What makes a great teacher — and how do you make a teacher great?
Those twin questions would seem to get to the heart of improving the nation’s schools and yet, as Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green found as a schools reporter, they rarely are raised in today’s big education debates.
That paradox drove Elizabeth on a six-year reporting quest (while she was also busy co-founding Chalkbeat) that took her from lab schools in Michigan to math classrooms in Japan to the elementary school where she was once taught. The result is her new book, “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach It to Everyone),” which came out Monday.
Chalkbeat recently sat down with Elizabeth to ask how the stories she tells in her book connect to ones we cover and what, exactly, made her fifth-grade teacher so great.
Continue the conversation by joining the Chalkbeat Book Club on Facebook, where we’ll be discussing “Building a Better Teacher” for the next month.
Your book makes clear that the new Common Core standards — an ambitious reform enacted with minimal support for teachers — continue a long tradition of similar education overhauls. Is there any reason to think the outcome this time will be different?
One thing I learned in reporting that I found really fascinating were the ideas of David Cohen, the education historian. He essentially studies attempts to change teaching, and that is the equivalent of studying failed attempts to change teaching in this country, unfortunately.
He also started to compare this country to other countries. He found that countries that successfully changed teaching had this one important ingredient in common, which was coherence. In the US, there are 17 different layers, if not more, of people telling teachers what to do and what supports to help teachers do them. It’s no surprise teachers feel confused often and even under assault because they are being asked to do so many different things, none of which are the same.
David Cohen calls this a blizzard, and the response that’s most rational to this blizzard of incoherence, as one educator in my book, Lovely Billups, says, is the motto, “This too shall pass.” The question about the Common Core is: Shall this too pass?
You write about visiting primary schools in Japan. What were the main differences from American schools that you saw?
I think there are two key things that are different: One is that there’s a totally different organization of work for the teachers. Whereas American teachers spend 1,000-plus hours per year teaching, Japanese teachers only spend 600 hours per year teaching. The other 400 hours they can spend learning from each other.
The other difference is that they have that coherent system of one common set of things that they’re all doing. They have common standards, so they can have a common curriculum, common assessments, so they have the tools they need to do something exciting.
There is growing consensus that traditional education schools have not done a great job preparing teachers. Have you seen any promising developments in the way teachers are trained?
One thing I found fascinating in my reporting was that we do have a tradition in this country of teacher education that is focused on teaching as a craft. And that is the history of “normal schools,” where teachers would learn from master teachers. They would go to class in a lecture, then the next minute they would be sitting watching a lesson in progress.
I think where we went wrong was when the university system took over teacher training from normal schools. Some of the early pioneers of education as a field of study had absolutely no interest in teaching.
What I think is promising is that there is a growing group of teacher educators at the university level and at institutions that are disconnected from higher education that are trying to resuscitate that normal-school tradition, sometimes in very parallel ways.
Most of the teachers we cover get evaluated in one way or another. Can teacher-accountability systems actually help teachers improve?
One of the inspirations of this huge focus on teacher evaluation is a set of assumptions we make about why high-performing charter schools have succeeded. We look at [the national charter-school network] KIPP and their test-score results and we assume that the kids are succeeding because the teachers operate outside of a traditional labor structure: There’s no labor union, so KIPP can hire or fire whomever they please.
But they spend proportionately less money, resources, and time, on evaluation than states currently do. They focus a lot more on giving teachers the time to learn, mentors to help them learn, materials from which they can learn, and good curriculums they can use.
We know teachers work in all kinds of schools, including ones where many students are far behind academically. Does good teaching look the same regardless of the school or students?
I think a surprisingly debated question, even among people who have dedicated their careers to working with high-poverty communities, is: Sure, you might be able to have this incredible dialogue about math or literature or science or history in your nice suburban school where you don’t face the challenges we face, but we can’t do that here, that’s not possible.
That is a debate that’s going on right now about what kind of learning level really is possible in each type of environment. Is there a need for more order and less student voice in some environments?
Personally, I don’t want to think it’s not possible for all kids, and I’ve definitely seen it happen for all kids, but I think it is a debate that’s going on.
You’ve covered education for several years now, but you’ve never been a teacher. What qualifies you to write about teaching?
I thought a lot about whether I had the right to write about teaching, given that I’ve never taught myself. I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who’s a teacher that’s probably lasted seven years. Her argument to me was always that somebody’s job needs to be to record what’s happening [inside schools], since teachers don’t have time to do that, and make sense of the big picture.
That’s why I ultimately decided I have the right to do this and all of us at Chalkbeat do. We come from a place of respect for this work, we know what we don’t know, and we’re here to learn.
Your book makes the point that good teachers are not born, they’re made. Considering that, what is one thing your favorite teacher did that other educators could benefit from learning?
I went back and I interviewed a lot of my own teachers for this book. One of them I spent extra time with was Lesley Wagner, my fifth-grade math teacher. She is remembered among my friends from elementary school as one of the greatest, best teachers we ever had.
She uses her Smart Board in the most brilliant way I’ve ever seen. Her smart board is like a Japanese blackboard, but better. The point of the blackboard in Japanese classrooms is that we should be able to have a trajectory for each lesson of the ideas that we’ve gone through, so students can look at not only at the specific thing we’re talking about right now, but they can connect back to where we came from that day.
Ms. Wagner does that with her Smart Board, basically a screen per day. But because it’s a Smart Board, she also has access to every other day, so if somebody references another day in the past, she just uses her Smart Board to go backwards in time and see what they were doing that day. I’m sure other teachers use it for that reason too, but I was just blown away.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Readers: What is one thing your favorite teacher did that other educators could benefit from learning? Share in a comment or tweet with #BABT.