Building a Better Teacher

Issues in Schooling

One of the challenges that parents face is the schooling of our children. Among the many issues in schooling, three stand out:

1) Lots of material to master in a full dual curriculum day.

2) Many schools have insufficient resources.

3) A lack of truly great teachers.

Lack of Great Teachers is a Recognized Problem

Well it seems that a lack of great teachers is a problem shared across all American schools as discussed in a worth-reading article in the NY Times on Sunday titled Building a Better Teacher:

Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, found that while the top 5 percent of teachers were able to impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one school year, as judged by standardized tests, the weakest 5 percent advanced their students only half a year of material each year.

You Can Build a Better Teacher

Creating incentives for good teachers and firing bad teachers is being tried across the country but it is not producing better learning in students. Doug Lemov a teacher and education consultant thinks the smarter path to boosting student performance is to improve the quality of the teachers who are already teaching.

Lemov decided to seek out the best teachers he could find — as defined partly by their students’ test scores — and learn from them. This five-year project produced a 357-page treatise known among its hundreds of underground fans as Lemov’s Taxonomy. (The official title, attached to a book version being released in April, is “Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.”)

Central to Lemov’s argument is a belief that students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in capturing their attention and getting them to follow instructions. Educators refer to this art, sometimes derisively, as “classroom management.”

All Lemov’s techniques depend on his close reading of the students’ point of view, which he is constantly imagining. In Boston, he declared himself on a personal quest to eliminate the saying of “shh” in classrooms, citing what he called “the fundamental ambiguity of ‘shh.’ Are you asking the kids not to talk, or are you asking kids to talk more quietly?” A teacher’s control, he said repeatedly, should be “an exercise in purpose, not in power.” So there is Warm/Strict, technique No. 45, in which a correction comes with a smile and an explanation for its cause — “Sweetheart, we don’t do that in this classroom because it keeps us from making the most of our learning time.”

After discussing Lemov and his techniques, the article goes further and asks: Is good classroom management enough to ensure good instruction? It discusses teachers who are focused on reaching every student such a Katie Bellucci, who had been teaching for only two months, yet her fifth-grade math class was both completely focused on her and completely quiet.

Lately Bellucci and her mentor teacher, Eli Kramer, a dean of curriculum and instruction at Troy who also splits fifth-grade math responsibilities with Bellucci, have advanced to a technique called No Opt Out. The concept is deceptively simple: A teacher should never allow her students to avoid answering a question, however tough. “If I’m asking my students a question, and I call on somebody, and they get it wrong, I need to work on how to address that,” Bellucci explained in February. “It’s easy to be like, ‘No,’ and move on to the next person. But the hard part is to be like: ‘O.K., well, that’s your thought. Does anybody disagree? . . . I have to work on going from the student who gets it wrong to students who get it right, then back to the student who gets it wrong and ask a follow-up question to make sure they understand why they got it wrong and understood why the right answer is right.”

Please read the whole article here.

What Can We Do?

What can we do to help our teachers become better? I think for starters we can start the conversation by sending the NY Times article to the principals and the teachers we know. When Lemov’s book comes out in April, buy a copy, read it and lend it to as many teachers as you can. Our schools want to be the best they can be and my experience has been they are receptive to constructive suggestions.

12 comments on “Building a Better Teacher

  1. I have a friend who was teaching at XYZ College, a small liberal arts college in the NYC area. She was a gifted teacher who was unanimously recommended for tenure by the tenure board. At the same time that she was selected as Teacher of the Year, she was denied tenure! This was a cause celebre on her campus: the student newspaper made it front page news, the student TV broadcast asked some tough questions of the president, why didn’t the Teacher of the Year get tenure? Disgusted, she left teaching and is now working as a patient advocate.

  2. I’m all for anything that makes our teachers’ lives better, whether it’s higher salaries, focused pedagogical training, or extended benefits (such as medical coverage or retirement plans). I’m not sure that our parents can afford to pay more tuition, nor that our schools can obtain more outside funding, in order to accomplish this. Sometimes teacher training can be funded through some governmental program with a specific goal, or through a grant from a private foundation. I’m just skeptical as to whether pupils’ standardized scores are an accurate yardstick of teacher effectiveness.

  3. Mark is right.

    Is this yet another area where we are so caught up in either our perfection or our powerlessness that we don’t address ordinary problems in ordinary ways?

  4. Judy, I’m not sure on what basis you’re drawing such conclusions. In the secular world, tremendous resources are dedicated to under-performing students.

