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Excerpts from Ordinary Children, Extraordinary Teachers and Marva Collins’ Way


Marva Collins began her teaching career in Monroe County Training School, Alabama as a nineteen-year-old in 1957. Two years later she moved to Garfield Park, a suburb on the west side of Chicago. Teaching took on a new dimension when she began teaching children from the inner city. Although she knew little about educational theory to begin with, the help of experienced colleagues, natural talent, and years of her own teaching experience made Marva an excellent teacher.

Becoming disillusioned by the failure of the public school system and the lack of real educating being done, she left her teaching position and decided to start her own school. Westside Prep opened its doors in September 1975 with four students. By 1980, enrollment had increased to two hundred students with a waiting list of five hundred more. Working with students having the worst of backgrounds, those who were working far below grade level, and even those who had been labeled as "unteachable," Marva was able to overcome the obstacles. News of third grade students reading at ninth grade level, four-year-olds learning to read in only a few months, outstanding test scores, disappearance of behavioral problems, second-graders studying Shakespeare, and other incredible reports, astounded the public.

What was the secret of her success with these inner city children —or this "miracle" as many called it? The answer lay in her love for each one of her students, a positive approach to education, complete dedication to her teaching role, a refusal to give up, and a great deal of common sense.


"…make the poor student good and the good student superior…" OCET, p. 9

"The good ones [teachers] are constantly trying to find answers; the poor ones are constantly making excuses." OCET, p. 11

"Some teachers think that just what is given to them in the classroom is all there is to be used. These are very poor teachers. You have to go beyond." OCET, p. 20

"To just read what is given to me in a classroom and not explore other means and not explore other connecting topics, still guarantees failure as a teacher. Learning is everywhere. I think that is the one thing that is missing in the minds of many teachers. Everything in life has knowledge attached to it, and students are just waiting to learn things." OCET, p. 21

"We can all pay teachers to teach, but how much do you really pay a teacher to care?" A dedicated staff will "take personally the failure of just one child." OCET, p. 23

A school will only work "because of motivated leadership and dedication from the teachers." OCET, p. 23

"Students may know nothing, they may be complete illiterates, but they know when we know, and they respect when we know. A good teacher must be more than a 2x4 teacher —bounded by the four walls of a classroom and the two covers of a book. I have a passion for being the very best teacher than I can be." OCET, p. 27

"I hear teachers and educators complaining about how far a child is behind; what a child doesn’t know…That’s what we’re there for. It’s not a problem. You can see it as a problem, or you can see it as a challenge…you innately have all the right stuff that it takes to make a good teacher, if you eradicate yourself of the idea that these children cannot learn." OCET, pp. 34-35

"…you can only do one day at a time. You can’t teach a whole year in one day. Prepare to be the very best teacher you can be that one day, in that classroom. Then come home Day One and prepare to be the very best teacher you can be on Day Two." OCET, p. 40

Have a positive attitude toward teaching. "…think of the power that you possess to manage a whole group of children. You can bend them like a piece of putty. You can make them what you want." OCET, p. 42

"…teach every day. Do whatever profession you’re in, do it every day, every moment, as if the whole world were watching. I teach as if Jesus Christ Himself were in that classroom. And when you do that, you’re bound to see great things happening." OCET, p. 43

"Each of us can make a difference. Each of us has what it takes to make a difference —and that’s a passion for being excellent in what we do …All of us are what we are, and are where we are, because of the excellence of somebody before us." OCET, p. 44

The "miracle" of teaching is "…dedication, common-sense, determination, and a love for our students." OCET, p. 109

"… most human beings are as good as they are because some unknown teacher cared enough to continue polishing until a shiny luster came shining through; because some teacher cared enough to remove the previous fetid tags and labels of failure from their psyches." OCET, p. 152


"…the teacher can never write anything negative about a child…Everything is positive." OCET, p.10

"…find something positive to say about a child every morning." OCET, p. 11

"When our children walk in the door, I say, ‘Welcome to success. Say goodbye to failure because you are not going to fail. I’m not going to let you fail.’" OCET, p. 16

"We have created an attitude that puts joy back into learning, that creates satisfaction at doing something correctly." OCET, p. 20

"We always find something positive to say about their papers — ‘Very good, but let’s proofread this.’ No teacher ever uses the words, ‘That’s wrong.’ We always find something positive to say about a child." OCET, p. 26

