Writer and educator Jonathan Kozol’s greatest concern has always been for the welfare of the nation’s children, particularly those living amid urban poverty. His books include a National Book Award winner and a New York Times best seller. His two most recent--Amazing Grace and Savage Inequalities--were excerpted in this magazine. In a recent interview with Technos Quarterly Editor Mardell Raney, he talked about his life and work and his experience teaching the primary grades.
In all, between the public schools and the years I worked in our freedom schools and street academies, I spent about 10 years as a teacher or as a head teacher. I miss those years very much. I sometimes think that if I still have a little strength left when I’m 65 or 70 and am not senile, I’d like to go back and teach kindergarten in a public school again. . . .
When I was teaching, I actually did teach phonics. With some students I always felt it was useful. But later, when I taught in a wealthy suburb, I simply read dozens and dozens of paperback novels with the children--children’s literature instead of basal readers. I just worked like hell to teach the sounds of letters and the forms of syntax out of the literature itself. My God, that was hard work. I used to stay up all night trying to keep ahead of my students. I will always hate Charlotte’s Web because I had to read it at 6 a.m. in order to keep ahead of some of the kids in my class. It wasn’t until years later that I learned there’s a fancy term for reading books with kids instead of basals. “Whole language” is one term they use. Labels come and go, but most of the good practices I see today are things a lot of teachers have been doing in the classroom for a century. Some of my teachers taught me that way in the 1940s when I was a little kid. It just seems to me that as educators we have to struggle on at least two levels. One is to make practical, realistic, incremental changes in the situation we’re given. The other is to never forget the structural inequities that limit all our victories or make them far too rare. . . .
A lot of superintendents ask me what I’d look for if I were picking elementary school teachers. I always say that obviously we want people who can teach arithmetic and reading. We want young people who have an ability to relate to children and also a reasonable appreciation of survival needs in our society. But if I had to narrow it down to one characteristic, I would always hire teachers whom I would want to have dinner with, or a teacher I wouldn’t mind getting stuck with on a long plane flight to California. I would look for people who are capable of making the world seem joyful, people who are a delight to be with, people who are contagiously amusing human beings. To me, that’s more important than almost anything else. I would put the emphasis on the capability to create contagious enthusiasm for life. There are a lot of teachers like that, but not enough.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Kozol On Kids