Read an Excerpt
"Ordinary" Children Extra Ordinary Teachers
By Marva Collins
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 1992 Marva Collins
All rights reserved.
Children Do Not Fail
I started Westside Prep in the fall of 1975 because I felt there were far too many children being recruited for failure, far too many excuses being used for not educating children. I live on the west side of Chicago, near where our school is located, and somehow I felt there were too many lives just hanging out there in a perilous vacuum, so I decided to start my own school. Using $5,000 from my pension fund (I had been teaching in public schools for 14 years), we knocked down a wall between two rooms in the upstairs of our house and bought some desks; my husband installed some panelling, and Westside Prep opened its doors on September 8, 1975.
For the first four years we continued to meet in that upstairs schoolroom, cramming 34 desks side by side, using every conceivable inch. We took children who had been expelled from our public schools, who had dropped out in discouragement, or who were simply failing, or being labeled as incorrigible and unteachable. All of the students proceeded to learn and many have now gone on to the best high schools and colleges available. There were no miracles. There is nothing miraculous or magical about their successes. It took only love and determination.
My own philosophy has always been to make the poor student good and the good student superior, with no excuses in between. That has always been my belief, and that is pretty much what we practice at Westside Prep. I also think it's important not to spend so much time being an adult that we forget what it is like to be a child. In every problem situation that children get into, I usually ask myself, "How would I have felt at that age?" I always try to remember what I did as a student in school. I was not perfect, so how can I expect my children to be perfect? We often forget that we've done the very same things as the children.
We also tend to lose perspective; we fail to understand that children have only known us as adults. They assume we were born adults. I think that's the strange thing adults do not realize, because we have been adults as long as they've known us. I think we have to let them know that we did pretty much the same things when we were children, and to somehow let them know that "once when I was a child I did such and such ..." which puts them at ease and takes away the image of a demi-god that teachers, unfortunately, sometimes have in the eyes of children.
Basics, with Positive Reinforcement
On the kind of budget we have, and with our philosophy, we do not need what might be called "teaching frills"— things like film projectors, teaching machines, calculators for the children, and the like. We deal in basics.
I tell my teachers that the four-year-olds who start with us in September must be reading by Christmas—no ifs, ands, or buts, no excuses, no in-betweens. I don't want to hear why they can't, what they don't know, what the problems with them are. I tell the teachers they are responsible for making them learn, and they have to work hard to see that the children succeed; otherwise the teachers will have to be replaced.
At all levels, the teacher can never write anything negative about a child, such as, "He doesn't work up to his potential" or "He doesn't sit still." Everything is positive. I tell the teachers that if a student does not sit still, the teacher is responsible for finding out why. Maybe the "oven is too hot," and we need to make it more comfortable. Or, maybe we need to look at the way the teacher is presenting something. We will not accept failure; there is always a reason why a student is not succeeding.
The teacher sets the ambience in any classroom. The teacher has total control over the learning environment and children respond exactly to the atmosphere a teacher creates. Teachers have been known to ridicule children, or to laugh if a child cannot get the answer, even subtly. Nothing could be worse for a child. In our school the teacher and the rest of the children pull for a child to get it right. You can just see them mentally pulling for the child. And then, when he finally gets the right answer, or finally syllabicates the word correctly, you get this long applause from every child. It's like a total family, and it starts with the teacher, setting the climate for support and care.
Our approach postures the children as the big YOUs, and the teacher as the little I. Everything is for the children. We find something positive to say about a child every morning. For example, the kids will pass by my room and I'll say, "I like your gym shoes. I like your ribbon. I like your barrette. I like your shirt. I like your blue jeans." We find something to say that is complimentary to every child. This is just as important as a curriculum.
