43 pages 1 hour read

Jonathan Kozol

Letters to a Young Teacher

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide


Jonathan Kozol’s Letters to a Young Teacher, originally published in 2007, is a collection of letters containing Kozol’s teaching advice for a new first grade schoolteacher named Francesca. The format of this book is inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous Letters to a Young Poet, which has become a model for advice books for young people in different professions and callings. Although some identifying elements have been changed, the book’s letters represent a real correspondence that Kozol had with a primary school teacher, one of many such correspondences the author has had throughout his long career.

Kozol, one of the most celebrated progressive educators in America, is a National Book Award-winning author, educator, and progressive activist, who has written dozens of books primarily about the American education system. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship, and the Deborah Meier Hero in Education Award from The National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

This guide will refer to the original 2007 edition of the book.


Each chapter in Letters to a Young Teacher is a letter from Jonathan Kozol to Francesca, an eager new primary school teacher who has reached out to Kozol with an invitation to visit her classroom. In his first short letter, Kozol outlines his idea of what a good teacher should be and explains that children have a simple need to be recognized. He agrees to visit Francesca’s class and makes several visits throughout the course of their correspondence.

His second letter discusses the difficulties Kozol faced in his early years of teaching in Boston Public Schools, including working in inferior facilities and the difficulty of breaking through to children coarsened by the rough conditions at school. Kozol stresses the importance of establishing chemistry with the class early on and introduces the idea that teachers have a responsibility to be honest with their students.

The third chapter delves into a common disconnect between parents with children in inner-city public schools and school administrators. Parents are often discouraged from taking an active role in their children’s school by condescending principals and the high turnover of teaching staff, which makes meetings with any individual overworked and temporary teacher feel pointless. Kozol discusses the importance of building positive relationships with the parents of students.

Kozol’s fourth letter brings to light the generational and racial gap between veteran public school teachers and new teachers; established teachers are more likely to be African American, while new teachers are usually young and white. Veteran teachers often feel dismissed and disrespected by young teachers, who form their own cliques and have different pedagogical views. The author stresses that the older teachers’ experience is invaluable and recommends that new teachers form friendships with veteran educators and be willing to learn from them.

The fifth chapter emphasizes the innocence, silliness, and creativity of children. The author discusses a teacher’s responsibility to respect, appreciate, and protect these beautiful aspects of their young students’ lives. Kozol explains that encouraging children to express themselves as completely as possible in their own words is more important than trying to immediately correct spelling and grammar mistakes.

Letter number six confronts the harsh reality of oppositional students who refuse to cooperate in class. While teachers may feel overwhelmed and unsure about how to help such children, Kozol hopes that teachers will find ways to create meaningful breakthroughs. He praises Francesca’s rapport-building with Dobie, an ill-behaved child in her class, who gradually opened up to Francesca through a process of trust-building and mutual understanding.

Kozol’s seventh letter argues that segregation and inequality in the American school system have persisted into the 21st century and did not disappear after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He criticizes curriculums and administrators who preach the importance of diversity and praise desegregation activism from decades ago while ignoring the reality students are facing today. Kozol supports teachers who find creative and thoughtful ways to explain hard truths to students.

In the eighth chapter, the author criticizes education experts who utilize meaningless jargon in their workshops and materials. Kozol is a fan of clear and precise language and sees no educational value in the use of niche terminology.

Kozol’s ninth letter embraces children’s fun and silly natures; he writes that good teachers delight and share in this playfulness without worrying too much about radiating professionalism all the time. Kozol rejects official education policies that reduce children to future jobholders and make a science out of teaching, rather than permitting teachers to infuse creativity and personality into their callings.

Chapter 10 tackles the problems associated with mandatory testing, including the disproportionate amount of teaching time wasted to drilling for high-stakes tests and the far-reaching consequences for children who do not perform well. Kozol decries the fact that public schools must waste so much time on testing because their future funding often depends on good results.

Kozol’s 11th letter is a rejection of the trend toward privatization in American education. He specifically calls out voucher systems that give parents the option of opting out of public institutions in favor of private ones. The author explains that privatizing education is dangerous and increases divisions in society.

Chapter 12 highlights the importance of being honest with children, especially regarding difficult topics, such as funding inequalities between different schools, and why some students experience more difficulties than others.

The 13th letter focuses on the role that schools and teachers have in maintaining children’s innocence, including the importance of maintaining an aesthetically pleasant environment for children. Kozol advocates abolishing middle schools and creating an innovative system in which current middle schoolers would become older primary school students with added responsibilities.

Kozol’s final letter reiterates that teachers must act on behalf of their students and be willing to speak out against injustices in their own schools. Kozol acknowledges that public school experiences can be harrowing for students and teachers but argues that the life-affirming relationships he has formed with students, their parents, and their grandparents give him hope. Kozol encourages Francesca to celebrate the beautiful fleeting moments that children bring to the classroom.