Creating the consummate teacher

Tuesday February 19, 2013

When I was still fairly green, I took a position teaching history at an elite New England prep school. To say I was intimidated would not give my colossal anxiety its due, but the department head reassured me that he had confidence in my teaching chops. When I worried that I didn't have the breadth of historical knowledge required, he reminded me of my abiding curiosity: "I know you'll study and learn what you need to in order to master it." He viewed teaching as a craft; he promised to help me hone my skills. A master teacher, he demonstrated both his confidence in me and his commitment to perfecting my teaching.

To improve our skills, he insisted that each teacher in our department use several prep periods each month to visit colleagues' classrooms. We observed, took notes, and then met to share our impressions. These were rollicking conversations full of candor, support, humor and substantive discussions about curriculum and classroom management. I rarely resented taking my prep time to observe my fellow teachers while they, too, honed their craft.

Instead of feeling walled off in our own rooms, we were part of a cohort of committed professionals who learned from each other and could honestly share victories and defeats. I received regular, concrete suggestions for improving my teaching; it was very satisfying.

I left private schools after that wonderful job. I'd been educated in public schools and felt a strong pull to give back to the system that had shaped me. As anyone who has taught in both systems will tell you, public schools are a different kettle of fish entirely. Yes, the children need the same things, and all students -- regardless of income or background -- bring a complex bundle of issues with them to school. But the external pressures on public schools are enormous. And these strictures sometimes limit creativity and innovation, especially when it comes to constructive and transformative feedback about teaching skills.

I never again taught in a school in which observing and analyzing my colleagues' teaching was de rigueur. There are many reasons for this. The demands on teachers' time and energy -- IEP meetings, behavior plan meetings, scheduling logistics, school-wide or district-wide initiatives, meetings with parents, planning, grading (heck, waiting at the sole copier!) -- all greatly reduce the time available to do such observations. But, honestly, to truly master your craft, you must hone your skills.

Teachers are made, not born. That's the assertion of Doug Lemov, and I believe him. Lemov -- teacher, principal and founder of Uncommon Schools charter school consortium -- set out to decipher why some teachers, despite their obvious dedication and hard work, simply could not raise the achievement levels of their students. Lemov refers to this as "a dispiriting exercise in good people failing." After careful study of the habits of highly successful teachers, he developed Lemov's Taxonomy, a set of 49 easily employed teaching techniques.

His ideas run counter to a belief held by many in the field of education. Sylvia Gist -- dean of the college of education at Chicago State University -- summed it up for Elizabeth Green of the NY Times, "I think there is an innate drive or innate ability for teaching." This conventional wisdom has been behind the nationwide push to fire "bad" teachers who don't seem to have the right "Mojo" and replace them with those who appear to have the right inimitable magical teaching qualities. Lemov disagrees with this strategy, contending that the best way to boost student performance is to improve the quality of educators already teaching. Since we have almost 4 million American teachers currently in the profession, he has a point.

Lemov's taxonomy is now a book, Teach Like a Champion. It outlines easily implemented teaching techniques that all K-12 teachers could adopt and adapt to their particular style of teaching. He asserts that tiny changes in your teaching skills can greatly improvement students' focus and participation. For example: Always stand still when you're giving instructions. Children often fail to follow directions because they simply don't understand exactly what's expected of them. This advice is not exactly the Holy Grail, but it is unquestionably effective. It is the essential foundation for a successful lesson. Green explains, "Lemov's view is that getting students to pay attention is not only critical but also a skill as specialized, intricate and learnable as playing guitar."

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently completed a $45-million, three-year study to determine the best means of teacher evaluation. It concluded that the evaluation process should be three-pronged: based on student achievement, student evaluation of the teacher, and classroom observations by multiple reviewers. Although clearly a more fair and effective means of evaluation than simply looking at test scores, this process is sure to be costly and cumbersome. And in all likelihood will never be fully implemented. We must start taking the initiative ourselves.

I still cringe at what my uncharitable 8th grade self said about some of my teachers. I didn't fully appreciate the difficulty of what they were doing until I tried to do it myself. Teaching -- on a bad day -- can feel like a tightrope walk, naked, while being pelted with rotten produce. It is exceedingly vulnerable to invite others into our classrooms to observe. But I know from experience that my teaching greatly improved because of constructive feedback from my colleagues. I was open and amenable to criticism and suggestions because I knew they were climbing the crag and mucking through the mire alongside me. If you're a teacher, don't wait for a school or district initiative. Round up some colleagues and get started.

Just set up some guidelines: no rotten produce allowed.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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