Here's a confession I am embarrassed to admit: I am a terrible teacher. Yes, I admit it. I am one of those teachers students hate to have, one of those ineffective teachers who deserves to be fired.
At least, that's how I started out, at the age of 25 when I was tossed to the wolves and told to turn these classes of 9th and 10th graders into Spanish speakers.
I knew nothing about teaching. I didn't get an education degree, unlike all my college friends who did. Instead, my degree was in English, not English education. I didn't want to be a teacher. I wanted to be a college professor or a writer. I wanted to do something prestigious and important. But when I lost my enthusiasm for the world of academia, I reverted to something I thought I could do. Hey, I said to myself, I have a minor in Spanish and speak it fairly well. I'll become a Spanish teacher.
And so I did. Well, at the very least, I stood in front of a classroom and pretended to be a teacher. But I didn't know anything about getting students to participate, about getting them to behave, about allowing them opportunities to learn. I had no confidence in myself as a teacher, and I was clueless.
I was also a failure.
In the many years that have passed since I began the experiment of teaching, I have learned A LOT. I have tried repeatedly to diagnose my problem. Why was I such a terrible teacher? What did I do wrong? That's why I've been reading so many books about education lately.
My most recent is Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) by Elizabeth Green. Her premise is exactly what the title implies. What does it mean to be a good teacher, and can that knowledge be transmitted? The first question is difficult, but the second is easy to answer. Yes! Teachers can learn to be better teachers!
And that hearkens back to a conundrum in America--the belief that teaching is an innate ability. You either got it or you don't. That's how I saw teaching and how I was taught to see teaching. You see it in movies all the time. A teacher starts out in a bad school with students who are not only uninterested but downright hostile, and somehow, through sheer force of personality, she turns that ragtag bunch of losers into scholars. That is the American narrative of teaching, and it is what a lot of people buy into. But not only is it wrong; it is dangerous to our kids and our teachers. It tells teachers that no matter how hard they try, they can't improve and that if they don't do well at first, they might as well give up. It is the same problem we have with education in general. Either you get math, or you don't. Either you're a good writer, or you're not. There's no way to fix it.
But in truth, yes, you can "fix" it.
People have to learn how to be teachers just like they have to learn to be any other profession. They have to learn the tricks. We see teaching as an individual endeavor. The teacher goes into her classroom and shuts the door, and she's on her own to swim or sink. That was my experience. I had a mentor assigned to me, but did I get any mentoring? Um, no. Sure, teachers have "professional development" opportunities, but a lot of that is virtually worthless. Many school districts treat professional development as a box to mark off on a checklist, not as a true learning opportunities for teachers.
Now that I'm not directly in the teaching field*, I am spending more time learning how to teach. Ironic, isn't it? And most of that learning is coming from podcasts and books.
Green has lots of good ideas about teaching, but they are not her own. She doesn't pretend to have any sort of innate knowledge about teaching. She's actually not a teacher at all; she's a reporter. So she went to the experts to find out about teaching.
She starts with the Japanese. And as I have seen discussed in other books, in Asia, skills are seen as something that are learned, not innate (unlike in America, which I described above). And great teachers learn to teach by COPYING EACH OTHER. Yes, that's right. They copy one another's lesson plans, down to each little detail. And they have time to learn from each other. It's built right into their schools and, indeed, into their culture.
In the U.S. teaching is a private ordeal. My experience was that I was "observed" once or twice a year by someone who was no expert in my field, usually the principal, and then given a grade. But in Japan, it is not unusual for teachers to have spectators in their classrooms studying their methods and learning from them. It's called lesson study, and I think it's a great idea.
Some American teachers would balk at the idea of replicating someone else's lesson plan. They would want to be "original," to have "autonomy," to be "independent." To them, I say, "pshaw!" If I had had someone walk me through the steps of exactly how to teach conjugating verbs in Spanish, I would have bought that person a beer...or a Coca Cola...or a sparkling water, whatever she preferred.
Green devotes the first third or so of her book to a discussion of the teaching of math in Japan and how we do it wrong in the U.S. The odd thing is that the Japanese teachers she interviews say that they learned these methods from American educators, specifically from the work of John Dewey and George Polya. These ideas went to Japan, but Americans failed to adopt the same principles.
The specific method Japanese teachers use to teach math is inductive reasoning. They don't start by telling the students the big idea. Instead, they give the students a problem and let them theorize how they can solve it. The students throw out ideas, and the teacher cultivates the ideas that ultimately move the students toward the correct mathematic principle.
In the U.S., on the other hand, teachers teach the principle, and then students practice it over and over again. They don't really get why the principle is so; they just know this is what you have to do to solve the equation.
That was definitely my experience in math classes. I learned the steps I needed to take to solve a problem, but I didn't really understand what any of it meant. It didn't seem to have any real meaning.
The American way of teaching math is through deductive reasoning, which Green calls the "I, We, You" approach. Here is how she describes it:
"After checking homework, teachers announced the day's topic, demonstrating a new procedure . . . (I). Then they led the class in trying out a sample problem together . . . (We). Finally, they let students work through similar problems on their own, usually by silently making their way through a worksheet. . . . (You)" (118-119).
