Letters to a Young Teacher
As a new teacher in Boston in the 1960’s, Jonathan Kozol began what would become his lifelong careeradvocating for students in America’s inner-city public schools. Previously, Kozol had majored in literature at Harvard University; he had spent time in England as a Rhodes Scholar, then in Paris studying writing. In 1964, upon returning to the United States, Kozol decided that he wanted to teach in the public schools. The fact that he had no preparation as a teacher proved unimportant, with Boston embroiled at that time in violent controversy about racial integration, with its school system desperate for teachers who would agree to work in the poorest, inner-city neighborhoods. Within three weeks of making his desire known, Kozol says he found himself assigned to 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 that exists unaltered to the present day.”
Kozol has focused his career (some might say, his life) on education and social justice in the United States. A passionate and prominent critic of the education-industrial complex, he is a well-known speaker, activist, and prolific writer. Kozol’s latest book is a series of letters written over an eight-month period to a new teacher named Francesca (pseudonym), workingas Kozol did forty years earlierin a Roxbury public school. Kozol explains in his introduction that Francesca initiated correspondence with him and invited him into her first-grade classroom, which he began to visit regularly. This book intertwines Kozol’s reflections on Francesca’s experiences with his own considerable time spent in the public schools of the United States. Francesca’s observations and sometimes appropriately impertinent questions tend to reenliven basic issues for Kozol, issues he has been focusing on for decades, yet new again from a first-year teacher’s vantage point. Kozol also uses her perceptive, searching nature as a platform from which to address issues emerging as critical to education in the twenty-first century.
However, this is far from a depressing book. Kozol sets the tone early on when he focuses on the teacher-student relationship, believing that the bond of tenderness and trust is primary. He advises new teachers not to assume that a hostile or sullen child “does not have the will to learn, and plenty of interesting stuff to teach us too,” as long as teachers are prepared to put in the time and find a way to get beyond the child’s firmly held belief that grown-ups mean him harm. Kozol also supports teachers in reaching out to parents, regardless of the form that this may need to take. He explains that schools of education sometimes convey misinformation to students about what constitutes “professional behavior” and states unequivocally: “I don’t think we ought to worry whether parents may consider us less worthy of respect when they discover that we lead real lives, and eat real meals, and even maybe like to spend our free time with our girlfriend or our boyfriend. Psychologically healthy people are not likely to be damaged by permitting parents to discover their humanity.”
Letters to a Young Teacher affirms the spirit and commitment of new teachers who are every day entering the classroom for the first time, and the affection that Kozol feels for them, through Francesca, is obvious. Perhaps because of the book’s structure, certainly because of the nature of its author, it reads like an intimate conversation. Kozol unfolds a vision of education that is not necessarily standard practice in the nation’s inner-city schools, especially in classrooms that he believes have been turned into education factories or into holding areas for certain groups of children, yet Kozol does not foment revolt here among the newly initiated. Instead, he encourages idealistic, young teachers to find a way to “navigate the contradictions” without sacrificing their personalities or...
(The entire section is 1,677 words.)