Letters to a Young Teacher

Letters to a Young Teacher

4.3 6
by Jonathan Kozol

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This is the book for readers of Jonathan Kozol's previous works on education, including The Shame of the Nation and On Being a Teacher; for readers of memoirs like Frank McCourt's Teacher Man; for new teachers looking for guidance and inspiration; and for educators, administrators, and children's advocates of all levels of experience.

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This is the book for readers of Jonathan Kozol's previous works on education, including The Shame of the Nation and On Being a Teacher; for readers of memoirs like Frank McCourt's Teacher Man; for new teachers looking for guidance and inspiration; and for educators, administrators, and children's advocates of all levels of experience.
From the award-winning author of bestsellers Shame of the Nation, Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace, Death at an Early Age, and Ordinary Resurrections, Jonathan Kozol's most personally insightful and revealing work to date takes the form of encouraging letters to Francesca, a young classroom teacher, offering advice, personal stories, and a shared sense of outrage at the inadequacies of America's educational system.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Kozol’s love for his students is as joyful and genuine as his critiques of the system are severe. He doesn’t pull punches.”
Washington Post

“[Charts] the positive tension between his lifelong indignation and the renewable joy of being in the classroom, something essential to all good teaching.”
Los Angeles Times

“In lovingly supportive letters to a young woman on her first job as a first grade teacher, Kozol brings us heartwarming stories of the magic of kids who delight in words like ‘wiggly’ and ‘wobbly,’ ‘bamboozle’ and ‘persnickety’–and who could resist a child called Pineapple? This remarkable book is a testament to teachers who not only respect and advocate for children on a daily basis but who are the necessary guardians of the spirit. Every citizen who cares about the future of our children ought to read this.”
—Eric Carle, author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar

“What a wonderful book! Anyone who cares about rebuilding our public education system should read it. I could not put it down!”
—Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education, Stanford University

“This book cuts to the heart of the matter of what it means to be a teacher today. The truth about testing, vouchers and their impact on public schools–it’s all captured here. But here, too, we also experience the exhilaration of putting together lesson plans, the joys of comforting children, and the anxiety of a teacher’s first days in school. Francesca’s journey will leave you hopeful for our nation’s children.”
—Reg Weaver, President, National Education Association

“Jonathan Kozol’s advice to the teacher Francesca shows all the qualities that make him the nation’s wisest and boldest and most clear-headed writer on education: his passion for teaching, his respect for students, his refusal to submit to the stifling demands of the educational bureaucrats in and out of government. He tells personal classroom stories with a refreshing honesty, and conveys the excitement and joy of preparing a new generation to remake the world. Teachers, students, parents alike will find this book inspiring.”
—Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States

“In these letters Kozol establishes a sense of trust with his readers exactly as he did with his students in Boston many years ago. His wisdom and humility come through so clearly that you have to wonder why everyone who works with children and teachers cannot be as clear-thinking and genuine. This book is a tutorial in humanity from one of America’s greatest educators and social commentators. It should be read by every new teacher in our public schools.”
—David Berliner, author of Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools

“With Letters to a Young Teacher, Jonathan Kozol reminds us that teaching remains a wonderful and essential calling. Committed, gifted teachers who recognize the 'inherent value' of every child are needed now more than ever. I hope this inspiring book will spark a new generation of teacher-leaders heeding Kozol's passionate call and example.”
—Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children's Defense Fund

“In Letters to a Young Teacher, Kozol’s tone is conversational but his challenge to all of us is urgent. On a range of educational questions–segregation, vouchers, testing, and the profession of teaching–his perspective is informed by a gentle perplexity that sometimes spikes into outrage. ‘How can this be?’ he seems to ask us. ‘How can we allow this to happen to our children?’ The more people who read him, the greater our chances of climbing out of the dark hole into which American education has fallen–or been pushed.”
—Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve and The Homework Myth

Library Journal

Through the framing device of actual letters to a first-year grade school teacher at a New England inner-city school, Kozol (Death at an Early Age) explores themes familiar to readers of his previous works. He shares his passions about the education of children, including his opinion that vouchers will benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor, deep concerns about the privatization of public education, and ongoing disdain for the dishonesty he discerns lying behind the rhetoric about equality in education. His points are well documented in an extensive notes section that includes sufficient references to his own earlier writings to provide a retrospective view of this progressive educator's life work over the past four decades. In one quite lovely chapter focusing on the value of interpersonal relationships between and among students and teachers, he pays tribute to the late Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhoodfame) by describing vignettes from their shared classroom visits and subsequent correspondence over the last ten years of Rogers's life. Kozol has made important contributions to progressive education in his own life. A fine update of his ideas and insights; recommended for public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/15/07.]
—Jean Caspers