"Create an ambience of positiveness in the classroom where children learn that it takes more courage to be wrong than to play it safe without ever responding to questions." OCET, p. 110

"Children respond to love and positive feedback rather than negative programming." OCET, p. 110

"Write encouraging notes to children, not just when they are in trouble." OCET, p. 111

"Never let students say ‘I can’t.’ Say to them, ‘We remove the ‘t’ from the ‘can’t’ and we have ‘can.’" OCET, p. 111

"When a child gives an incorrect answer, say, ‘Very good try, but not quite.’" OCET, p. 113

"Praise is essential in developing the right attitude toward learning and toward school. We all know this in theory. In practice we often forget the importance of praise in dealing with children." MCW, pp. 42-43


"…I usually detect a child who wants to act out…I stand right behind that child…and talk directly to him because the children who are behaving do not need my attention. [These children] usually see themselves as failures." It is good to "give them a taste of success." OCET, pp. 15

"In our school, the children do not give a ‘problem child’ an audience. Therefore, there is no need for him to act out; there is no laughing if he gets smart-alecky or if he comes out with a comment." OCET, p. 16

"…turn disciplinary situations into positive lessons…react positively to whatever children do…I think we tend to make too much out of nothing." OCET, p. 17

  • If a child is drawing in class, compliment him on his beautiful picture and have him write about it.
  • If a child is chewing gum in class, have him write a composition on the history
  • of gum; grade it as a regular assignment.
  • Have a child write a composition or deliver a speech entitled "Why I Am Too Bright to Waste Time in School."
  • If a child shoots a rubber band, take the rubber band away. Don’t turn it into a big deal.

"Usually when children act out, or when children refuse to learn, it is a signal that something is wrong, just as an illness or pain is a signal that something is physically wrong with us …I consider myself parent and teacher. It is my responsibility to let my lessons go for a few minutes to find out what may be bothering this child. I try to empathize with whatever is bothering him…" OCET, p. 18

"…we do not have the discipline problems that most schools have…a child will say to another one, ‘You’ve taken away my right to learn.’…Or if a child insists on acting up, we will say, ‘Why aren’t you going to do that?’ Their retort to us is, ‘Because I’m too bright to waste my time.’" OCET, p. 31

"…anybody can send a child to the office; that’s a very poor teacher. The superior teacher always has the idea that just one more time will do it…" OCET, p. 36

"Children respect the fact that you care. They rebel against order, but they respect nothing else…They respect the fact that you maintain your own classroom." OCET, p. 36

"…ignoring it [negative behavior] is saying negative behavior is right." OCET, p. 40

"Never place problem students in the corners or in the back of the classroom. Keep them near you; remember, we need to reach the troubled child quickly." OCET, p. 111

"Avoid telling parents negative things about their children. You and the child attempt to solve the problems that arise in your classroom. You earn the respect and trust of your students, and you become a more effective teacher." OCET, p. 111

"Do not send students to the office. Remember, you, the teacher, must be able to handle your own ‘family and your own household.’ Your household in this case being your classroom." OCET, p. 112

"Always make friends with each student before there is a discipline problem." OCET, p. 114.

"Reduce ridicule and laughter in the classroom by telling the student who speaks out that he or she is very courageous, and it took courage to be wrong, but they who stood silent or laughed took the easy path, and the child who speaks out is to be praised not mocked. …create a spirit of group effort in the classroom." OCET, p. 115


"The teacher sets the ambience in any classroom. The teacher has total control over the learning environment and children respond exactly to the atmosphere a teacher creates. Teachers have been known to ridicule children, or to laugh if a child cannot get the answer, even subtly. Nothing could be worse for a child. In our school the teacher and the rest to the children pull for a child to get it right." OCET, pp. 10-11

A classroom is "like a total family, and it starts with the teacher, setting the climate for support and care." OCET, p. 11

"…when the other children see me accepting the child, they learn to accept that child too …As a teacher, you have to be accepting of everyone…" OCET, p. 12

"Some of my most important work with children takes place at lunchtime…I have always insisted on eating lunch with my children instead of being separated off with the other teachers. I try to rotate, sitting next to a different child every day." OCET, p. 12

