Almost 20 years ago, when I was working at an outdoor education center with student groups from New York City, my brother gave me a book. It was called Amazing Grace, by Jonathon Kozol. In this book I learned what many of my students at the center were experiencing– lives filled with challenges I could have never known. They suffered struggles with poverty, violence, the consequences of the AIDS epidemic , and schools that were crumbling, served by inexperienced teachers. They were in environments where it was almost impossible to prosper. A few miles away, mostly white students were in modern, well lit schools with experienced teachers and plenty of resources. This stunning and outrageous American truth dropped on my shoulders and has never left.
Since reading that book I went on to earn my Master’s in Education and to read his other books, including Savage Inequalities. I became a teacher in Vermont and his words reminded me to look out for students who might not have the same privileges as others in my class and to work to create inclusive communities for students. I knew that a large part of my job was advocating for students and creating an environment where they could learn and grow no matter what challenges they faced.
When I wrote my first education book, Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus, I dove again into Kozol’s work, which had not lessened in its intensity, power, and compelling nature. I read (and placed about 1,000 sticky notes in) The Shame of a Nation and Letters to a Young Teacher. His words have been fuel for my work as a teacher and writer.
Today, I had the honor to meet him at the Rowland Foundation’s annual conference and hear his thoughts on equity in education. Here are a few:
“The most important factor for success in schools is not something external. It is the creativity and professional autonomy we grant our teachers.”
Educational reform is often decided by those outside of the classroom and brought into schools by people who have no or very little experience in the day to day work of being a teacher. No real reform will work in schools unless it is co-constructed with teachers, the very people doing the important work of educating our kids every day. The most meaningful professional development is created with teachers to meet the needs of their particular settings and contexts.
“Much of the success of a teacher depends on his or her ability to make human connections.”
We see this everywhere. We hear it from students, from parents, and from teachers. Personal connections are everything in teaching. If we don’t have them, nothing else will happen with students. So, my colleague and I mused on the way home, why hasn’t there been conferences about fostering meaningful connections with students? Why isn’t this just as important as, say, the new standards or district initiatives?
He noticed that many schools seem to:
“Reinforce patterns of inequity in unconscious ways.”
This happens when some students are channelled into less challenging academic pathways more than others. Or there is class separation in which students are taking algebra versus an applied mathematics course. We need keep equity in mind when considering what courses and pathways to encourage students in. Kozol continued that many kids are, “Less free than they seem.”
He noted that sometimes teachers have a:
“Tendency to make inaccurate assumptions based on the linguistic style or culture of students.”
Kozol’s research assistant made this point eloquently when describing her brothers. One brother, white, on the football team, with blue eyes, can get in trouble at school, but can often get out of it. He can talk to adults (especially middle aged white men about football) and knows how to get by. Her other brother, was in foster care and then adopted and is African American. He also gets in trouble at school, but has more consequences because he doesn’t have experience talking with adults and maintaining these relationships. He doesn’t have the same social capital as his brother. Teachers, Kozol said, can have a tendency to have this bias without meaning to. Reducing this is critically important work we can do to promote equity.
Kozol urged us to consider these overlooked characteristics in our students when considering proficiencies and reform:
“Moral generosity. Unselfishness. Collective decency.”
These are traits we value and yet we do not talk about in professional development or at conferences. Why not?
Kozol closed with the idea that marginalized students often think that history is “done by someone else.” History is made by important people far away from their lives. And that kind of thinking can “Amputate their sense of agency.”
Let that one sink in. Students who are already struggling can become passive with the mindset that they cannot affect change. That is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about project and service based learning– it can be a tool to empower students to “enter history” and be an agent of change in their own communities.
He closed with the words, “Life goes so fast. Use it well.”
Thank you, Jonathan Kozol, for your words throughout the years, guiding generations of teachers to fight for the heart and soul of education. Thank you for believing in teachers, and for telling the stories of children who have been lost in a system that does not serve them. It is our moral imperative to create systems that do.