NYTimes:  "Building a Better Teacher" --by Elizabeth Green

Nine pages!  I haven't read it yet, but figured we'd want to talk about it here.  So check it out--sounds like an interesting discussion.

Schools Matter has something out already, "The 'Teachers Are Built' Non-school of Thought"

From Schools Matter (posted by Jim Horn):

"The New York Times Magazine has a fondness for giving great swaths of paper and ink to the reform
schoolers' mission to turn K12 education over to the corporations, and
this week's 8,000 word piece by Spencer Foundation fellow, Elizabeth
Green (former ed reporter for the right-wing New York Sun), does not disappoint in that regard. The operative metaphor of the piece, "Building a Better Teacher,"
follows from the ed deformer's core conceit that teachers are like
mousetraps, devices that can be designed, re-designed, torn down and
tinkered with to produce a more efficient way to capture and confine,
er, educate."

Add in pertinent responses, reviews of the article, when you get a chance. 

Have you read "Building a Better Teacher"?  What do you think?

Tags: Green, building+better+teacher

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I was just reading this "Can Teachers Be Taught to Teach Better?" on NYTimes education blogs.

Read this paragraph:
"When Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat. ‘‘Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching,’’ Gates said. ‘‘I’m personally very curious.’"

Now I am curious.
What makes a good teacher? Is there a formula at all? I mean what makes a good teacher for one student can make it a very bad teacher for the other. I can tell from personal experience how one student liked the quick rhythm of the math teacher, and the other one couldn't keep up and felt stupid, ending up hating the same teacher.

I don't doubt that there are "absolutes" here. But in between, I go back to personalization and personal choices, and acknowledging the individual. I maintain, that the basis to better teacher lies in the acknowledge by the teachers that there are different needs and abilities among the students and the classroom isn't a unit, but it is a collection of units.
At the same time to make better teaching in a classroom I think the students must also learn that there are different teachers and a variety of teaching styles. Students need to make an effort to adjust and take the best of the variety, Variety is important. Of course the assumption is that what ever teaching style is used - the student should always be able to approach the teacher and ask for help.

Oh, yes, being accessible is the first thing that makes a teacher into a good teacher!
You beat me to this, Connie! I was just going to start a discussion on this. I haven't finished reading the article yet but I find it very interesting already. It raises such interesting questions:

Can someone be really taught how to teach? Or is it more of a natural talent? Sure, there are certain techniques of classroom management (e.g. those that Lemov in the article is teaching) but are those enough to make a teacher much better? How deeply should a teacher know the subject matter he/she teaches vs the mechanics of teaching it?

Ironically, I was recently involved in an online discussion where someone suggested that college professors (I am one of those) should be required to take pedagogy/educational psychology classes. I personally don't think this is needed on the college level - the best college profs I know never needed those to be great teachers. What do you think?

Oh, and to all female participants: happy International Women's Day!
As Or-Tal said, there are many different kinds of teachers, all of whom can be good teachers. When it comes down to "student preference" for particular teaching styles rather than the effectiveness of the teaching, I think we've missed something. So maybe what makes a good teacher is a good school - one that supports the teachers, and is supportive of the students without pandering, teaching them to self-advocate and recognize their responsibility in the learning process so they can get the most out of the excellent teachers already there.
link to the videos on NYTimes, corresponding to the article

Now these can provide some fascinating conversation topics. (Thanks to my colleague, Rob, for encouraging me to post them.)
Hi Connie.... hope this finds well and you beat me to it!

I just finished reading this article and found it very well done.

I find myself in disagreement with Jim Horn, who i like alot, on this one.
I thought the article did a very nice job of describing what i think of as the
"art" as well as the "science" of what teachers do.

Some highlights:

1. The mechanics of teaching were not always overlooked in education schools. Modern-day teacher-educators look back admiringly to Cyrus Peirce, creator of one of the first “normal” schools (as teacher training schools were called in the 1800s), who aimed to deduce “the true methods of teaching.” Another favorite model is the Cook County Normal School, run for years by John Dewey’s precursor Francis Parker. The school graduated future teachers only if they demonstrated an ability to control a classroom at an adjacent “practice school” attended by real children; faculty members, meanwhile, used the practice school as a laboratory to hone what Parker proudly called a new “science” of education. But Peirce and Parker’s ambitions were foiled by a race to prepare teachers en masse. Between 1870 and 1900, as the country’s population surged and school became compulsory, the number of public schoolteachers in America shot from 200,000 to 400,000. Normal schools had to turn out graduates quickly; teaching students how to teach was an afterthought to getting them out the door. Thirty years later, the number was almost 850,000.

In my experience there are definable mechanics involved with teaching and we have gotten far away from teaching them to future teachers. In a past life, as a school administrator, our district spent alot of staff development time on these "fundamentals".

