How do you teach great teaching?
That’s the question Elizabeth Green explores in her new book, “Building a Better Teacher,” out August 4 on W.W. Norton & Company. With a new school year just around the corner, we chatted with the author, who is also the editor-in-chief of education news site Chalkbeat, about teacher training and expectations in the city today.
How do you actually build a better teacher, particularly in NYC?
People usually cite two ways to do this. One (which the [former Mayor Michael] Bloomberg administration often talked about) is accountability — we should boost the incentives for good work by firing bad teachers and rewarding good ones. The other approach (which teachers unions sometimes cite) is autonomy — we should give teachers the freedom they need to unleash their inner creativity. But neither of these approaches works, because both assume that teaching is a natural-born talent. In fact, teaching is a skill. So the best way to build better teachers is to help teachers learn to teach. Give them good teachers, good materials and time to be better, and they will improve.
Does the process of training teachers in NYC work?
In New York City, teachers need a graduate degree to become certified to teach. But our state certification standards have come under a lot of criticism, and rightly so. As I describe in my book, the pass rate for the teacher certification exam across New York State was 92%. By comparison, the pass rate for New York’s cosmetology certification exam was 59%.
What are the expectations of teachers from the school, parents and NYC government?
Everyone wants the same thing — for teachers to help students learn what they need to know to succeed in life, college and work. The difference is in how we expect them to do it. Great schools know that they need to support teachers to help them learn, and so do parents, but often school officials focus more on how to measure which teachers are doing a better job than on helping them learn how to do it.
How does standardized testing affect the quality of teachers and teaching?
Tests play a huge role in affecting how teachers teach and how they are measured — and unfortunately not always a good one. Today’s tests wind up reducing academic rigor. And they also create a lot of mistrust, since state officials use them to evaluate teachers even though the tests weren’t designed to do that. Evaluation can be useful, but only if it’s supplemented with real supports for how to learn to do what you’re being evaluated on. Without that, it’s actually counterproductive.
What are common techniques that help children pay attention?
Most people assume some teachers just have a special “it” that makes children pay attention to them, while others don’t. But when Doug Lemov, a former teacher and principal who is one of the main characters in my book, studied great teachers, he found that what looked like magic was actually technique. One example is the technique called “What to Do.” Instead of focusing on what students have done wrong, great teachers describe in painstaking detail exactly what they expect them to do instead.