November 01, 1997 4 min read

In 1995, Heinemann, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, publishing house with a strong interest in teacher professional development, began to bring back into print a number of important education books that had virtually disappeared, most of them by authors seeking to shake things up. As the publisher puts it, this Innovators in Education series looks for books “that are both historically significant and that speak directly to today’s concerns.” Heinemann kicked off the series with two titles by the eloquent schooling critic John Holt--What Do I Do Monday and Freedom and Beyond--and added two more--Uptaught, by Ken Macrorie, and The Naked Children, by Daniel Fader--last year. This year, the company reprinted two volumes by James Herndon, a California teacher who tried to explode the mindless routine of schooling. In February 1998, it will publish two out-of-print titles by acclaimed education writer and gadfly Herb Kohl.

What follows is from Herndon’s 1968 gem, The Way It Spozed To Be. The book chronicles Herndon’s first year as a teacher at George Washington Junior High, a school full of defeated kids. When Herndon arrives, his well-intentioned colleagues let him know “what he’s spozed to do.” He rejects their advice, series editor Susannah Sheffer writes in the introduction to the new edition, “in favor of something that looks chaotic and messy but is actually real and valuable.” For his efforts, Herndon is fired at the end of the year. Explains Sheffer: “Results are not the point. What matters is that teachers do what they’re spozed to do, that they carry on with school as we know it, not that the students are actually learning unprecedented amounts.” In this short chapter, Herndon describes a conversation with a visitor from the central office.

Two days after vacation I received a note from the secretary that Mrs. X (another name I don’t remember) was coming down to talk to me. Mrs. X was the district language and social studies consultant for GW.

Mrs. X didn’t visit my classes. She met me in the teachers’ room during my free period and opened the conversation by telling me that she came, as she did with all the new teachers, to offer any help or advice she could.

This Mrs. X was white, elderly, tall, stringy, wore a print dress--the very picture, I must say, of the old-lady schoolteacher. She asked me if I had any problems I cared to mention. Did I? I began to outline them--9D’s apathy, 7H’s conglomeration of inabilities. I raced enthusiastically into a point-by-point description of the problems of 7H for a starter; I considered myself something of an expert on the subject. I spoke as if we two were going to reform the entire system, then and there.

Before I’d gotten fairly started, she interrupted. Now, we all have our problems, she said, and sometimes we’re tempted to consider our own problems as being unique. But with these children, I’ve found that a simpler, more direct approach works best. I feel already that you may be making it all too complicated for yourself. In my experience, the best advice I can give you beginning teachers is, hold out a carrot.

A carrot? I didn’t get it.

You know, she said brightly, the carrot, or perhaps we should say a sugar cube. If you want the goat to pull the cart, but he doesn’t want to, you hold a carrot out in front of him. He tries to reach the carrot because he does want it. In doing so, he pulls the cart. If, she said with a kind of wink, if you’ve attached the carrot to the cart.

I must have seemed a little stupid to her. Seeing that I just sat there, she tried to explain. Teaching these children is like training animals. For each task you want them to do, you must offer them a carrot.

You mean, I finally said, you try to get the goat to pull the cart without his realizing it. That is, the goat actually does what you want him to do, but all the time he thinks he’s just trying to get that carrot. He doesn’t realize he’s pulling the cart. Not only that, but pulling the cart isn’t something that any goat, any normal goat, ever wants to do, but....

I think you’re trying to make it complicated again, she said, frowning.

You mean, I tried again, to get the student to do the assignment because of some reward he’s going to get, not because he realizes that the assignment is valuable or interesting to him. You mean, the assignment itself can’t be the carrot....

She felt happier. That’s it, she said. Of course, the reward must vary. There are individual differences, as we know. A carrot for one, a sugar cube for another.

Mercifully the bell rang. Mrs. X went back to her desk in the district office, downtown. I sneaked a quick smoke, my mind filled with carrots and outrage, and arrived upstairs a bit late to greet 9D.

Copyright 1997, 1968 by the estate of James Herndon. Published by Heinemann. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copies of The Way It Spozed To Be are available in bookstores or by calling (800) 793-2154.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Carrots