Marva Collins was a young mother when she resumed her teaching posts at schools in Chicago in the 1960’s. She found herself frustrated with other teachers who did not share her enthusiasm for teaching and was disillusioned with the quality of education her children were receiving in prestigious private schools. This inspired her to open her own Westside Preparatory School on the second floor of her home. She welcomed all students, especially those who had been deemed uneducable in other education systems. Over time, Marva’s school expanded and became hugely successful, a movie (The Marva Collins Story) and a number of documentaries were made about her and she went on to write a number of books.
In 1980, President Ronal Reagan offered her the post of Secretary of Education. Later on, George Bush Senior did the same. Marva Collins turned them down both times. She preferred to continue teaching and running her school and felt that entering politics would compromise her values and standards of teaching.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Marva Collins speak. I will admit there were quite a few things she said that I did not agree with at all. But more importantly, there were some very important lessons I learnt from her that day – ones that have remained with me ever since and that I try to incorporate daily into my teaching.
Firstly, I love her quote, “Difficult does not mean impossible.” It’s so true. I have this quote taped above my desk in my office. I have been known to send children out my class to my office to read it. Difficult does not mean you have to give up.
Secondly, especially with children who have some kind of learning difficulty, we learn to accept mediocrity. Usually, these kids have learnt that they only need to deliver mediocrity. From Marva I learnt to teach my students that we always go for “excellence.” I learnt to only accept excellence. I will not accept any half-hearted attempts.
Marva made me realise that children are often irresponsible or make threats because they do not see the ultimate consequences for their actions. When her teenage daughter used to threaten, “I’m going to run away from home,” Marva would respond, “My darling, let me know when you are ready because I will help you pack and even give you some money for food. But just remember when you come back, we may not be here.” I like to use this strategy in my class. Instead of moaning, “Stop swinging on that chair!” I like to say, “George, if you continue swinging on that chair, you might fall backwards with your feet way up in the air like an ostrich and everyone is going to laugh at you and you might be feeling really sore but you are going to have to smile at everyone and pretend you are okay.”
My final Marva Collins lesson is my favourite and one I truly do like to carry with me all the time. During the workshop I attended, she was trying to answer a question when her husband stood up and told the following story:
Marva was doing a tour of a school, running lessons in various classrooms. In one room, she asked the children to take out their books. Over near the back, a little boy folded his arms, put on his stubborn face and refused to do anything. Now as teachers, our normal reaction would be to berate him and make him take out his book. Perhaps we would even threaten him with some hideous consequence. Marva Collins, smiled at the boy and said, “My lovely one, if you don’t start your work then I am going to have to come right over there and hug you and kiss you. Then all the children are going to think we are married and they are going to ask ‘Why is that handsome young boy married to that old lady?’ Of course the boy and everyone else had a good laugh, he took out his book and participated in the lesson. At the end of the lesson, he asked Marva if he could join her on her visits to the other classrooms. Now the other teachers were only too happy to get rid of this kid because obviously he had been quite a trouble maker. At the end of the day, Marva said to the boy, “Young man, I have made you work really hard today. Why did you stay with me all day when you could have gone back to class?” The little boy looked up at her and said,
“Because I like me when I am with you.”
Wow. What a lesson! Yes – vital for teachers, but not only for teachers.
For every single relationship in all of our lives.
Marva Collins’ humour has worked for resolving playground conflicts many times. Sometimes, kids just need a way out, not a whole resolution exercise. My husband may not know this, but I have “Marva Collinsed” some kids with the prospect of being hugged, kissed or,heaven forbid, married to me. It’s worked every time.
God bless Marva Collins.