to the call to grow.

Wendy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you! I had unfortunately never heard of Kozol before now and can't wait to read his books. It's ironic that you mention your desire to make more time for your students' stories. We all know these stories can be lenghty and usually encourage lots of other students to want to tell their accounts as well. Just today I had several kindergarteners want to tell me all their stories and I felt pressured to cut them off so that I could get on with my lesson. It's a hard position to be in. I want to listen to them all and hear things that are personally important to them, but where do I draw the line? I do encourage them to talk to me and tell me their stories at recess or during other free time so that I can build a stronger relationship with them and not just converse about curriculum.
I think the comments Kozol makes about the great need of novice teachers to seek out experienced educators is right on the money. Veteran teachers have so much knowledge, hands on experience, and proven results that novice teachers can directly benefit from. I am still a novice teacher and love to get advice and run ideas by a teacher of 30 years on staff. As you can imagine she has seen alot and usually has very sound advice for me.

Howard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wish I had a teacher with your philosophy when I was a lad. Even though I aced my tests, the classes I enjoyed most were those when the instructors stepped out of the conventional teacher mold and dove into the experience with zeal and abandon. Those mentors impressed me with a thirst for knowledge which follows me to this day.

Emma Kaye's picture

I can not agree more. I have 5 children, ages 29, 27, 25, 18 and 11. I have seen what the testing has done to our schools, teachers and students. I see the need to let the teacher teach, and the "powers that be" keep the little fingers out of the way.
please check this too, child book publishing company

michael hattman's picture

Accepting the basic themes found in Letter to A Young Teacher I would offer an additional avenue. Hollywood has placed the live of many new/young teachers on film for our use in teaching/learning the about the Profession. They are 'visual letters' that offer support and insight. Up The Down Staircase, Goodbye Mr.Chips(1939), Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Hoosiers and many others(See www.movieteacher46 for the list. I also offer the use of the book Mentorship Through the Movies(Dated but Free) as a guide for learning/mentoring from reel/real teachers.
Most of the movie were made before NCLB and offer "High Quality Exciting Learning Environments". mike

Joseph Kaye's picture
Joseph Kaye
Director of Academic Success / Edison State College

Starting out anything other than genuine is a recipe for disaster. Nobody likes a phony, and kids can spot one a mile away.

Esther Clarke Carrington's picture

Hi, this is my first Kozol's reading, but I find it very interesting. I too realized that children has so much to tell and I often give them the space to do so. At times they May veer off from the topic at hand, but in time they can be re-directed. In my classroom I see children needing a chance to be themselves and that's what I give them in a loving and professional way.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.