Teach Like a Champion is a teacher training book written by Doug Lemov. It contains 49 teaching techniques he claims will transform inexperienced educators into “master teachers.” Since its publication in 2010, teacher prep programs, charter school networks, and public school districts have implemented TLAC into their training protocol. The administrators of these programs tout Lemov’s book as the quintessential guide to improving teacher performance, but veteran teachers express concern about its methods.
Ray Salazar of Chicago Public Schools writes that TLAC focuses too much on controlling students instead of supplying them with knowledge. Salazar’s contention holds water: one of TLAC’s six sections, “Building and Maintaining High Behavioral Expectations,” is dedicated entirely to managing student behavior. Technique 36, “100 Percent,” mandates absolute compliance from every student at all times. In perspective, 23 of TLAC’s 49 techniques focus exclusively on governing classroom conduct, while only one addresses content. Even this singular exception is authoritarian in nature: Technique 5, “No Apologies,” tells educators to never apologize for the “boring” content they teach.
Elizabeth Green of The New York Times Magazineinterviewed Doug Lemov about the process behind the creation of TLAC. She quotes him on the importance of discipline, “It doesn’t matter what questions you’re asking if the kids are running the classroom.” Lemov’s imperious worldview is further reflected in the recommended administration of the remaining tactics: in a section titled No Opt Out, Lemov advocates detaining students for recess if they fail to repeat answers as directed.
Green then describes sitting in on a teacher, Ms. Bellucci, who finds comfort in Lemov’s techniques. Green commends Bellucci for “perfectly satisfying Lemov’s ideal” after there was “not a giggle or head turned” when a student was sent to the disciplinary dean. Interestingly, Lemov once occupied the position of disciplinary dean at Pacific Rim Charter, an institution he founded after admittedly struggling to connect with students as an educator.
Another teacher, Rebecca Radding, left a New Orleans KIPP school after the administration mandated usage of TLAC in classrooms. Radding’s disliked the book’s overarching emphasis on testing.
To understand why testing is so heavily weighted, we can return to Green’s interview, where Lemov provides insight into his motives for writing TLAC. After launching the Uncommon Schools charter network, Lemov’s foremost constraint to expansion was finding high-quality teachers. In the style of Moneyball, he analyzed publicly available standardized testing data, searching for outliers — under-resourced schools whose students tested well.
These outliers were further scrutinized by subject and age. If eighth grade math students at a low-resource school performed at a disproportionately high level, Uncommon Schools offered the responsible teacher better pay. While this proved effective at identifying teachers who improved scores, there was a limited supply of undervalued educators to poach. As charters proliferated, demand for these scarce commodities increased and their costs grew.
Faced with this predicament, Lemov sought to create better teachers. He filmed a number of educators who managed the best scores with the fewest resources, reviewed the footage, and distilled their practices into the techniques found in TLAC. Lemov’s exclusive study of teachers who generated high test scores seems to validate assertions that the text is heavily slanted toward testing.
Peggy Robertson, a former teacher and current administrator of United Opt Out, calls TLAC, “shallow, uniform, and simplistic.” Regarding the text’s depth and simplicity, we’ve mentioned that none of the 49 techniques talk seriously about content. Further, many of the tactics are extraordinarily basic (e.g., Technique 8, “Post It”. Be sure your students know your objective for the day by posting it on the board). Lemov also describes Technique 17, “Ratio,” which has two parts, as “complex.” His utilization of “complex” to characterize the interplay between initiating a dialog (“increasing student participation”) and staying out of the way (“limiting teacher talk”) while students share ideas speaks volumes for the book’s substance.
Concerning TLAC’s emphasis on uniformity, two sections, “Planning that Ensures Academic Achievement” and “Structuring and Delivering Your Lessons” present lesson planning in a specific, rigid manner. Technique 28, “Entry Routine,” stresses the benefits of beginning every class identically to create time-saving patterns. Technique 9, “The Shortest Path,” declares that only direct instruction should be used to teach students, because it is the fastest method. Technique 14, “Board=Paper,” and Technique 26, “Everybody Writes,” place importance on every student writing down every word their teacher puts up for viewing.
One way we can summarize the collective complaints of Salazar, Radding, and Robertson is under the umbrella of “McDonaldization.”McDonaldization is a term coined by George Ritzer to describe the practice of taking a task (e.g., teaching), and breaking it down into smaller sub-tasks (i.e., techniques). These sub-tasks are subject to rationalization, where only the most efficient means of completing the task is utilized; others methods are abandoned for the optimized path. Efficiency is measured with quantitative metrics, production methods are organized to ensure predictability, and the environment is controlled to enhance the uniformity of products. One could readily make the case the core tenets of McDonaldization: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control, are present in TLAC’s 49 techniques.
While McDonaldization can save resources, indiscriminate application often produces poor outcomes for consumers. Consider those who wait in long lines to pay high prices for “fast” food of dubious quality. The processing required to ensure fast food’s efficiency and predictability results in a product that is less healthy and lower quality than a freshly prepared version.
