Book Summary: ‘Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire By M. Fontaine



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Level V. I Am Considerate of Other People


Level V is rarefied air for both children and adults. If we can help kids achieve a state of empathy for the people around them, we’ve accomplished a lot.

Just imagine a world of Level V thinkers. We’d never again have to listen to the idiot on the bus barking into his cell phone. No one would cut us off when we’re driving or in line for a movie. Noisy neighbors would never disturb our sleep in a hotel at 2:00 A.M. What a wonderful world it would be, indeed.

After many years of trying to get this idea across to my students, I finally found success by introducing them to Atticus Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird. At one point in the novel, Atticus gives his daughter, Scout, a piece of advice that perfectly illustrates Level V thinking: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.” Many of my students took this advice to heart and before long the idea began to snowball. Soon almost all of my kids were becoming extremely considerate of others. With Atticus Finch leading the way, I learned that the old cliché is true. Kindness really is contagious.

During these years, I received extraordinary thank-you notes from my substitute teachers. They were amazed that my students were able to modulate their voices throughout the day. When one sub asked the class why they spoke in whispers, the kids told him they did not want to disturb the students in the next room. When the teacher remarked that he was hot, several youngsters offered him cold bottled water they knew was stored in our small refrigerator.

Hotel employees also remarked that my students were the kindest and best behaved they had ever seen. Announcements were made by grateful pilots on airplanes that the Hobart Shakespeareans were on board, and planeloads of people applauded their quiet demeanor and extraordinary manners. I was very happy and proud to be their teacher.

But . . . you guessed it: I still think we can do better.



Level VI. I Have a Personal Code of Behavior and
I Follow It


Level VI behavior is the most difficult to attain and just as difficult to teach. This is because a personal code of behavior resides within the soul of an individual. It also includes a healthy dose of humility. This combination makes it almost impossible to model; by definition, Level VI behavior cannot be taught by saying, “Look at what I’m doing. This is how you should behave.”

I teach my students about Level VI in several ways. Since I cannot discuss my own personal codes, I try to help the kids identify them in others. There are any number of outstanding books and films in which the Level VI individual exists. It’s fun for parents and teachers to find this type of thinker—they’re all over the place once you begin looking.

If you are skeptical about trying to get kids to this level of thinking, I don’t blame you. Any teacher who is sincere and ambitious about what he does opens himself up to colossal failures and heart-breaking disappointments. A while back, two former students returned to my school. Only a few years earlier, they had been smiling in my classroom. They had participated in extracurricular activities and performed Shakespeare. I took them on trips to Washington, D.C., Mount Rushmore, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone National Park; I have a photo album full of pictures of these boys smiling, laughing, and having a wonderful time. I still have the thank-you notes they wrote me when they graduated from the class. Both promised to continue to be nice and to work hard. Yet they came to our school one afternoon armed with smoke bombs. They ran through the halls and threw the smoke bombs into classrooms, destroying property. They also detonated them on teachers’ cars. Mine was the first one they chose. For weeks I didn’t sleep well, trying to understand how they had become so lost in such a short time.

But that’s what I do. It’s what all good teachers and parents do. We ask a lot of our kids and do the best we can. We need to raise the bar for children precisely because so many kids are behaving so badly. We cannot allow incorrigible behavior to make us lower our standards.



Reading for Life


The children at our school do not read well. They do not like to read. As of this writing, 78 percent of the Latino children on our campus are not proficient in reading, according to our state’s standardized tests. This means one of two things: Either we have the stupidest kids on the planet, or we are failing these children. Please believe me when I tell you that the vast majority of our students are perfectly capable of learning to read. No one wants to admit it, but a systemic conspiracy of mediocrity keeps these children on the treadmill of illiteracy.

Teaching our children to read well and helping them develop a love of reading should be our top priorities. People seem to understand this. Millions are spent on books and other reading material, celebrities make public service announcements, and thousands of hours are spent training teachers. The spin doctors at various publishing companies tell us that our students are doing better, but honest people know this is simply not the case. Concerned teachers have learned not to bother raising their voices, because powerful textbook companies have carefully prepared answers to anyone who points out that the emperor has no clothes. Young teachers are afraid of being crushed by bureaucrats whose only real mission is to keep selling their product. As testing services compete to rake in millions of dollars, nervous school districts anxiously await the latest test results. And year after year, most children do not become passionate lifelong readers.

It’s complicated. There is a lot of finger-pointing. But to borrow a phrase, our children are victims of a sort of “confederacy of dunces.” Powerful forces of mediocrity have combined to prevent perfectly competent children from learning to love reading. These forces include television, video games, poor teaching, poverty, the breakup of the family, and a general lack of adult guidance.

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