As I go across the country, I have occasion to visit a great many schools and invariably the good teacher is in there teaching; the poor teacher is in there giving excuses. The good teacher invariably has an exciting classroom where children are learning—the same kind of ambience we have in our classrooms. The poor teachers all across the country are in screaming and yelling, and as they scream, the students often scream back, and a lot of children simply turn off. I find it to be a universal situation: there are good teachers everywhere, there are poor teachers everywhere. The good ones are constantly trying to find answers, the poor ones are constantly making excuses.
In the last year we have had about 2,500 visitors in our school, and the good teachers come in and sit with me all day and they say, "Oh, this is how you do what you do." The poor teachers, on the other hand, are busy stealing our papers from the wall because they think by osmosis they can grab a paper from the wall and go back to their school and do what we do. They miss the whole point of what real teaching is.
Universality of Children's Needs
Maybe there's something wrong with me, but I don't think in terms of "red, green, black, white, pink, pinstripe, polka-dot, etc." I think quality and I think universality. If I encounter prejudice or a situation that could become prejudicial, I say to our children, "That's that person's problem. Don't become part of the problem too. You have to be bigger than the problem because the smartest man won't insult you, no fool can."
I believe this type of attitude helps our students avoid arguing with each other about trivial things. For example, I will say to two children who are arguing about a pencil, "Why not spend those energies and time trying to figure out how to own the entire pencil company, rather than wanting to knock someone's head off about one single pencil." And as they think about it, it makes a lot of sense to them.
This way of looking at things, so that a small incident is seen as part of a larger picture, is important and takes place inside and outside of the classroom. Some of my most important work with children takes place at lunchtime. I have always insisted on eating lunch with my children instead of being separated off with the other teachers. I try to rotate, sitting next to a different child every day. A particular child might come to school without lunch; some children have problems all the way around. A student's situation is often consistent; no lunch money, no skills, no self-image either. These students will tell me they are not hungry, and I tell them if they won't eat, I'm not going to eat either. Eventually we share, and the children come to learn that we are all in this together.
Then when the other children see me accepting the child, they learn to accept that child too. Everyone wants to be accepted by the teacher and students know that in order to gain acceptance, they must accept a rejected child. As a teacher, you have to be accepting of everyone—the child who's fat, the child who's homely, the child who suffers for whatever reasons. You say to the other children, by your actions, that you are accepting that child and you expect the rest of the children to accept him, too. It does not and cannot be in a verbal way, because you cannot force children to be accepting. But by saying to that runny-nosed child, "You're such a handsome boy. I love you" (and they look back at you as if to say, "Who, me? I can't believe it!"), you are providing a model of behavior for all children to follow.
Social acceptance at school is very important, and we as adults forget how difficult it is for a new child. If I see a child standing on the sidelines, I go outside and join the gang. I never tell the children to let him play because then you put him in a bad situation. I simply take his hand and join another child's hand and he becomes part of a circle and I do that until he is accepted. Then I assign a couple of partners to the new student (and usually I assign the problem students—the children who might sock him in the bathroom when I'm not looking). I don't think teachers realize that when a child is new in school, he is self-conscious and frustrated and wants more than anything to be accepted.
The Total Child
We emphasize a total learning experience. Not only must students be able to pass tests, perform academically, and work through social situations, but they must also have a sense of humanity and compassion. To be bright and not have feelings can lead to incredible inhumanity. I think we must remember what happened in Auschwitz. Here were people who were very, very bright, but they used their intelligence in an attempt to destroy an entire race. They lost a sense of feeling, and their brightness became an inhumanity to man.
I'll often say to my students that we can be ever so clever, but we also have to learn first how to be human. That's why I emphasize philosophy as found in some of the world's classic literary works. The students study Ralph Emerson's Self-Reliance and can quote the famous line, "Any man who would be a man must be a non-conformist." I think that's very important, for among other things, it helps develop individuality and a respect for differences.
