Can Good Teaching be Learned?

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Bravo to Doug Lemov (“Can Good Teaching be Learned?”, New York Times Magazine, March 7, 2010).   After 30 years in the “ed biz”, starting out teaching kindergarten, and ending up – yep – training teachers, I gave it up, in part because there were so many questions not being asked. The first and most obvious:  if we fire the incompetent teachers, where will we find those ideal replacements?  In the light of our economic woes these days, there may actually be good news, as there may be more competition for teaching jobs.  That is, if school districts keep afloat themselves.

Other questions addressed in the article also warm my heart.  For too long, too many opinion makers have successfully argued that any well-educated adult can walk into a classroom and be an effective teacher.  I propose here what I’ve proposed for 40 years:  Every lawmaker (ideally every pundit, too) should be required to substitute teach one day each year.  The complexities, the “real-time” multi-tasking, the unceasing responsibility not just for academic advancement, but basic physical safety and emotional caretaking, make classroom teaching as challenging a job, on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute level, as any.  Merit pay?  Has anyone heard of Systems Theory?  Teaching is a complex system, with many interactive components.  Pulling one factor (teachers) apart from the rest of the system and assessing “success” according to that one factor is, and I’m watching my language here, absurdly flawed logic.

Having taught teacher training classes, and listened to my students and their vocally expressed needs, I commend Mr. Lemov for addressing, rather than loftily dismissing, the nuts and bolts of classroom management.  There are so many little techniques, any one of which can avert disaster, or at the least, keep valuable time from being wasted.  Why have we thought that this knowledge was either innate or trivial?

Finally, too many prospective teachers come into the field picturing themselves like Mr. Chips (a reference young people would not get!), at a podium, wise, authoritative, respected, adored.  One of the first things I hammered into my teacher-trainees was a sequence for self-analysis:  1)  Understand your own mental, emotional, and cultural processes;   2)  Understand that others do not think as you do;  3)  Find out how those others think;   4)  Figure out how to bridge that gap.  This is the true work of a teacher, and, for me, was always the most challenging and the most rewarding.

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