    Why don’t we at least start with a simple understanding that the secular world is very interested in improving the effectiveness of their teachers and are spending much time and resources to address this goal. The frum community, both individuals and institutions, should learn what we can from their efforts and try to apply it to our schools to increase the effectiveness of our teachers.

  5. I understand from this posting that good teaching is at least partly defined by student performance on standardized tests. I’m not sure that this is the best yardstick to use for measuring teacher quality, but I recognize that it is objective and quantifiable as opposed to others more subjective and possibly politicized. Do schools then kick out the bottom nonperforming students to improve their overall numbers? Do we then segregate all the so-called “special” kids into alternative schools which are not considered part of the district or region and so are not used to calculate the mean, median, mode and standard deviation of all standardized test scores? Aren’t these the very kids who need good teachers the most?

  6. Tanna DeBei Eliyahu Raba, Chapter 5, Paragraph 14:

    Why was Yaabetz worthy of life without distress or temptation in this world, the life that the Holy One Blessed Be He will give to the righteous in the future time?

    He traveled to every place in Israel and taught Torah in public, for the sake of G_d.

    To receive quick quotes from Jewish holy books and short true stories of Rabbis, go to:

  7. Judy, did you read the article?

    Yet so far, both merit-pay efforts and programs that recruit a more-elite teaching corps, like Teach for America, have thin records of reliably improving student learning.

    Money is not the answer to everything (although it helps) despite what people might say.

    Perhaps you can purchase Lemov’s book when it comes out and lend it to one of the many teachers who are interested in being a better teacher. There have been many grassroots, low-budget efforts to become a better Jew, perhaps a grassroots effort on becoming a better teacher can take hold.

  8. The real issue IMO is whether Chinuch is seen as a default profession ( ala “Those who can’t do, teach”) or whether teacher training is seen as a vitally important tool for anyone considering Chinuch as a profession.In this respect, YU’s Azrieli Graduate School in Jewish Education is a great resource and is attracting many students who have the desire to be a rebbe, morah or high level teacher in high school, etc simply because even if one has a tremendous amount of knowledge to impart and a great desire to do so, learning how to manage a classroom and how to impart your knowledge and desire to an elementary or high school student, either in the Charedi or MO world are vitally important skills. I am aware that Torah UMesorah runs similar type programs, but the question is how such programs are presently perceived and utilized.

  9. The principals at our schools do a thankless task complicated by severely limited budgets. What’s the point of sending your teachers for training if they’ll only end up leaving your school for a better salary elsewhere?

    The equation here goes as follows.

    Left wing Orthodox Jewish parents who are doctors dentists lawyers and investment bankers and have only two three or four kids per family and want the kids to have top-notch secular educations to get into Ivy League universities, they are willing to spend $25K per year per kid for a high school that aggressively pushes Advanced Placement and college guidance and impressive extracurricular activities like team sports, music and student-written newspapers and journals.

    Right wing Orthodox Jewish parents who are in chinuch themselves and have eight nine ten kids per family, their kids won’t be going to any Ivies but maybe to some evening college credit program; they can’t afford that kind of yeshiva tuition so they reluctantly accept mediocre secular studies to pay only $5K or $8K per kid but you get what you pay for, which is less qualified teachers.

    Basically, those Jewish schools which pay teachers the most will generally wind up with the best teachers, the exception being those schools where the administration is so incompetent and the infighting so unbearable that good teachers are going to quit despite the top salaries.

    Our beleaguered and overworked principals don’t have time to breathe and don’t have money for coffee, let alone teacher training.

    We need more visionary philanthropists like Joseph Gruss, Philip Birn and Elly Kleinman who are willing to donate large sums to improve the quality of Jewish education. Or thousands of parents who will donate small sums, again with the goal of making chinuch better by making our teachers better.

    Gemara: “Where there is no flour (sustenance) there is no Torah.”

  10. Is there any profession today with a large percentage of members who are “truly great”?

    While increasing the number of “truly great’ teachers would be much appreciated, why not concentrate on making teaching staffs meet all reasonable requirements for competence? To accomplish this, those who educate/train teachers would also have to be competent (or better) in the disciplines involved.

  11. Ha! I read that article last week and *immediately* sent it to the principles at my kids’ school. It was an excellent article and I’m thrilled to see it mentioned on this blog.

  12. Mark, I also read the article. I’m really glad you wrote this up.
    I think that it’s worth it to email the link to educators, but I often find when talking with fellow day school parents and board members that their attituded is “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” regarding chinuch.

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