Letters to a Young Teacher

In these affectionate letters to Francesca, a first-grade teacher at an inner-city school in Boston, Jonathan Kozol vividly describes his repeated visits to her classroom while, in response to Francesca’s likably irreverent questioning, also revealing his own most personal stories of the years that he has spent in public schools.

Letters to a Young Teacher reignites a number of the controversial issues that Kozol has powerfully addressed in recent years: the mania of high-stakes testing that turns many classrooms into test-prep factories where spontaneity and critical intelligence are no longer valued, the invasion of our public schools by predatory private corporations, and the inequalities of urban schools that are once again almost as segregated as they were a century ago.

But most of all, these letters are rich with the happiness of teaching children, the curiosity and jubilant excitement children bring into the classroom at an early age, and their ability to overcome their insecurities when they are in the hands of an adoring and hard-working teacher.

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

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

Eric Carle, author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar
“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.”

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

Reg Weaver, president, National Education Association
“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.”

Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States
“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.”

David Berliner, author of Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools
“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.”

Marian Wright Edelman, president, Children’s Defense Fund
“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.”

Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve and The Homework Myth
“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.”

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.

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