In Unhappy Meals, author Michael Pollan investigates why we eat so many processed foods. In the 1980s, America allocated tremendous resources toward researching food and its essential components. The ultimate goal was to understand what parts of a food make it nutritious, so that we might more efficiently consume them. The findings of this research resulted in food producers replacing real, natural foods with less costly alternatives, fortified with “healthy” vitamins and minerals. Pollan notes that as consumption of processed and fortified products increased, America’s health worsened. Those who ate high quantities of processed foods were more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
Pollan writes that processed foods are less healthy because food is most nutritious when the whole food is consumed. For example, eating an orange is healthier than gulping down a blend of Tang, Metamucil, and Emergen-C, even if the two have perfectly identical quantities of sugar, dietary fiber, and vitamins. The orange is healthier than the drink not because it has more nutrients, but because its pith contains amino acids that facilitate absorption of Vitamin C in the stomach. Pollan says that no matter how nutritious they claim to be, processed “food-like substances” stripped from their natural context will never be as healthy as whole foods.
Pollan offers two bits of actionable advice to those seeking to improve their eating. One is to avoid foods with packaging containing health claims. “Fat Free” items are often packed with sugar, while “Sugar Free” items are often stuffed with fat; neither is good for us. The other recommendation is to eat whole foods in their natural state. Again, this is because of the importance of how the context that food is consumed in influences the way its nutrients are absorbed.
If we consider the implications of Pollan’s recommendations, we can derive some potentially useful anecdotes to evaluate Teach Like A Champion and teacher training at large. In his recommendation that people eat whole foods, rather than their processed and fortified counterparts, we find a framework to address Teach Like A Champion’s efforts to break down education into bite-sized bits of technique. As processing healthy foods efficiently transforms them into unhealthy “food-like substances,” TLAC’s processing of teaching results in the construction of an oversimplified, “teaching-like practice.”
The text does not mention compassion, wit, intuition, determination, or improvisation in the classroom. Instead, it reduces a dynamic practice into an insultingly reductive list. This list takes teaching out of context. It fails to account for variance in teacher strengths, student learning styles, group dynamics, and classroom moods.
TLAC also avoids discussing the structural contexts that cause schools to receive different resources. Much the opposite of acknowledging the difficulties posed by such differences, Lemov tells teachers, “No matter what the circumstances you face on the job, and no matter what strategic decisions are mandated to you, you can succeed.” While the notion that every teacher can make a difference sounds beautiful, there are teachers across the country without enough textbooks for every student who would contest the conclusion that access to resources does not impact learning outcomes.
From Pollan’s recommendation to avoid foods that make health claims, we can generalize that there are limits to data. Last year, we learned that sweeteners in “diet” sodas cause glucose intolerance, a precursor to diabetes, and alter gut microbes to cause weight gain. Despite the negative health impacts of “diet” sodas, such products are marketed as “Calorie Free.”
In the instance of “diet” sodas, an arbitrary metric (i.e., calories) is used to define a product as “healthier” than its alternative, even though it still produces poor health outcomes. We should ask if the calculable measures of teaching (i.e., standardized testing) might be prone to the same problems. Testing’s potential for misrepresentation seems even greater when we consider how nebulous the process of learning is, and how many forms intelligence can take on. Making standardized test scores the singular focus of any training protocol seems questionable when considered from this view.
There are other problems with Lemov’s claims: when he touts Uncommon Schools as effectively implementing TLAC’s techniques to raise test scores, he doesn’t mention that teachers in his schools are taught TLAC tactics in conjunction with content-oriented programming. His teachers also function as student-teachers for several years before taking control of their own classrooms. Much differently, some training programs making use of TLAC are accepting students with bachelor’s degrees in fields other than education, hustling them through a five-week certificate program, and shoving them in front of classes. They’re presented with a copy of Teach Like A Champion and a reaffirmation that hard work and 49 techniques are all they need to become master teachers.
For the same reason we don’t consider everyone who learns to follow recipes a master chef, or those who learn “game” from pick-up books to be expert lovers, we shouldn’t consider any new teacher a “master,” no matter how many efficient strategies he or she implements. We should instead view the process of becoming a good teacher as one that requires practice, commitment, and dedication. To create “master teachers,” we need to evaluate the whole process of how we train and support our teachers throughout their careers.
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Thank for your passion, commitment, and service to students in 2015.
Once you’re officially on winter break, I encourage you to disable your e-mail, file away student work, and push lesson planning off until the New Year. You’ve earned the right to procrastinate.
As a former high school teacher, I often caught myself grading exit tickets and rewriting curricula during the holidays. When the holidays were over, I already felt exhausted. This limited my ability to reflect and recharge.
Don’t let this happen to you. You’ve earned the right to pause, enjoy life, and rest. Celebrate this holiday season fully engaged with your friends and family.
