Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Letters to a Young Teacher, by Jonathan Kozol


A long time ago in a small 4 year college far, far away, I sat in teacher education classes after I finished my bachelor's degree. I had felt for years that teaching was what I wanted to do, that I could really contribute to society in a way that mattered. My student teaching experience sucked. After working as a menial laborer I decided to pick myself back up and try the whole teaching thing again. I started with substituting, and later ended up at a charter boarding school for girls who had slipped, or in some cases exploded, through the cracks of the public school system. I learned that society could wait. It was the individual students that mattered. I left teaching other people's children for raising my own and trying to support them as they navigate the public schools.

I picked up this book because I have thought about what I should do when my youngest eventually goes to school fulltime. Do I go back to teaching? Or find a more financially sensible profession? This book reminded me of the idealism I used to have, but it also refocused my eyes to the gritty realities that are so often ignored. I WISH I could have had this book when I was first attending those education courses long ago. It might have actually prompted some useful discussions despite the heavy handed, politically safe slop we were fed.

Kozol uses a series of letters between himself and a young teacher that invited him to sit in on her class occasionally. She would ask him how to handle certain situations, and he would simply explain how he had handled those situations when he was a young teacher himself. Unlike some education "experts", Kozol knows what it is like to teach in an inner-city school, where poverty and crowding are the norm, and just getting home at the end of the day is a challenge.

Kozol changes the names of students, and the young teacher herself, to protect their privacy, and I'm sure in many ways, her employment. Teachers can find themselves in an awful squeeze between curriculum expectations (developed by people who aren't educators) and what is actually required by the children to learn. College professors may cry "academic freedom", but public school teachers know that if they are perceived as not towing the line held out by No Child Left Behind, not only will the children honestly be left behind, but the teacher might be as well. Very disheartening indeed.

Kozol decries the existence of segregated schools many years after the civil rights movement, bussing to integrate schools, and Brown vs. Board of Education have been relegated to the history books. Despite all the problems, the controversies, the cries for "reform", Kozol is still doing what he can to make things better for kids because the kids help him to keep things in perspective. They give him hope.

Maybe we should put more of these politicians in a classroom for a week, let them see what they are doing when they cut education budgets, what happens when you are trying to enlighten a class of 30 plus kids with your pedagogic hands tied behind your back.

I don't agree with Kozol on a couple of issues, such as vouchers and segregation. He thinks vouchers will just take money away from schools that are already strapped for cash, and whatever the vouchers would be worth wouldn't be enough to pay for all the tuition of a private school. Perhaps. The talk of vouchers has been around for a long time and no one seems to have come up with better solutions outside of homeschooling. I don't believe that throwing money at a problem really solves it, though it can help a little. It depends on the TEACHERS. Within all schools, there are excellent teachers and incompetent teachers and somehow the incompetent ones stay and the excellent ones get fed up or burned out. If you could get enough good teachers in a poor school with a supportive principal and smaller class sizes, talk of vouchers would go away. When poor performing schools are allowed to languish for decades, what else are the parents to think except that vouchers might encourage districts to straighten things out?

An excellent book for starting a discussion, Letters to a Young Teacher would be appropriate for teens to read. They are the most impacted by the public school system and they should know what's going on.

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