Kirkus Reviews
Back to school with America's most inspiring education advocate. National Book Award-winner Kozol (The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, 2005, etc.) assumes the role of avuncular mentor in this winsome yet passionate collection of letters to Francesca, a brand-new teacher in inner-city Boston. The epistolary format, though somewhat disjointed, allows Kozol to range widely as he recalls his own first days of teaching and offers vignettes about the children he's known over the years. He knocks education degrees and vouchers, assesses the fad of breaking up large high schools into "mini-schools" and gives advice about how to work patiently with those kids who are determined to hate and disrespect their teachers. Each letter to Francesca is studded with insights. Today's obsession with tests and "proficiency" comes in for some of Kozol's saltiest castigations, as do the teachers who bow before them. "Teachers have to find the will to counteract this madness," he writes, because "abject capitulation to unconscionable dictates from incompetent or insecure superiors" will only teach children to likewise capitulate. Kozol also addresses the tricky relationships among teachers, principals and parents. Schools often blame parents for kids' problems, but the schools themselves-from the demeanor of administrators to the imposing buildings themselves-subtly suggest parents are not welcome participants in their children's education. Many themes from Kozol's earlier books are reprised here, including his diehard defense of public education and his insistence that those public schools have become re-segregated. Indeed, he repeats approvingly Francesca's comment thatthe word "diversity," a favorite of education pundits, "has come to be a cover-up for situations to which it can't possibly apply"-i.e., public schools with 3,000 students of whom six or seven are white. Solutions? More money and a large supply of clear-thinking, dedicated teachers like Francesca who can turn the system around. Lacks the muckraking that characterizes much of Kozol's oeuvre, but solid nonetheless.

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Chapter One
A Life Among Schoolchildren

Dear Francesca,
I was very happy that you wrote to me and I apologize for taking two weeks to reply. I was visiting schools in other cities in the first part of the month and I didn’t have a chance to read your letter carefully until tonight.

The answer to your question is that I would love to come and visit in your classroom and I’m glad that you invited me. I’d also like to reassure you that you didn’t need to worry that I’d think your letter was presumptuous. I like to hear from teachers and, as you have probably suspected, I feel very close to quite a few of them, especially the ones who work with little children in the elementary grades, because those are the grades I used to teach. I think that teaching is a beautiful profession and that teachers of young children do one of the best things that there is to do in life: bring joy and beauty, mystery and mischievous delight into the hearts of little people in their years of greatest curiosity.

Sometimes when I’m visiting a school, a teacher whom I may have met once when she was in college, or with whom I may have corresponded briefly, or a teacher whom I’ve never met but who’s read one of my books and feels as if she knows me, sees me standing in the corridor and comes right up and tells me, “Come and visit in my classroom!” Sometimes she doesn’t give me any choice. She simply grabs me by the arm and brings me to the classroom. Then, when I get there, typically she puts me on the spot and asks if I would like to teach a lesson or ask questions to her children.

I love it when teachers let me do this, but I almost always do it wrong at first, because it’s been a long time since I was a teacher, and I often ask the kind of question that gets everybody jumping from their seats and speaking out at the same time. Six-year-olds, when they become excited, as you put it in your letter, have “only a theoretical connection with their chairs.” They do the most remarkable gymnastics to be sure you see them. A little girl sitting right in front of me will wave her fingers in my face, climbing halfway out of her chair, as if she’s going to poke me in the eyes if I won’t call on her, and making the most heartrending sounds—“Ooooh! Ooooh! Ooooh! Ooooh!”—in case I still don’t notice that she’s there. Then, when I finally call on her, more often than not she forgets the question that I asked, looks up at me in sweet bewilderment, and asks me, “What?” It turns out she didn’t have a thing to say. She just wanted me to recognize that she was there.

The teacher usually has to bail me out. She folds her arms and gives the class one of those looks that certain teachers do so well, and suddenly decorum is restored.

It’s a humbling experience, but I think that it’s a good one too, for someone who writes books on education to come back into the classroom and stand up there as the teacher does day after day and be reminded in this way of what it’s like to do the real work of a teacher. I sometimes think that every education writer, every would-be education expert, and every politician who pontificates, as many do so condescendingly, about the “failings” of the teachers in the front lines of our nation’s public schools ought to be obliged to come into a classroom once a year and teach the class, not just for an hour with the TV cameras watching but for an entire day, and find out what it’s like. It might at least impart some moderation to the disrespectful tone with which so many politicians speak of teachers.

