Jonathan Kozol, a best-selling author and one of the most respected voices on public education in the United States, explains we all have a responsibility to bring a ‘sense of joy’ into the classroom.

August 2013

Jonathan Kozol. Photo credit: Paul Fetters.
Jonathan Kozol. Photo credit: Paul Fetters.

Jonathan Kozol is a serious man. That should be expected. He spent the 1960s as a teacher in deeply segregated Boston schools. When he left the classroom to become a writer, he was moved to speak about the conditions he witnessed. The best-selling author has since addressed the challenges students face in the United States by putting faces, names, and stories to a very public problem. What Kozol has learned through his continued teaching (of students and teachers alike) is that we can all have a very real, very positive impact on education. Before his plenary speech in Arlington, Va., in December, he sat down to share his advice for parents, teachers, principals, and administrators alike.

WHY DID YOU FEEL COMPELLED TO BECOME A TEACHER?

KOZOL I intended to be a writer. I majored in English at Harvard, spent some time at Oxford, and studied writing in Paris. I came back to the United States in 1964, and I heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches. Thousands of young people were going down to Mississippi to try to break the back of segregation that summer. I realized that my own city, Boston, was profoundly segregated, so I drove across town to see if I could make a difference. I worked first as a tutor in a summer school. When school began in September, I became a teacher.

The school was in decrepit condition. The building was so crowded, my students and I shared the auditorium with another fourth-grade class. There were no dividers, just a couple of portable blackboards. The school had very high instability in faculty. The fourth grade I was given had 12 teachers in the preceding year. Naturally, the kids went wild, which is almost inevitable when teachers keep coming and going. I had to learn on my feet very, very fast. I got to love the kids I was teaching. It was a powerful experience.

After class, I used to go with students to their homes to meet their parents. They were very hospitable. They seemed to open up and talk to me candidly. I learned a great deal about the children’s backgrounds, and it helped me as a teacher.

WHY DID YOU START WRITING?

KOZOL I kept a journal of my day-to-day experiences in the classroom. It was during the following summer that I showed the journal to one of my professors at Harvard; he said, “You’ve got a book here. The public needs to know about this.” It took a few years of rewriting, but that was the origin of Death at an Early Age.

WHAT WERE YOU HOPING TO SHARE IN DEATH AT AN EARLY AGE?

KOZOL I had a very explicit goal. I wanted to end the sin of segregation in American public schools. I thought that isolating black children, especially at such an early age, was not simply damaging to them, just as Dr. King believed and as the Supreme Court believed in Brown v. the Board of Education, but I also thought it was an ethical abomination. I have always felt racism has been our nation’s oldest crime. I wanted to bring an end to it by showing very clearly the effects it had on children. Every book I’ve written has something to do with this, what I call the shame of the nation.

AS AN AUTHOR, HOW DO YOU STAY CONNECTED TO THE CLASSROOM?

KOZOL I never really stopped teaching. I still spend a great deal of my time in the classroom. Teachers invite me to teach a class, and I lecture to future teachers at universities. I don’t feel I’ve ever ceased being a teacher and an educator. I do it in my own way by telling stories; I try to reach the hearts of readers as directly as I can. I think the reason my books are widely read is because they are stories, narratives. Readers come to know the children very well. They call me to ask what happened to specific children.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF RESEARCH IN EDUCATION?

KOZOL There’s plenty of good research, which can be useful to us if the research is carried out by people who know anything about children. That is to say, people who have firsthand acquaintance with children in classrooms.

Too much of the research that’s being done today is politicized to accommodate the current fascination with testing. Researchers can prove almost anything they want, depending on the statistics they adopt. I like research that looks with a clear eye at the realities our children face. The best research I’ve seen has been carried out by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, a group that tries very hard to find ways to equalize resources for our students and encourage diversity in our public schools.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ALUMNI WHO WANT TO POSITIVELY IMPACT STUDENTS?

KOZOL Volunteer—and use those experiences to shape a lifelong sense of being a change agent in our society. Don’t simply spend a few months tutoring kids, but keep on with them from year to year to demonstrate your loyalty.

Remember that the most important things that happen in education cannot be reduced to numbers. The best qualities of children—their originality in writing, their generosity of spirit, their humor, their sense of tragedy—will never show up on a standardized exam.

Come into the classroom with a sense of joy. Bring in amiable irreverence; get into the souls of children. Turn school into a great adventure, a journey into the world of beautiful books, a journey into all the treasures of our culture. Bring vitality, energy, and a little bit of mischievous delight into every single hour that you spend with children in our schools.

While I believe that teachers ought to be advocates for justice on a larger scale, I also urge them to take satisfaction in the day-to-day triumphs. I have on my desk a slogan, “Battles big enough to matter, but small enough to win.” It’s a good guideline for teachers.