Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Passionate Teacher

    A Practical Guide

    By Robert L. Fried

    Boston: Beacon Press, 2001. 304 pp. $15.00.

    In The Passionate Teacher: A Practical Guide, Robert Fried argues that many of the difficult issues in education today can be faced constructively, and perhaps be overcome, by passionate teachers. Fried has developed the concept of the passionate teacher through his work in teacher professional development in schools throughout the country. For Fried, “to be a passionate teacher is to be someone in love with a field of knowledge, deeply stirred by issues and ideas that challenge our world, drawn to the dilemmas and potentials of the young people who come into class each day — or captivated by all of these” (p. 1). Speaking to both experienced teachers and new teachers, Fried examines several of the challenges that confront educators — including the amount of content to teach, the nature of assessment, and the most effective ways to motivate students — and illustrates, through stories of practitioners and their teaching, ways that passionate teachers can work through these dilemmas. While Fried acknowledges his debt to Deborah Meier and Ted Sizer for many of the ideas that he raises, his unique and effective contribution to the literature is the connection that he forges between philosophical ideas about teaching and practical steps that teachers can take to infuse their own teaching with passion.

    The book is organized in five parts. In Part One, The Passion, Fried demystifies what he means by the passionate teacher. Breaking passionate teaching down into three components, he argues that passionate teachers can be passionate about their field of knowledge, issues facing the world, or children. Speaking to teachers, he says: “The passion that accompanies our attention to subjects, issues, and children is not just something we offer our students. It is also a gift we grant ourselves: a way of honoring our life’s work, our profession. It says: ‘I know why I am devoting this life I’ve got to these children’” (p. 19). Interweaving stories from practitioners he has met in his professional development work, Fried brings passionate teaching to life by demonstrating ways that specific teachers forge relationships with their students, create classroom environments that promote integrity and respect, and provide students with opportunities to take ownership of their learning. Students referred to one passionate teacher who developed close relationships with her students as “not only a teacher, but a kind of mother to us” (p. 11). With this example, Fried emphasizes that students felt so close to this teacher that they used familial language to describe their relationship with her. Another teacher pays close attention to the role of the classroom environment in promoting respect between herself and her students by posting on the walls of her classroom what she expects of her students and what her students can expect from her. A third teacher promotes student ownership of their learning by involving students in the design of collaborative projects that both fulfill curricular requirements and address student interests and concerns. With these and other examples, Fried hopes to illustrate practical ways that passionate teaching can take shape in real classrooms.

    In Part Two, The Game, Fried discusses what he believes is the greatest obstacle that educators face: what he calls “having to play ‘The Game of School’” (p. 93). As he sees it, educators face this obstacle “whenever nobody cares what’s going on intellectually in the classroom or the school, when the idea of learning is treated as a mindless duty — something to ‘get through any way you can’” (p. 93). Students play the game of school when they figure out what teachers want and treat school as a trick rather than as an opportunity to learn. However, Fried argues that administrators, teachers, and parents can also play the same game. For example, administrators who value quiet classrooms and clean hallways above teaching and learning are playing the game of school. Teachers play the game of school when they are more interested in covering the curriculum than in their students’ learning. Parents who pressure their children to take on activities or courses with the purpose of constructing transcripts and records that will impress colleges, regardless of their children’s actual interests, are playing the game of school. According to Fried, the way that schools function makes us vulnerable to the game. As he explains, schools “load us up with things to do that help everybody avoid confronting issues about meaning and motivation and choice in our work” (p. 96). Fried maintains that passionate teachers can change the game of school by generating excitement about their subject matter, about issues in the world, and about students and their learning. The genuine enthusiasm that passionate teachers express in their work can motivate students and focus the attention of administrators and parents on student learning as the highest educational priority. In this way, passionate teaching counteracts and interrupts the game of school.