Green uses the phrase "You, Y'all, We" to describe the Japanese inductive approach:
"They began not with an introduction, but a single problem that students spent ten or twenty minutes working through alone . . . (You). While the students worked, the teacher wove through the students' desks, studying what they came up with and taking notes to remember who had which idea. Sometimes the teacher then deployed the students to discuss the problem in small groups (Y'all). Next, the teacher brought them back to the whole group, asking students to present their different ideas for how to solve the problem on the chalkboard. . . . Finally, the teacher led a discussion, guiding students to a shared conclusion . . . (We)" (119).
In the end, the Japanese students have a firm understanding of the "why?" behind the mathematic principles. American students don't.
Green next tackles the issue of discipline, or as educators like to call it in their euphemistic way, "classroom management." She looks at charter schools and their zero tolerance policies, intended to tackle the small issues so that the big issues won't crop up.
Like the Japanese teachers, who turned teaching into an art form, complete with blueprints, Doug Lemov, a charter school entrepreneur, created a taxonomy of good teaching, which he shared with educators in his system and wrote a book about. Basically, he looked at the behaviors that successful teachers exhibited and broke them into categories. One of these behaviors is explained in a bit of detail in the text, and I think it could be useful.
I had trouble with kids being kids during class. Not paying attention, talking to their friends, talking over me, etc and etc. And I would call them out on it. Well, I was doing it all wrong.
As a teacher, whenever you call a student out in front of his or her peers, you are inviting a showdown. That kid can't comply with you because that would be losing face. So oftentimes the problem escalates because the kid won't back down. So, as a teacher, it's better to avoid the situation altogether.
Here's how "expert" teachers do it. They don't name the kid who's acting up. They get more creative than that. For example, one teacher named in the book counts aloud the number of students who he needs to pay attention with statements like, "I need two more sets of eyes on the book." Another teacher used hand gestures:
"Two fingers to to her eyes--that meant 'track the speaker,' code for paying attention to the person talking, usually another student. The fly swat, applied to a raised hand, meant 'I'm not taking questions right now.' And the prayer sign reminded students to get into the attentive position that no-excuses schools called SLANT or STAR, a back-straight pose tied off with primly clasped hands" (183).
The teacher "had created the gestures . . . so that she could subtly correct students' misbehavior without interrupting the flow of her lesson. At the beginning of each year, she taught the three gestures explicitly. For the first few weeks, every time she used one, she would say its name too" (183).
In his taxonomy, Lemov describes another form of discipline as "positive group correction":
"By positive, Doug meant constructive--describing the desired behavior, rather than the problem. 'We're following along in our books,' a teacher could say, posing the statement like self-evident narration, even if it also contained a hint of aspiration" (185).
Lemov called level five in the discipline taxonomy "lightning-quick public correction." This is one of the few in which a particular child is named. Lemov describes it this way:
"'Andrew, I need you with me, just like Jeremy and Anne and David. Now we're looking sharp!" Doug modeled at the workshop. 'So I corrected Andrew publicly,' he explained, 'but I did a couple of things. One, I instantly diverted the gaze from him to someone else or something else, and, when possible, that something else is much more positive. So if I said, 'Andrew, I need you with me,' then you're all going to divert your gazes to Andrew, and we're in that situation where I have to win, it's all public, and then I can't afford to lose.' Instead, he let Andrew take the stage for half a second before quickly moving on to Jeremy, Anne, and David and the idea that 'we' (read: everyone, even Andrew) were now 'looking sharp'" (187).
The thing that impresses me about these levels of discipline is that the teacher is not focusing attention on any individual child. Thus, the child doesn't have to feel that he or she has to defend him/herself and save face.
Confession: I was terrible at discipline.
Toward the end of the book, Green finally gets to the subject area that is of interest to me--teaching English and writing. This is a briefer section, but it has some good information as well.
Green describes how good English (composition) teaching flips the formula for math teaching. While math teaching should be inductive; English teaching should be deductive:
"In math . . . the 'You, Ya'll, We' lesson popularized in Japan . . . made sense for structuring investigations of big ideas, like the meaning of fractions of negative numbers. In English, meanwhile, where students needed to learn specific reading and writing strategies . . . the 'I, We, You' pattern of modeling followed by guided practice was much more appropriate" (276).
She describes how an expert English teacher, Pam Grossman, gave her students "stock responses" in order to facilitate class discussions of texts. These are like sentence templates. For example, a student might say, "According to the text . . . I believe that means . . ." or "I agree with what . . . says, and I would like to add . . ."
Another teacher, Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, gave her students anticipation guides to prep them for the text they would be reading. She also asked them to write level one, two, and three questions about the text to facilitate classroom discussion.
One of the best things a teacher can do in a discipline like English, according to Green, is to model good discussion skills. One of these practices she calls "uptake":
"A teacher practiced uptake when she listened to a student's contribution and then repeated it in some way, by summarizing the idea . . . , elaborating on it, or pushing the student to do the same" (271).
In a couple of places Green also describes how teachers study their own thinking to determine how to teach a skill or idea to someone else. The teacher needs to break down information and processes into all its mini-steps and examine his/her thoughts about how a concept is done. What is the thinking behind a concept? What are all the steps a person must go through in order to work through a concept? Teachers then develop lessons to help students go through those steps.
So, will any of these make me a better teacher? Perhaps. Or I might never step foot in a classroom again. If I do, I will certainly be better prepared than I was 12 years ago (Jeez, has it been that long ago?). In the mean time, I will continue reading, listening, and learning.
*Footnote: Actually, I still teach, but it's an online class, so many of the skills I've learned about teaching do not apply.
Word and Book Lover.