Back to Basics

"Building a Better Teacher," a very long and very useful article from the New York Times Magazine, boils down to two very basic principles:

1. Classroom Management. "Students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in capturing their attention and getting them to follow instructions," says author Elizabeth Green, paraphrasing Doug Lemov, a charter-school principal and one of the main sources for the article. If only saying were doing!  All teachers wish their students would pay better attention.  The good students do; they're interested in learning.  With the others, you have to convince them that it's worth their time and effort to invest in what you have to say.

For this, I can recommend no better book than Fred Jones' Tools for Teaching (as I have before.)  There are some very simple techniques in it, most of which require a teacher who is prepared, calm and focused.  The advice in the Times article is similar: for instance, it advocates giving directions only while standing still and looking at the student(s,) which implies that getting them to pay attention is your highest immediate priority.

2. Fixing Mistakes. “Teaching depends on what other people think, not what you think,” says Deborah Loewenberg Ball, one of the teaching specialists quoted in the article.  In my limited teaching experience, I have noticed that students don't need any help learning; they do that on their own, inconsistently and inefficiently but in the only way they can.  Your job, as a teacher, is to show them where and how their thinking is flawed, so they can learn more quickly.

For me, this second piece of advice is much more difficult than the first -- so much so that I often wonder why I am a teacher at all.  I learn very quickly and easily, and I know what helps me learn; I have to constantly fend off frustration with my students, who lack my natural ability and / or self-awareness.  Working one-on-one, I can be as patient as the day is long, but in a group, when I sense control of the class sliding away from me as one student continues to look lost, it's tempting to think, "Why can't you just GET it?!"

So, that's it.  "Do this and you will be saved."  The article also discusses methods for training teachers to do these things and retaining the ones who already do them, which is interesting if you're interested in the politics of education (I am, but am also increasingly disillusioned by it.)  Still, I am sure I will get the book mentioned in the article when it comes out in April, written by Lemov and based on his findings from a five-year study dubbed "Lemov's Taxonomy."  I figure it can't hurt.