“Teachers usually have no way of knowing that they have made a difference in a child’s life, even when they have made a dramatic one. But for children who are used to thinking of themselves as stupid or not worth talking to or deserving rape and beatings, a good teacher can provide an astonishing revelation. A good teacher can give a child at least a chance to feel, “She thinks I’m worth something. Maybe I am.” Good teachers put snags in the river of children passing by, and over the years, they redirect hundreds of lives. Many people find it easy to imagine unseen webs of malevolent conspiracy in the world and they are not always wrong. But there is also an innocence that conspires to hold humanity together, and it is made of people who can never fully know the good that they have done.”
Anyone looking for insight into what makes a good teacher would greatly appreciate reading Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren. This passage from the book exemplifies the importance of a role that a teacher plays in a child’s life. Teachers have the ability to improve a child’s life without even realizing it – a refreshing revelation for both new and old teachers who may often wonder if they have ever made a difference.
Reading Among School children one encounters a school year in the life of a fifth grade teacher, Miss Chris Zajac, and her fifth grade class, observed by the author, Tracy Kidder. The setting is in a low socio-economic class neighborhood in Holyoke, Massachusetts, a town consisting of a high population of people of Puerto Rican descent. Miss Zajac’s class is made up of about twenty students, most of whom are Puerto Rican, low-income students, many of whom have been abused, neglected, or have emotional difficulties. Kidder portrays Miss Zajac as a charming yet tough, fair, and dedicated teacher. Among Schoolchildren focuses on a particular group of students, especially those that give Miss Zajac the most trouble or the ones that she finds difficult to deal with; it also tells of the children who are the brightest in her classroom. We meet and get to know many of her students. We meet Clarence, her most troublesome student; the child who never does any of his work, who has an attitude and is extremely difficult to manage among a class of twenty, to Miss Zajac’s exceptional student, Judith, who does all of what she is told with her best and never gives Miss Zajac a hard time. Over the course of the year, the reader sees the relationship between the teacher and her students; the fights, the caring for one another and the support they have for each other.
It is delightful to see that there are teachers out there who really do care. This teacher was going to get the same salary regardless of whether or not she cared. Miss Zajacspendt countless hours at home worrying or truly caring about her students. She is also able to recognize the good in all of her students, from Judith to Clarence, which is not easy.
This book is wonderful for young, new teachers or for those entering the teaching profession. It exposes one to situations that are out there that one will not learn in education courses. It depicts a “real” classroom setting. Yes, it is wonderful to learn about the history of education in our courses today, but there are the experiences that are not taught in education classes that Among Schoolchildren allows one to see.
It is inspiring to read about Chris Zajac. It is important for teachers who have been teaching for more than ten years to read this book. Among Schoolchildren does not let readers forget what teaching is all about. One sees Miss Zajac going home at night adjusting her lesson plans because her class is not understanding the way she has always done a particular lesson. She takes the blame for her students not understanding her lesson, she does not say, “It’s their fault” as to why they don’t understand her lesson. She takes the responsibility and tries to adapt her lesson to her student’s needs. Miss Zajac is aware of her weakness in teaching science; she knows her science lessons are not as strong as her history lessons. Therefore, we see Miss Zajac go home at night and continuously try to improve her lessons. Kidder shows Zajac questioning herself at the end of the school day of how she was just not able to “reach” her students that day and she thinks of what she can do differently tomorrow. Reading this book can be a good wake up call for some veteran teachers, especially those whose lesson plans have turned yellow throughout the years.
One theory that most educators study in classes is the self- fulfilling prophecy. We see in this book how true this is. The self-fulfilling prophecy is the tendency of students to achieve the levels expected of them by their teachers. Chris Zajac does not walk into her classroom saying that the children in her class are from nothing and probably will aspire to be nothing. She is going to get her paychecks regardless if they understand her or not. The reader sees Miss Zajac walk in the classroom and set goals for each of her students to achieve. She tries to instill a positive attitude and confidence in all of her students throughout the book. One sees that not all of the goals she had set forth for each of them are met, but some students make an improvement or start to take positive steps in achieving their goals, which is still just as important. One sees in the beginning how the children hated her, they called her a witch, cursed at her or wrote negative comments about her in their journals. By the end of the school year her students did not want to leave her. At the end of the book the class finds out that Miss Zajac will be teaching sixth grade the following year and many of her students then wish and request that they could have her again.
Among Schoolchildren is truly a book worth reading; however, it does contain a couple of flaws. Often at times the reader is lead to believe that it is Chris Zajac writing the book, that this book is a narrative. One sees what appears to be her deepest thoughts but then one remembers that this is not a narrative but an observation by Kidder. This aspect is often troubling when reading this book.
Another flaw, is that Kidder offers a whole chapter on Miss Zajac’s trip to Puerto Rico. She goes on the trip to gain a better understanding of where her students come from. This chapter was a little unrealistic and unnecessary. It made Miss Zajac look “too perfect” of a teacher. And Kidder gave such a well-explained background of Holyoke and the Puerto Rican history that to dedicate a chapter about Miss Zajac’s trip was truly not necessary. It detracts the reader from the rest of the story.
Some questions that arose when reading Among Schoolchildren are: why do the poor children learn the least in school? Why do we expect these children to behave in certain ways that they don’t know how? How are they to model a behavior that they are not even familiar with? We model by what we see. These students are products of their community, Holyoke, and they are just modeling the behavior that they are used to. It is not necessarily wrong or bad, they are just acting the only way they know how.
There are many limits to what a teacher can do for a child’s life, but after reading Among Schoolchildren, Kidder shows you that there are many possibilities as to what teachers can do for their students’ lives. Among Schoolchildren reminds all of us how, as teachers, we can all make positive differences in the lives of children. Among Schoolchildren is an excellent book and highly recommended.
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