Everything a teacher does affects children. That's why you, as a teacher, must be aware of what resources are available, and you must know the moralities of what children read, the actual lessons of life you want them to take into the world. Perhaps this can help explain the reaction our students create in the eyes of objective observers. Many of the visitors who come into our school say our children are so different. They are surprised our children do not act as if they detest whites or do not seem to have the racial hatred that many children have. I think this is because, as Socrates said, "Once a man can be made to be shown good, he will always choose it." These children are so busy learning, they have been shown what is good and what it means to succeed, that they don't have time for racial hatred and petty bigotry.
Once students catch the spirit of learning, they have learned how to tick, how to make the most of what they are. Then they learn how to tick better. They do not have time to worry about what color people may be because they feel good about themselves. Tensions between races or between countries stem from a lack of understanding and an abundance of misunderstanding between cultures. Simply put, an educated population can help solve problems among people and ultimately help us in our goal of world peace. This is, perhaps, the most important and least acknowledged goal of education.
Social Problems and Education
Many of the social problems afflicting our country stem from a lack of good teaching and the failure of our schools to provide a solid education. We have more crime than ever, we have alcohol problems, drug abuse, and a suicide rate among children and teenagers that is epidemic—all because many children never really discover their unique selves. They never really discover that what they are seeking is already within them, like the characters from The Wizard of Oz, each of whom already had what he was looking for. The Lion already had courage, the Tin Man already had a heart. We seek this and we seek that, but maybe it is already within our realms, and if we stop looking outside ourselves and look inside, deeply and intelligently, it is probably there waiting for us.
Education is the one crucial thing that is accessible to all, and without it a man can become like a wild beast. That does not mean that people with degrees are educated. That might be a "surface education." I think we need to know a lot about a lot of things—the essence of a true liberal arts education— in order to make exceptions. How else can we know what we really don't like?
There are people who say they do not like Polish people, for instance, and I ask them if they have met all the Polish people in the world. Of course they haven't. How can one intelligently decide what one likes or dislikes unless one knows all there is to know? That is why syllogistic reasoning is so important, and unfortunately, we have just about eliminated it in most of our schools. We have gotten away from any kind of deep thinking in our teaching, yet perceptive, intelligent, sensitive responses are so crucial to world peace, not to mention within our own communities.
Welcome to Success
When I teach any class, I usually detect a child who wants to act out, and often it is the older boy in the back of the room who is clowning around. I stand right behind that child with my hand on his shoulder and talk directly to him because the children who are behaving do not need my attention. The tendency many teachers have is to ignore these children—they're usually in the back of the room and they usually see themselves as failures. Sometimes I will actually do their work for them, just to give them a taste of success.
I helped one lad with his papers for the first two weeks. I literally went by his desk every day and did his work for him. His response was, "Wait until my old lady see this!" He said "old lady" the first time. Of course, it was "my mother" after a month. He said he had never gotten 100 on a paper in his life. One night his mother called and accused me of helping him with his paper because, as she said, "He always fails everything. He could never have done so well on his own." I told her that failure was what he didn't need any more of. He already knows how to fail; he is in school to learn how to succeed.
When our children walk in the door, I say, "Welcome to success. Say goodbye to failure because you are not going to fail. I'm not going to let you fail. You are here to win, you were born to win and if I have to care more about you than you care about you, that's the way it will be." It doesn't matter what kind of disciplinary problems they had in previous schools; they are with us to succeed. We will not let them fail.
Many of our students are from the inner city. Most have been problems for either their parents or their schools, usually both. The male student, the inner city black male, is a real problem for some schools or school districts. Teachers often seem fearful of these boys, but they don't realize these children have something wonderful and special inside that is trying to escape. They remind me of what Michelangelo said about a piece of marble: "Inside is an angel trying to get out." I think of that in our school environment. There is a great deal of toughness and tough talk on the street and in the school but inside is a child who wants to be accepted, a child who wants to succeed.
Excerpted from "Ordinary" Children Extra Ordinary Teachers by Marva Collins. Copyright © 1992 Marva Collins. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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