In my writings through the course of nearly 40 years, I have always tried to bring the mighty and ferocious educational debates that dominate the pages of the press and academic publications, in which the voices of our teachers are too seldom heard, back from the distant kingdom of intimidation and abstraction—lists of “mandates,” “sanctions,” and “incentives” and “performance standards” and the rest —into the smaller, more specific world of colored crayons, chalk erasers, pencil sharpeners, and tiny quarrels, sometimes tears and sometimes uncontrollably contagious jubilation of which daily life for a real teacher and her students is, in fact, composed.

I’m often disappointed, when I visit some of the allegedly sophisticated schools of education, to recognize how very little of the magic and the incandescent chemistry that forms between a truly gifted teacher and her children is conveyed to those who are about to come into our classrooms. Many of these schools of education have been taken over, to a troubling degree, by people who have little knowledge of the classroom but are the technicians of a dry and mechanistic, often business-driven version of “proficiency and productivity.” State accountability requirements, correlated closely with the needs and wishes of the corporate community, increasingly control the ethos and the aims of education that are offered to the students at some of these schools.

But teachers, and especially the teachers of young children, are not servants of the global corporations or drill sergeants for the state and should never be compelled to view themselves that way. I think they have a higher destiny than that. The best of teachers are not merely the technicians of proficiency; they are also ministers of innocence, practitioners of tender expectations. They stalwartly refuse to see their pupils as so many future economic units for a corporate society, little pint-sized deficits or assets for America’s economy, into whom they are expected to pump “added value,” as the pundits of the education policy arena now declaim. Teachers like these believe that every child who has been entrusted to their care comes into their classroom with inherent value to begin with.

Many of the productivity and numbers specialists who have rigidified and codified school policy in recent years do not seem to recognize much preexisting value in the young mentalities of children and, in particular, in children of the poor. Few of these people seem to be acquainted closely with the lives of children and, to be as blunt as possible about this, many would be dreadful teachers because, in my own experience at least, they tend to be rather grim-natured people who do not have lovable or interesting personalities and, frankly, would not be much fun for kids to be with.

A bullying tone often creeps into their way of speaking. A cocksure overconfidence, what Erik Erikson described as “a destructive conscientiousness,” is not unfamiliar too. The longer they remain within their institutes of policy or their positions in the government, the less they seem to have a vivid memory of children’s minuscule realities, their squirmy bodies and their vulnerable temperaments, their broken pencil points, their upturned faces when the teacher comes and leans down by their desk to see why they are crying.

I suspect that you and I will come back to this matter many times. For now I simply want to say I’m very, very glad you’re teaching here in Boston, because that means that I can visit sometimes in your class without needing to make plans long in advance. Thank you for saying it’s okay if I stop by one day without much prior warning, which makes things a whole lot easier for me. As you know, you’re teaching in the neighborhood where I began to teach, so I definitely will not need to ask you for directions!

I promise to visit as soon as I can. Meanwhile, I hope the next few weeks are not too intimidating for you. You said you like your principal and that she’s been kind to you. That’s one big victory to start with. I’m sure there will be many more during the weeks ahead. In spite of the butterflies you said are making “many, many loop-the- loops” within your stomach almost every morning as you head for school, try hard to enjoy this first month with your children if you can.

It will someday be a precious memory.

Chapter Two
Establishing the Chemistry:First Days in the Classroom

Dear Francesca,
You asked me how I felt the first day I ever taught in a public school.

The truthful answer is that I was terrified, even more than you were, I suspect, because I’d had no preparation as a teacher. I had gone to Harvard College, where I was a literature major, then had studied briefly as a Rhodes Scholar in England and had lived in Paris, where I’d studied writing in the company of older writers who were living there.

When I came back to the United States in 1964 and decided I would like to teach in public school, I knew nothing about teaching and had never had a class in education. But my lack of qualifications didn’t seem to matter to officials in the Boston Public Schools, who were so desperate to hire almost anyone who would agree to teach in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods that my application was approved without much questioning.

I found myself, within three weeks, assigned to teach a fourth grade class in Roxbury, the section of the city where the black community of Boston was confined to live, a pattern of confinement, as you’ve noted, that exists unaltered to the present day.

My school was in a ghostly looking, badly overcrowded and physically decrepit building where my students couldn’t even be provided with a classroom of their own. We had to share an undivided auditorium with 35 other children in another fourth grade class, and with a choral group, and sewing class (fifth grade girls, all black, were taken out of academic classes for an hour every day to learn to sew on old machines like those my grandmothers had used), and with a group rehearsing almost all fall for a Christmas play that somehow never was produced.