"You say …by your actions, that you are accepting that child and you expect the rest of the children to accept him too…You are providing a model of behavior for all children to follow." OCET, pp. 12-13

Get to know all of your students …fraternize with the children. OCET, pp. 40-41

You establish rapport with the children "by letting them know that you truly care about them." OCET, p. 43

"Some students are not easy to like, but never pick on a student. If you find a student with undesirable behavior, go out of your way to like this student, and you will find out that one day, you will like the student." OCET, p. 111


"Our approach pushes students to excel, and students like to be pushed. They want to do well. They want to succeed. And once they have a taste of it, they will never again settle for mediocrity." OCET, p. 20

Be consistent in your expectations. "If we allow children to use incomplete sentences in our classes, and then we write on their papers ‘incomplete sentences’…We’ve allowed them to speak in incomplete sentences, so they don’t know what writing complete sentences is all about." OCET, p. 25

"…when you aim low, there’s really no place to go." OCET, p. 28

"…we are in a just good enough attitude generation …we have to get back to that precision, that doing it right again." OCET, p. 38

"We let them know whatever they do must be the very, very best that they can do." OCET, p. 39

"The problem with our schools is that our expectations are too low." OCET, p. 58

"Excellence is not an act but a habit. The more you do something the better you will become." OCET, p. 114


"We emphasize a total learning experience. Not only must students be able to pass tests, perform academically, and work through social situations, but they must also have a sense of humanity and compassion." OCET, p. 12

"I’ll often say to my students that we can be ever so clever, but we also have to learn first how to be human. That’s why I emphasize philosophy as found in some of the world’s classic literary works." OCET, p. 12

"Everything a teacher does affects children. That’s why you, as a teacher, must be aware of what resources are available, and you must know the moralities of what children read, the actual lessons of life you want them to take into the world." OCET, p. 14

"As soon as our children learn to read, they must read one classic every two weeks and report it to us orally. That means every teacher in our school must also have read that book." OCET, p. 26

"…we’ve removed the values from our schools, and we wonder why they behave the way they do. We’re expecting them to behave the way we think they should behave, because we grew up on certain values. But these children have not been exposed to those values." OCET, p. 37

Teach children the classics with the lesson inherent in each and we will have different students. "These lessons will take them through life, not just a reading exercise to fill the school day." OCET, pp. 58-59

"Remember a few years ago how lessons were prefaced with Casey at the Bat; Paul Revere’s Ride; Aesop’s Fables; and The Boy Who Cried Wolf? —the classics that taught us the hard knocks of life and perseverance?" OCET, p. 60

"Let us once again return the teaching of classics and poetry to our children. Let us once again set our children adrift in a sea of morality …Could it be that we have allowed them to grow up without direction, without morals? Without attempting to help them arrange the puzzles in their minds? Without giving them heroes and heroines to believe in? Is their definition of a hero just a sandwich? OCET, pp. 61-62

"There was a time in our curriculums in American schools when virtue occupied center stage. There was also a time when children memorized poetry and had to tell what the moral lesson in that poem meant to them…The large objective of schools some time ago was to train the moral character and nourish the souls of the students." OCET, p. 76

"Pure scholarship purged of every other moral concern is, in my opinion, dangerous scholarship." OCET, p. 81


"…syllogistic reasoning is so important…unfortunately…We have gotten away from any kind of deep thinking in our teaching…" OCET, p. 15

"We give all of our students daily exercises in phonics. I am convinced it is the most effective way to teach reading…" OCET, p. 18

"…all teachers need…to admit they do not know…that he or she has a great deal left to learn." OCET, p. 20

"None of our teachers has a desk. Every teacher walks from student to student to mediate errors before they become permanent errors…If you red-mark papers and give them back to students a week, two weeks later, the errors mean very little to them." OCET, pp. 25-26

"…we use a lot of the Socratic Method: teacher-pupil dialogue. We are not much for the Xerox sheets where children only have to check ‘T’ for true or ‘F’ for false, or guess at multiple-choice questions. There is a dialogue between the teacher and pupil every day. Our blackboards are perhaps the most utilized tool in our classrooms." OCET, p. 26

"Every child in our school is articulate. Every child speaks standard English…Our teachers are correcting consistently – all day, every moment, infinitely – throughout the entire year. We have been correcting the children’s grammar until they realize that there is the standard grammar that must be spoken universally if we are going to function." OCET, p. 28

