In Praise of Teachers and their Teachings
Today we can look back and celebrate many teachers, researchers, and their schools and organizations that have supported and collaborated in the push for developmentally appropriate practices in preschool, elementary school, and middle school.
One of the great teachers of the last hundred years, Maya Angelou, often reminded her classes, her audiences, and her readers to never forget the following:
You have been paid for. Each of you, Black, White, Brown, Yellow, Red—whatever pigment you use to describe yourselves—has been paid for. But for the sacrifices made by some of your ancestors, you would not be here; they have paid for you. So, when you enter a challenging situation, bring them on the stage with you; let their distant voices add timbre and strength to your words. For it is your job to pay for those who are yet to come. (2014, p. 66)
All of us who teach or have taught surely remember some of our teacher-ancestors by name. Family members like Nana, Pop, Auntie Alice. School teachers like Mrs. King with a K for Kindergarten, or for sixth grade Mrs. Dunnigan, with a book for the boy whose last name began with W, in the back row, last seat. They all taught with their voices, with that certain look, often with a laugh. We remember their names because they knew our names and our quirky imaginations, our best selves, and some of our fears. We learned because they knew what we understood what they were teaching—and when we didn’t and were faking it. We remember too what they taught us about ourselves. And so we remember them.
Some teachers, of course, were not so fair or skillful, or even kind. We have probably forgotten their names or sometimes remember them when we recognize their voice in our own tone on a difficult day of teaching. They taught us lessons of another kind—how to know which ones to leave behind.
Some of us became teachers early on. Taking turns playing teacher in the garage or in the backyard. Telling our younger brothers and sisters and neighborhood playmates what to do. Practicing writing with chalk on the sidewalk or studying spelling words every Thursday night before the predictable Friday test.
Some of us became teachers because we felt it was our calling. This cannot ever be fully explained or understood. “I just knew,” the 20-year-old tells her partner at her first Responsive Classroom workshop. “I just knew.”
Some of us became teachers because we had lively and lovely childhoods, and wanted to share that joy. Sometimes it was because we didn’t have that childhood and we recognized the difference in the children we worked with as summer playground or camp counselors. We had patience for those children who dawdled behind and took the time to listen to those children who required more attention.
The teachers who created and developed Responsive Classroom in the 1980s and 1990s learned their craft from the teachers they remembered, too. But they also learned from the bureaucratic restraint of the educational establishment then, whose standards and curriculums constrained their abilities to teach and reach the creativity and potential in each student. When Responsive Classroom began in 1981, no one then could have imagined the legacy they would build. As they shared their beliefs and ideas—many drawn from the scores of teacher-ancestors who had taught them and were still teaching them from their books, courses, and workshops—they began to see that they were constructing new classroom approaches from developmental, constructivist, and progressive building blocks of child-centered theory and practice. If teacher-ancestors such as John Dewey, Beatrice and Arnold Gesell, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Marie Montessori, Jean Piaget, Caroline Pratt, Lev Vygotsky, and Sylvia Ashton Warner could have seen these new classroom approaches, they would have recognized how their work laid the foundation for what was being built. These approaches were created with the help of more modern mentors such as James Comer, William Crain, Linda Crawford, Donald Graves, Jacqueline Haines, Bill Martin, Jr., Deborah Meier, Barbara Rogoff, Pamela Seigle, Beverly Daniel Tatum, as well as many others. New teaching applications and approaches were being laid down in these giant footsteps by a new crop of progressive-minded educators. Northeast Foundation for Children (now Center for Responsive Schools) opened the independent K–8 demonstration school, Greenfield Center School, in 1981, where successive generations of pioneering teachers have taken their turn at carrying out meaningful child-centered education, and continue to this day.
“Teacher to Teacher” workshops and books from Northeast Foundation for Children began in the mid to late 1980s. Seminal pedagogical texts that fueled workshops and classroom applications included:
- A Notebook for Teachers: Making Changes in the Elementary Curriculum written by Northeast Foundation for Children
- Teaching Children to Care: Classroom Management for Ethical and Academic Growth, K–8 by Ruth Sidney Charney
- Classroom Spaces That Work by Marlynn Clayton
- Doing What Scientists Do: Children Learn to Investigate Their World by Ellen Doris
- The Morning Meeting Book by Roxann Kriete
- The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn by Paula Denton
Soon, dozens of additional books for teachers by other inspired and courageous teachers followed.
Practices that would become the cornerstones of Responsive Classroom made their first appearance in 1989 in Marlynn Clayton’s video Places to Start: Implementing the Developmental Classroom. In November 1994, Young Children, The Journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, published our article “Responsive Teaching: Creating Partnerships for Systemic Change.” Soon thereafter, Responsive Classroom became a centerpiece for professional development in the Washington, D.C., Public Schools Early Childhood initiatives under the direction of Associate Superintendent Maurice Sykes.
Today we can look back and celebrate many teachers, researchers, and their schools and organizations that have supported and collaborated in the push for developmentally appropriate practices in preschool, elementary school, and middle school. There are so many educational pioneers who have informed Responsive Classroom teachers and leaders over the past forty years, too many to mention or celebrate individually, yet all of whom have helped introduce child-centered best practices into hundreds of thousands of classrooms.
In celebration of all teachers and their teaching, including yours, I offer my top ten list of books written by teachers that have influenced my teaching in meaningful and personally important ways. Keep this list and plan to read one of them this summer, if you are so inclined. You have all approached this school year with courage, patience, and hope for the children you teach. This is no small thing, so please, take a moment between now and the end of this school year to celebrate that fact.
My Top Ten Books for Teachers by Teachers
- Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School by Carla Shalaby (The New Press, 2017)
- Elaine’s Circle: A Teacher, a Student, a Classroom and One Unforgettable Year by Bob Katz (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2005)
- Young Geographers: How They Explore the World and How They Map the World (4th ed.) by Lucy Sprague Mitchell (Bank Street College of Education, 2019)
- Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society by William Crain (Holt Paperback, 2003)
- Teaching Children to Care: Classroom Management for Ethical and Academic Growth, K–8 (rev. ed.) by Ruth Sidney Charney (Center for Responsive Schools, 2002)
- Doing What Scientists Do: Children Learn to Investigate Their World by Ellen Doris (Heinemann, 1991)
- The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School by Rachael Kessler (ASCD, 2000)
- Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context by Barbara Rogoff (Oxford University Press, 1990)
- Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education (2nd ed.) by Elena Bodrova and Deborah J. Leong (Pearson, 2007)
- The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (20th Anniversary Edition) by Parker J. Palmer (Jossey-Bass, 2017)
Angelou, M. (2014). Rainbow in the Cloud: The Wisdom and Spirit of Maya Angelou. Random House.