Review: On Being a Teacher

Chris McNutt
September 23, 2018
Kozol’s unwavering stance carries a heavy weight throughout the entire book, demanding change, taking firm positions, and drastically altering how we view the classroom.

In Jonathan Kozol’s On Being a Teacher, the reader is faced with a challenge: rebel against the system they’re in or disservice their students. Kozol’s unwavering stance carries a heavy weight throughout the entire book, demanding change, taking firm positions, and drastically altering how we view the classroom. Kozol has spent decades writing about the disarray and injustice in impoverished neighborhoods from Savage Inequalities to Amazing Grace and Fires in the Ashes. This work is part-educative on the issues we face, part-instructive on how to confront them — a guidebook on how to conquer the public school system and impact young lives forever.

Throughout, we’re taught to question what children do and the hidden curriculum that envelops everything. As Kozol states,

“…specific actions on the part of teachers that will help to lessen and subvert the mystification of the school include a willingness to undercut the grading system and the tracking system, to confront head-on the multiple modes of sex discrimination in a public school, to join in plans contrived to win our students license to do independent work outside of school and in this way to undercut the school attendance rules…”

Included in all this are passing all students (removing grades or subversively developing methods of allowing students to not be extrinsically motivated), enabling analysis of critical pedagogy to avoid indoctrination, and develop programs to assist those who need it most. As Kozol’s work is primarily concerned with those in historically oppressed communities, much of this writing is aimed at teachers in those districts. In the same vein as Freire, Kozol encourages teaching the oppressed a narrative which highlights their place in society and gives them tools to change their situations:

“[Once children] start to talk and think of poverty and excess in the meticulous way that I propose, and with the conscious and unhesitant participation of their teachers, they rapidly discover that there are some real and obvious connections between their own lives and those of the very poor people with whom they might already identify and with whom they sometimes even work as volunteers, but up to now only in a charitable or paternalistic state of mind.”

Kozol wants students to hear critical voices — voices that are politically charged — for a “free market of ideas.” The curriculum has been so watered down, he says, that students are no longer learning anything, instead being brainwashed and indoctrinated. He wants to develop a learning community that encompasses all ideals:

“I naturally assume that teachers with political positions very different from my own (including those of extreme conservative belief) will wish to enter the competition I propose. There is no way to avoid this competition, and I do not see why we should wish to do so. It would be a more exciting nation — and I am convinced, a more enlightened one — if students were given the chance to grapple with a multiplicity of ideologies and points of view.

Interestingly — and what makes this work so incredibly powerful — is its focus on an action plan to actually implement these changes. It’s easy to critique the system for what it is, but often it’s impractical to charge in and demand better. Instead, educators are faced with the question: how could I ever teach this way without being fired? If a teacher starts to use methods that a principal or district don’t approve of, such as avoiding required curriculum or not using mandated textbooks, it’s likely they’ll face reprimand. However, if they ignore this, won’t they be let go and just be a blip of hope extinguished from the school system?

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Pictured: Jonathan Kozol via Flickr

Kozol proposes an action plan to recruit parents, students, and the community to a teacher’s side to radically change classrooms with a solidified support group. He believes the most important group are parents. He suggests meeting with them at their homes, becoming their friends, and slowly introducing one’s ideas on school change:

“The purposes of the type of visit I propose are totally different from those that lie behind conventional home visits. The goal, indeed, is not professional at all. Instead it is to begin to know our students and their folks not as our ‘clients,’ but as our allies and our friends.”

By building this community of love and support, teachers can begin empowering children. Kozol believes that students need to see their teacher as an ally in life, not an authoritarian figure. He offers advice:

“She tells the students that they will never have a chance of getting out from under, so long as they wait for someone else to come and set them free. The teacher’s objective, in her choice of words, is to begin, right from the first, to build a sense of just denunciation and, more than that, a lever of denunciation in each child’s mind: something to fight for, a cause they can uphold, a visible enemy, and goo reasons to support their teacher in a struggle to transcend enormous odds.”

And continues to note:

“In view of the sense of common cause and of embattled struggle which she has constructed by this time, the students respect her words and do not try to play games with her confidence and trust. They study with devotion (students teaching one another in spare moments) in order to try to make up for so many lost years. The children are excited by the sense of shared conspiracy with one another, and with their teacher too, in order to guarantee their own survival. They work as if they now have joined together in some sort of pedagogic ‘forced march.’ There is a goal to reach, an evil system to undo, and any number of dragons to destroy. The sense of struggle and concrete goals (math, reading and writing, ethics, and the power to transform) soon becomes intense and credible.”

Recruiting students against the system while simultaneously being a member of the system is a constant catch-22 as an educator. We want to teach children what they need (which is almost always, what they want), in spite of what the state requires students to be taught. It’s disheartening that a book like this even has to be written — a guide to giving students actual cause, purpose, and empowerment in the classroom requires constant rebellion against authority and shadowy behavior. For many educators, the reality is “do as we say or else”:

“[Teachers] find themselves in situations where they have no choice. Either use the guidebook and make lesson plans according to the rules, or else they risk the likelihood of condemnation by their supervisors, charges of stubborn and recalcitrant behavior leading at last either to demotion or else to suspension or expulsion.”

Despite all this, I like that Kozol does not demonize everyone in the system. It’s not necessarily anyone’s explicit fault: the system is so prevalent that everyone is begrudged to it — anyone stepping out of line is beholden to another — and therefore, change is difficult:

“Whatever the context, common sense ought to direct us to attempt to spare a sympathetic principal or other school official, especially when we know that almost every educational system in this nation has in its employ so many other individuals who do deserve and oftentimes invite a knock-down struggle. As an overall rule, it seems to me that practical rebels ought to do their best to teach with great respect even half-hearted allies.”

Furthermore, Kozol makes an important distinction for educators who are not in low-income communities — after all, we need to ensure everyone understands this content and helps everyone as a result. He states,

“…certain privileged children of the affluent members of society do find the courage to break away from many traditional ideas in order to work instead beside the victims of their social order. To make that choice, as many teachers know from their own life and work, is very hard. There is no reason, therefore, why students ought to suffer twice: once for sadness at the loss of all those things that once were easy and familiar, then a second time for guilt at being born the children of rich people.”

In summary, we highly recommend On Being a Teacher for any educator who wants to critically question the school system. Unlike many other books on the market, Kozol’s work is personal, narrative-driven, and radical. It doesn’t play it safe — and it really makes one question their practice. It convincingly and relentlessly demands change, and it worth a spot on the bookshelf.

“It may be that school manipulation will no longer work once students have a chance to see it for exactly what it is. Those who tell us we should wait ‘another year or more’ before we speak of matters of this kind are usually those who wish that we would wait forever.”
Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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