    In Part Three, The Stance, Fried argues that passionate teachers have what he calls a stance: “a philosophy, an attitude, a bearing, a way of encountering students based on a set of core values about kids and their learning potential” (p. 139). Grounded in this philosophy, passionate teachers project their stance in their teaching, in their planning, and in their interactions with students, parents, and administrators. In the chapter “Putting Your Stance into Practice,” Fried gives readers questions to consider as they formulate their own stances as teachers. These questions are designed to encourage teachers to clarify and verbalize their values and to uncover connections between their values and students, the subject area, and teaching and learning:

    What are the five most important values or beliefs in my life? What are the ideas and ideals I try my best to live by? What are five core beliefs that I hold about children and adolescents? If I were the boss of the whole school, what words would I like to see greet everyone who entered the building and every student who walks into a classroom? What is it about the subject(s) I teach that connects with my core values and beliefs? Why have I chosen to devote my professional life to this field? What might my students produce or demonstrate that would prove to me that they had really benefited from my role as teacher? (pp. 173–174)

    Fried concludes Part Three with “Some Thoughts about Classroom Discipline,” a chapter devoted to the issue of behavior management in education. He argues that a well-articulated stance that is grounded in a teacher’s authentic passion can facilitate respectful relationships between students and teachers, as well as among students:

    Once teachers have done the really hard work of rethinking how they want to work with students, what they really want to teach and why, discipline comes down to a few simple rules that almost all students are able to accept — and that many are willing to help their teachers uphold:

    • Every person deserves — and owes — respect;
    • Nobody may interfere with another person’s right to learn;
    • School is a place to learn how to settle disputes by talking them through. (p. 181)

    In Part Four, The Student, Fried discusses three ways that teachers and parents can inspire students to perform at their personal best. First, he argues that teachers should teach only what is most important about their disciplines, that the amount of subject matter that covered by most courses is too great, which gives students only superficial exposure to a wide range of material. By emphasizing depth over breadth, Fried hopes to encourage teachers and students to explore the curriculum through engagement with meaningful ideas and experiences. Second, Fried suggests that teachers give students meaningful challenges in the classroom, rather than rote or mechanical activities. He calls these challenges “real jobs” and notes: “There is hardly an instructional unit that cannot be transformed into a job that students can plan, organize, carry out and complete for the good of the community. Only then will we feel their pride and see how capable our students are” (p. 107). Third, Fried recommends that teachers coach rather than grade their students, as he considers grades poor motivators. Citing practitioners who use portfolios to collect student work and track student progress and learning over time, Fried points out that alternative assessment practices like portfolios are more like what happens in the world students will encounter when they leave school. As he discusses these specific forms of classroom practice that support his educational philosophy, Fried grounds his more general beliefs about teaching and learning in the specific context of schools.

    In Part Five, The Course, Fried describes practical steps to passionate teaching. Although this information might have been useful sooner in his text, Fried describes how teachers can set high standards, plan and organize their courses, and assess their students with the aim of inspiring excellent performance. By presenting these and other ways that teachers can inspire their students, Fried brings passionate teaching vividly to life, making it something that teachers can believe in, strive for, and actually do. The book’s penultimate chapter, “What to Do Next Monday,” gives readers a way to begin to get in touch with their passions and become passionate teachers. For example, Fried suggests that teachers begin by listing the most satisfying elements of their work and listing specific qualities and abilities that they appreciate and respect in their students so they can encourage and nurture their students’ strengths. The book closes with “Is Passionate Teaching for New Teachers, Too?” which addresses how new teachers can develop their passions as they learn to negotiate the complex world of school. Fried argues that new teachers have a remarkable opportunity to define themselves and their teaching by creating connections with their passions.

    The Passionate Teacher: A Practical Guide offers an inspirational perspective on teaching and learning. Furthermore, by skillfully blending philosophical writing, the voices of real practitioners, and practical suggestions for becoming a passionate teacher, Fried brings passionate teaching to life in all its richness and complexity. Works by John Dewey, particularly Experience and Education and The Child and The Curriculum, would be interesting companions for this book, as they are the most often cited formulations of these ideas in U.S. educational history.

    Fried uses an informal, conversational tone that makes the book an engaging read, and his interviews with and stories about teachers seat the reader at a fascinating roundtable discussion with skillful, passionate practitioners. Some readers may find Fried’s focus too narrow, as he places the responsibility of facing — and perhaps overcoming — educational issues on the individual teacher. Nowhere in the text does Fried address the ways school structures can inspire and support passionate teaching. Still, The Passionate Teacher is must read for all teachers, no matter what subject or age groups they teach, and this book is a particularly valuable resource for educators of preservice teachers.

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    Book Notes

    Succeeding with Standards
    By Judy F. Carr and Douglas E. Harris

    The Passionate Teacher
    By Robert L. Fried