In my head.... these are foundational work and many of our teachers graduates never get anything in this area.

This kind of work...sure beats... incentives for better teachers around test scores!!!

well worth the read..... be well...mike
Hi Mike,

In disagreement or agreement with Jim Horn?

Thanks for your reflections--makes me think I might like the article when I actually get time to read it! Have you looked at the videos? They are really interesting. Would be worth viewing and discussing at a staff meeting--heaven knows, would be a lot better than what often does go on in staff meetings.
Hi Connie, I read the NYTimes piece with great excitement and gratitude that someone was focusing on the real educational needs of inner city children. Why not follow and film effective urban teachers and learn from their experiences? What else has worked over the years? Why does this action have to have an overtly political or corporate motive as articulated by Jim Horn? If you watch the videos you will hear the real enthusiasm of the voiceover, presumably Lemov, sounding like a sports announcer analyzing a great running back. I thought it was very cool to see obviously great teachers in the spotlight. I also saw ways I could improve my own classroom management.
I'm not sure Lemov would argue that test scores are the only key to effective teaching, but in our current consumer environment, what are other valid ways of comparing educational success for students and their parent/consumers? I was at a writing workshop last Friday in Boston when I saw the Times article online. The presenter, Nancie Atwell, accepts and teaches rural Maine children who consistently win national student poetry competitions. While I have the highest respect for Nancie and her laboratory school, it this what today's parents/consumers are looking for in a school? I sure hope so because Nancie's graduates are being accepted at Harvard so by one measure, her school is succeeding. How many urban children are attending Harvard, graduating to find great jobs in our new information economy, or even graduating?

Elizabeth Green also points out the failure of some for-profit school corporations to raise test scores or produce other measurable improvements in inner city education. I usually gag when corporate CEO's complain about the state of American education. These people, including Bill Gates, have the resources, but not the courage to start their own schools. My criticism of Elizabeth Green is why ask Bill Gates about education? What has he done in education except make or give money? Nancie Atwell has started her own school with her own resources and is effectively teaching students who are creating and achieving. Why interview Bill Gates and not Nancy Atwell? Nancie Atwell gets up at 5:30 AM every day and edits all the previous day's writing of her middle schoolers for 90 minutes. She does this because she cares about her students and their success. This is what makes a great teacher! Hard work, a real vision, knowledge of your subject and your students hearts, great classroom management skills, and persistent follow through. When Bill Gates spends 10 years in a classroom, maybe then we can look to him as a leader. Until then, I look to educators like Connie and Nancie. This is my first Fireside post, but I have been following Fireside since you started it. I admire your teaching and caring attitude. I also know how early you get up to create Fireside and provide a quality education to your students and families. Thanks and we appreciate your fine work. rob, a 4th grade Emerson teacher
Hi, everyone! I'm new 'round these parts. Glad to join the conversation!

I read this article this past weekend and it quotes some people who I've had a chance to work with over the years (Pam Grossman, Deborah Ball) and whom I admire a great deal. Ball, in particular, has a really fantastic way of preparing people to be math teachers, as well as math methods teacher educators. Her Math Methods Planning Group involves faculty and graduate students who all teach the math methods seminars for future teachers, observe each other teaching every week, and on a weekly basis debrief what they've seen in their teaching and in their college students' learning. It's one of the best examples of higher ed. "lesson study" that I've seen.

In the article, though, I do share the concern that Green's work contributes to efforts to "teacher-proof" practice. In my experience, teaching when done well entails an artful collaboration between teacher and students, and this focus exclusively on the teacher moves (as opposed to the learners' responses) misses half of the alchemy.

It's interesting, moreover, that the videos of teaching are devoid of any greater context, the teachers' descriptions of their context, curriculum, and students' learning needs-- all of which inform how "portable" these practices become when enacted in other settings, especially when a novice teacher tries them out. Without planned and careful guided attention, even videos of accomplished teaching contain subtleties that novices can miss, seeing the practices as somehow "magical." So I worry that once someone has taken the prescriptive rules from this article, stood still when delivering directions, and still has challenges, they're left without a set of concrete and ongoing strategies for coming to know your students as learners, each and every day. That part seemed to be left out of the article, leaving it very teacher-centered. I wondered what place ongoing inquiry would have in this model of teacher preparation.
I haven't gotten to read the whole article yet, but what struck me within the first page was the series of descriptions the author listed of teacher-student interactions in which there was ineffective teaching going on:
-the student one teacher argued with for five minutes about not having a pencil
-the classroom that devolved into chatter instead of group practice of multiplication tables

I had to bite back the urge to shout at the computer screen, "well no duh!" I'm in the process of getting into a credential program for teaching, and I'm astonished at the fact that in an entire 31 semester units of coursework, I will have ONE class on teaching methods, and no classes focusing on classroom management (aka discipline). You can know the material you're teaching, you can know how to create and implement a lesson plan, and you can even deliver said lesson plan confidently. But none of these things will prepare you for what to do when your lesson plan doesn't go as planned, or what to do when a student comes unprepared to class, or (even worse!) when a student or the whole class flatly refuses to do the assignment you gave them. A lot of my classmates aren't aware of how much a deficit this is in the curriculum for teaching students, and I fear they'll get to their first teaching assignment and be totally left to sink or swim without anybody to help them figure it out! I at least can go in knowing to pepper my mentors constantly with questions about classroom management, but even with that, I'm afraid that I'll get into my first classroom and have no idea what to do if someone misbehaves.

