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Marva Collins: Revolutionary Teacher of the “Unteachable”

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Marva Collins became a teacher out of necessity. Growing up in segregated Alabama in the wake of the Depression, she attended a one-room elementary school. With few careers available to women in the 1950s, she sought a career as a secretary after graduating from Atlanta’s Clark College in 1957. However, few companies were willing to hire a Black secretary, so she sought work in one of the few jobs available: teaching.

At the Monroe County Training School, she taught secretarial skills. She learned how to teach through trial and error. Sincerely accepting feedback from her students and principal, she slowly became more comfortable in her role. She found that the process of learning how to teach would leave a profound impact on how she approached her students.

Collins moved to Chicago in 1959, married and raised three children. She initially worked as a medical secretary but missed teaching. Although she lacked a teaching certificate, the Chicago public school system faced a severe teacher shortage and hired her to teach second grade. Because she hadn’t been taught how to teach, she rejected the common methods of the day that relied on visual memorization and verbal regurgitation. She ignored the practice of “drills” and the use of sight words popularized by Sally, Dick and Jane books. Instead, she taught reading through the use of phonics. She encouraged debate and discussion, and she was happy to let students diverge into other areas of learning if that’s where their interests as a class led them.

The rest of Chicago’s teachers didn’t follow suit. In an underfunded system filled with unmotivated, sometimes hostile students, teachers often lost their passion. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., riots in Collins’ section of Chicago left the neighborhood in dire condition. A flight to the suburbs followed, leaving behind families that bore the full brunt of poverty and crime. The teachers who stayed lost the sense that they could initiate change and followed the teacher’s union focus on “teaching to the test” to meet federal funding and accreditation requirements. After fourteen years, Collins resigned from the Chicago school system.

Dismayed but not discouraged, Marva Collins tutored a handful of students who were considered unteachable, either due to perceived learning disabilities or lack of motivation. When she exposed them to her own methods of teaching rather than the rote system of the public schools, they made dramatic improvements in their performance and in their attitudes toward learning. Seeking data to support her methods, she administered Stanford-Binet intelligence tests and proved that her students were able to perform one to four years above their grade levels.

Emboldened by her success and the support of her students’ parents, Collins spent $5,000 dollars of her own money ($26,000 today) to renovate the second floor of her home into a classroom filled with desks, books and other learning materials. In 1976, she opened Westside Preparatory School as a private, multi-grade school that enrolled eighteen students in its first year. She introduced all her students – from Kindergarten upward – to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Rudyard Kipling. She led Socratic debates, asking her students whether it was right that the Little Red Hen didn’t share any bread with her neighbors. She emphasized teaching students to think, reason, and support their ideas. By the third grade, her students were reading Shakespeare and giving oral reports to their classmates every two weeks. She insisted that phonics could give a fourth grader a vocabulary of 24,000 words while a look-say approach would only yield a 1,500 word vocabulary. A class discussion on a Greek play might digress into a lesson on Greek and Roman gods, which might lead to a discussion about the names of planets, a lesson on the solar system and the U.S. space program. Collins constantly reinforced the idea that mistakes were a necessary part of learning and should never be a source of shame. She did her best to nurture individual strengths and placed that far above any standardized achievement goal. She felt it was her job to help each student find their potential. In her book “Ordinary Children, Extraordinary Teachers,” she wrote “Just as Michelangelo thought there was an angel locked inside every piece of marble, I think there is a brilliant child locked inside every student.”

Predictably, Collins was met with opposition. Some argued that kids who would likely never leave the inner city had no use for Shakespeare and should instead be taught life skills, with a focus on avoiding teen pregnancy and drug abuse. Others criticized her for not focusing enough on Black history. Collins retorted that her job was to help a student develop as an individual who could then make choices based on his own character and goals, not based on the skin color or economic disadvantage he inherited as a child.

A year after opening her school, Collins read an article in the Chicago Sun-Times that complained about students not knowing Shakespeare. Collins wrote to the columnist to invite him into her classroom so that he could hear her students not only read but also quote from an array of Shakespeare’s plays. Unannounced, the columnist arrived at her doorstep the next morning and then dedicated his next column to telling the world about the miracles occurring in Collins’ classroom. The coverage prompted a much needed infusion of donations to her school. In 1979, 60 Minutes profiled her efforts, generating such large donations that the school was able to move into a larger building to accommodate two hundred students.

Both Presidents Regan and Bush asked Collins to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education. She turned both offers down, preferring to focus on students. In 1981, Cicely Tyson portrayed Collins in a TV Movie entitled The Marva Collins Story. In 1985, the musician Prince donated $500,000 to help Collins open Westside Preparatory Teacher Training Institute. The institute helped Collins train thousands of teachers in her methods. In 1996, Collins was hired to oversee three failing Chicago schools. Within six months, she improved two of the schools’ ratings by 85%. In 1997, the Marva Collins Preparatory School of Wisconsin opened to teach K-7 students using Collins’ approach. Other schools opened in Ohio and Florida.

Collins continued to operate her school until 2008, when tuition increases led to declining enrollment. To meet expenses, tuition had increased to $5,500 - significantly less than the $11,300 the Chicago public schools were spending per student. But for the low income students the school was trying to reach, the costs was simply too high. Marva Collins died in 2015 at the age of 78. She is still remembered for the mantra she repeated in her book Marva Collins’ Way: “We have to lead ourselves instead of looking for others to lead us. If we don’t think for ourselves, others will . . . do our thinking for us.”

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