Whether reading a story or teaching history, you have to make it come alive. In teaching math, "remove yourself from the pre-packaged lesson plans. For example, we’ll take an entire group of children and we’ll go ‘Seven times three! Plus two! Divided by four! Minus six! Plus eight!’ Every child is listening because the next child knows that he or she is It." OCET, p. 42

"Let us once again teach our children to tell time as well as purchase digital watches for them. Let us once again teach our children to tie their shoelaces as well as provide Velcro closures for them. Let us once again teach our children the multiplication tables before we buy them calculators. Let us once again teach our children that the mind is the best computer before we put them on computers." OCET, p. 62

"The good school does not place readiness above thoroughness, memory above mastery, glibness above sincerity, uniformity above originality, and the rules and modes of the dead past above the work of the living present." OCET, p. 92

"To see things as they really are is one of the crowning privileges of the educated man, and to help others to see them so is one of the greatest services he can render to society." OCET, p. 92

"Reinforce what has been learned in class. If a recently-introduced vocabulary word is appropriate, use it when speaking to a child. Say, for example, ‘I am chagrined at your behavior right now.’" OCET, pp. 110

"Do not be afraid to be wrong and to admit that you are wrong. None of us have all of the answers all of the time. Have children proofread the blackboard for errors; remember, children cannot create havoc and find your errors, too. Make children a part of the learning environment." OCET, p. 110

"I find that children often understand a concept better when you take them to the blackboard rather than trying to show them at their seat. This practice helps the rest of the class at the same time, especially the shy child who will never come out and say that he or she does not understand…One child’s errors become a lesson for the whole class." MCW, p. 43

"…I stress proper speech and pronunciation with my own students. I try to get them in the habit of using correct grammar when they speak and I have them read aloud every day so I can check pronunciation as well as comprehension. Having children read silently in class only allows their mistakes to go unnoticed." MCW, p. 44

"Another reason for reading aloud is to build vocabulary. A child reading silently skips over big words he doesn’t know. When I am there listening to a child read, I can interrupt to ask the meaning. The whole class benefits as we can look up the definition, the base word within the larger word, and the part of speech. I also have my students read aloud for tone, inflection, and punctuation." MCW, p. 44

"I even have them read their composition aloud every day. It makes children more conscious of sentence structure, allows them to proofread for punctuation errors and word omissions, and helps them develop a certain presence and authority in front of an audience." MCW, p. 45


"Responsibility is often thought of as a fourth "R." We can teach reading, writing and arithmetic here, but much of the responsibility for your child’s education must come from home. Being a responsible student means making the right choices. It means paying attention to the teacher’s directions, it means doing nightly homework, and doing just a little more work than the teacher assigned.

Remember, school is a microcosm of the real world. The reason most schools do not work is that school is just the opposite of what is expected of citizens in the real world. This, therefore, means that a child must practice being above average in school so that they can take what they’ve learned into the real world. This means giving each task in school a real effort, not just doing enough to squeeze by.

Most experts agree that responsibility is learned from parents. Here are some suggestions for using the ‘example’ and ‘practice’ method that will allow you, the parent, to teach your child responsibility.

Let your child help you with household chores. As you work together, be clear about the purpose of each task. Praise your child for the good efforts and positively point out the negatives by saying, ‘I think you can do this better, don’t you?’ Explain that if you do not polish the furniture that the wood will crack and dry out. This allows the child to lean that most things we do have a cause and effect. Thus the child comes to learn that some actions have consequences attached to them.

Point out to your child that you, the parent, work when there are other things you would rather do. Show a child how to do a task correctly, and be patient as your child learns.

Teach your child organization. Make certain that each night, at the completion of the day’s homework, all materials are put away and ready for the next day of school. This means getting shoes and other personal items together and all in one place so that the next morning will not be filled with the frustration of: ‘You are going to be late."

Teach your child to be time-oriented. Remember, in the real world, the workplace will not tolerate tardiness and excuses. Therefore, teach your child to accept responsibility for his or her actions, and not to make excuses for shortcomings.

Make certain that you discuss the day’s activities with your child on a daily basis. This can be done while eating, driving to school, getting the child dressed or any activity within the home." OCET, pp. 50-51