I'll finish reading the article after my midterms are over tomorrow, and maybe have something more to say about this concept of building better teachers (seriously?!). I do think the idea of blaming any one group for the problems in the schools is ridiculous, but I also have a feeling, being immersed in the student teaching curriculum at the moment, that our current teacher training is not working entirely as intended. Perhaps a small tweak to the system to include a required classroom management course for new teachers might be helpful? I'd gladly volunteer to take it myself! Heck, if I can find such a beast, I'll be taking it anyway even though it's not required. I already learned the hard way how to manage a K-1 and a 1-2 classroom (took me 2 years!), and I have no intention of doing the same in my high school classes if I can feasibly avoid it.
I just felt I needed to stress how I admire teachers for their courage and strength. I am not a teacher and in the few times I volunteered to give a lecture or two (to kids and to adults) I felt nervous and stressed and at a constant test by dozens of eyes...

I did manage to lead quite a few management meeting though, the fear or stress didn't come anywhere near what I felt when I stood in a classroom. This was totally different. People who choose teaching as a profession must be really special people.

What worries me is people who "find themselves" in a position of a teacher not by choice, but rather because of lack of alternatives.
And I am commenting to what Erin said, because you mention class management and I can't help wondering, how much of that class management are taught skills, and how many of those skills are built in the character of people who chose to become teachers.
A "classroom charisma" has an important role in the successful management of a class. Basic good "people skills". There are loads of things that can be used in management of a classroom which I learned through coaching - and perhaps this is a recommended course for teachers too.
I like a lot of what the article says in terms of it's focus on and examination of teaching moves (or what the University of Michigan is calling high leverage teaching practices) that successful teachers employ in their classroom from the subtle to the obvious. I like the idea of thinking about new ways to structure teacher education in order to support emerging teachers more fully and realistically and to find ways of solving the problem of good people who are willing to help their students, but not finding themselves successful despite their best efforts.

My concern is this - isn't the whole greater than the sum of its parts? If we analyze teaching into a set of discreet moves , could that be like taking apart a radio in order to understand it, but once all the parts are dismantled the radio no longer functions? The radio only works when all its components are working together...Is the "working together" part of teaching a science that can be taught? Or is it more of an art? And what if you have a beautifully working radio but horrible or destructive programing coming from it...so many things to consider.

Given the need for innovation in teacher education, though, I am willing to give this idea a try and see where it goes. It could prove to be very exciting if done right.
This has been a fantastic discussion--many thanks to Or-Tal, Kiki, Ed, Mike, Rob, Desiree, Erin, and Katrin. Such in-depth reflections, such good observations and questions.

I don't know, each time I read the article I have a different take on it. I'm now at the point where I just want to see Lemov's book that's coming out in April: Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College. Then I think I'll know what my viewpoint is about his...hmmm...philosophy. (Is it a philosophy?)

When I read about Lemov's various techniques for what I'd call class management, I think, "Yeah, I do that, and that, and that..." But it would depend on the day, the hour, the students, my purposes, even... the weather! A teacher needs a flexible, responsive, flexible repertoire of management skills. To me the most important management skill is to move the behavioral responsibility to the students, to make them self-managing to the greatest extent possible. It's all about promoting self-discipline. (And oh yeah, instilling in everyone the importance of something as old-fashioned and feel-good as manners!)

Some of the article makes me wince at how teacher-centered things get. Must the focus be on how I "capture" students' attention, and "get them to follow instructions"? Ok, but that's a bit low-level. What if I want the students to be raising questions, helping to design the lessons?

What if I want them to be empowered to capture each other's attention, and to contribute to student-run discussions? That's another part of the picture.

Just don't want it all to be about devices for that work in highly teacher-centered classes--there are additional ways to learn that should be included as well.

That said, I do think management tricks are useful, and enjoy sharing them with new teachers as well as trading techniques with teachers who have had years to develop their repertoire. It's a kind of knowledge we should share around more often than we do.

Here's my overview belief, in summary--learning is way beyond the realm of management, it's about community. What's important is that each person feels as if s/he's an important contributor in the class learning environment. Orchestrate that... and then to the extent you can, let there be times of "conductorless orchestras;" that's when an extremely powerful type of magic can arise...


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