John Taylor Gatto – The Prize-Winning Teacher Who Quit


In 1991, while he was still New York State Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto quit teaching. Prior to this, he had been named New York City Teacher of the Year three times for his innovative approach to teaching, yet he vowed to stop, because he didn’t want to “hurt kids anymore”.


Children have an insatiable appetite for learning. However, this can be easily killed off by the way teaching takes place in schools. Different subjects are taught in a disconnected fashion, in lessons which must stop abruptly when the bell goes. The never-ending battle of teachers trying to bring “difficult” children into line takes up so much time and energy that there is little over for actual education.


Many teachers would agree with this. However, prize-winning teacher Gatto goes a stage further, saying that schools are actually designed for dumbing us down”. Compulsory schooling, which is officially considered a human right, is according to Gatto a “twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned”.


Although officially an English teacher, Gatto said that he and other teachers actually teach seven lessons: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem and “one can’t hide”.


Having quit teaching, he went on to investigate the origins of the US school system. He found that it owes a lot to leading industrialists at the turn of the 20th century. These industrialists were worried that there was too much entrepreneurial spirit in America, so that lots of people would try to set up in competition to them, resulting in a “crisis of overproduction”. Their solution: to modify schooling so that schools turned out compliant workers rather than independent-minded entrepreneur types. The result was that discipline became more important than learning.


As successive crises hit education, the response is usually to simplify and standardise teaching. The result is that many pupils become bored – which, coincidentally, prepares them for the boredom of their future jobs. Many, of course, rebel against this, and more and more resources are poured into dealing with those that rebel.


Since Gatto wrote his books, things have, if anything, got worse. Rebellion is often medicalised, acquiring names such as “oppositional defiant disorder” and “conduct disorder”. Sometimes such “syndromes” are treated with strong drugs, sometimes by sending the children to boot camps or behaviour modification centres. If the treatment fails, many end up joining the soaring prison population.


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