One windy afternoon that fall, a rotted frame of windows in our make- shift class collapsed. I was standing close enough to catch the frame before the glass could shatter on the children sitting just beneath it.

Some of the children seemed to have accepted these conditions or, at least, did not appear to feel they had the right to question them. Others did not suffer these indignities so passively but seemed to simmer with hostility toward many of the teachers and the principal. When the anger of these kids erupted, they were taken to the basement of the school, where whippings were administered by an older teacher who employed a rattan whip which he first dipped in vinegar in order to intensify the pain that it inflicted on a child’s outstretched hands. The year before, one of the students in my class landed in the hospital after one of several whippings he’d received. His right forefinger had been permanently distorted as a consequence.

In the spring, the principal assigned me to another fourth grade class that had a classroom of its own but was in an even worse condition than the class in which I had begun, because the children in that room had had a string of substitute teachers almost the whole year. In the course of the preceding months, twelve different teachers had appeared and disappeared.

One of the most unhappy of these teachers, an emotionally unstable person who had no experience in teaching and an oddly frenzied look in his eyes, seemed to be a kindly man, but he could not control the pent-up anger of the children. One very cold day he made the bad mistake of stepping outside on the platform of the fire escape to clap the chalk erasers. One of the children slammed the door shut while he was outside. He banged on the door and shouted warnings at the children, but they wouldn’t let him in. A teacher, alerted by the noise, who came into the room at last, said that he was red in the face and stamping his feet—“like Rumpelstiltskin!” in her words—until she opened the door to rescue him.

That was his last day at the school. Seven additional substitute teachers came and went during the next ten days. At that point, the principal told me this would be my class for the remainder of the year.

As you can imagine, I began my first day with those children with the deepest trepidation. I knew how angry and distrustful they’d become— rightfully so, in view of all the damage that the school had done to them by now. But I also knew it was essential for me to suppress the self-doubts I was feeling and do something, anything I could contrive, to give the kids the confidence that a new beginning had been made.

It wasn’t easy at the start. I literally had to shout the children down during the first few days in order to be heard. I think they were shocked by this, because I’d worked with some of them in small groups earlier that year, and they’d never heard me raise my voice like that before.

Once the class calmed down a bit, I sat on my desk and made a promise to the children: I told them that they would not be abandoned. I told them I was there to stay. I don’t know why it is that they believed me. They had no reason to accept such promises from yet another teacher. I do know that, from that point on, I did my damnedest to exploit every bit of personal theatricality I had at my disposal in order to infuse that room with energy and, as best I could, with the exhilaration that might bring some smiles to the very sullen faces that had come to be their adaptation to conditions that most children, rich or poor, in any school or district would have found unbearable.

Francesca, I don’t want you to imagine that I was immediately successful. There are too many stories about “super-teachers” who walk into hopeless situations and work instant miracles. Those stories make good movies but don’t often happen in real life; and I know that, in my own case anyway, I did not work any miracles that spring. Some of the kids remained resistant to me for a long, long time, and there were two or three who never really opened up to me until the last weeks of the year. But I did discover—and I still don’t understand the chemistry that made this happen—that most of the children seemed to trust me, and one reason for this, I believe, is that they could see that I did not condemn them for the chaos and confusion they’d been through, because I told them flatly that they had been treated in a way that I thought unforgivable.

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"Encouraging…forceful…convincingly argued" —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review

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Letters to a Young Teacher 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great exchange between Kozol and the young teacher, Francesca! The topics are relevant and timely. Good advice for future teachers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I watched the CSPAN interview with Jonathan Kozol a couple of months ago. I had never heard of Mr. Kozol but after the interview, I wanted to read one or more of his books. I am not an educator or even associated with the education field but am interested in what is happening in our schools today. I thought the book was well written, engaging, and quite informative. I think it could be inspiring and helpful to young teachers, especially those in poorly funded or badly run districts.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a student teacher, I felt that this book was inspiring and though provoking. It made me examine the schools I've seen and question the curriculum that they use. Furthermore, these letters are a good way to start thinking about the political implications of the way we teach, and encourages teachers to be sophisticated political thinkers as well as educators.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book, because it touched on the joyful aspects of being an educator. However, it was realistic in discussing the more serious responsibilities of a professional teacher. Kozol encouraged me to think about the tougher issues that teachers face. This will help me be a better first year teacher because I won't be caught of guard by all of the experiences I will face. I enjoyed the stories that were interspersed throughout and kept it entertaining.