In a recent NYT article, Eduardo Porter outlines the Economic Policy Institute’s report whose findings conclude that once U.S. students’ PISA scores are adjusted for social status, we’re actually doing significantly better than we thought we were.
“Then the researchers divided students into groups depending on the number of books in their homes, a measure of the academic resources at families’ disposal. This adjustment significantly reduced the American deficit, especially among students on the bottom rungs of the resource ladder.
American students from families with the least educational resources, as it turned out, scored better on the PISA math test than similar children in France and about the same as Britons, Germans and Irish.”
These “adjusted” results shouldn’t be too surprising for educators entrenched in these realities. We know if we adjust anything for socioeconomic status, we see gains. The issue isn’t, “we’re doing better once we adjust for poverty.” The real issue to me is: we have a lot of poverty for a developed country, and we continue to unfairly burden schools with the responsibility of eradicating it. As if poverty starts and ends with schools.
My experience in education has been grounded in teaching over-age, under-credited youth in alternative high schools in NYC. Translation: I’ve only taught adolescents coming from the “the bottom rung of society,” as Mr. Porter puts it. Sure, I believe many of my former students are in a better place compared to their peers in similar situations globally (in developed nations, of course). My former students have access to certain privileges, rights, and safety nets. Yet beyond simply “showing up” to school, there aren’t any supports available to “propel” students out of poverty, as is assumed what school is “supposed” to do. We often fail to acknowledge an underlying assumption in this dialogue: if students come to school, they will succeed.
There are certain character traits that need to be developed in children in order for them to succeed in school. Resilience, grit, optimism, learning for pleasure, among others. These may seem obvious, but my teaching experience proved it’s these very skills my students lacked, and their absence ultimately led to them dropping out, getting arrested, or worse, getting killed. For some reason, there’s a narrative out there that claims students who live in poverty will automatically seek to excel in school once they’re given the opportunity to learn. Anybody who has ever taught in an underprivileged school for more than two years (that’s important) will tell you otherwise.
Unfortunately, when we talk about schools “equalizing opportunity,” we ignore the bigger issues, starting from the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Most of my at-risk students never quite made it past the second level. And let me tell you bloggers, economists, ed-pundits, and pontificators something: it’s really difficult teaching a child anything when s/he doesn’t know (a) where they’re spending the night (b) who (if anyone) will be home for them and/or (c) if they’ll be any food on the table once they get there. I don’t care how “inclusive” your school setting is, or how great your classroom culture is, if a kid is hungry, tired, sleep deprived, and/or abused, it’s going to be a very complicated situation.
This elephant in the room creates an uncomfortable divide. To the credit of teachers, I bet most of them are likely able to empathize with these students. However, they’re experiencing a professional conflict. Do they hold this child accountable to “high expectations” or do they let the kid slide due to the extenuating circumstances?
“Hey Stephanie, I can see you falling asleep at your desk. I know you have a housing situation going on (*whispered*)… but I need you to focus okay? Graphing quadratic functions is going to be on this week’s assessment and the state exam.” Awful.
In my last three years as an educator, I taught at a charter school for at-risk students in the South Bronx. Sexual education was never offered at this school, which is shocking because these are the students who should be engaged in these conversations. To clarify, “health” class was offered and is mandated for all students in NYC, but alternative schools (where resources are often prioritized to core content areas) rarely ever invest in these courses, nor are educators encouraged to engage in the “real” dialogues so necessary for this student population.
Here are three essential questions I have heard former students ask each other, but have never heard them discussed in class:
“Is it right to have a child this young if I can’t even take care of myself?”
“My friend has two kids, and she loves taking care of them, is it that easy?”
“My dad never stuck around, do you think I could do better?”
It’s no surprise I have so many former students with children, and it’s also no surprise they themselves were born to parents who were also in their teens. Why are our most neediest students not receiving real sexual education? Or, why are they able to take sex-ed online where they can simply click through lessons and worksheets and achieve a passing score after only a few hours on a computer? I can’t imagine a school that lets kids take Common Core Algebra 1 online, but mandates sex-ed in-person. Sure, it’s not in our place to tell people what to do, but we can at least educate them with facts and hope they make the right decision (which is obviously: you shouldn’t have a kid at fifteen: your family is on food stamps, you have two younger siblings, and the zip code you were raised indicates you’re going to struggle as is).
Schools that cater to at-risk, poverty-stricken kids don’t have time to teach the stuff that’s high impact and hits close-to-home. Topics such as sexual education, black disenfranchisement, gang involvement, and personal wealth management are often left out of the curriculum at schools with a low socioeconomic target population because they have to double-down on increasing their student achievement data (i.e. test scores). In NYC, if your school population is on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, you are still assessed in the same way other schools are, which creates conflict and incentives to cheat by administrators, teachers, and students. If you don’t think any of this is true, schedule a visit to any of these transfer schools. Then, talk to those teachers off school grounds after dismissal and prepare yourself for brutal honesty.
My conclusion is not that test scores would go up and poverty would be eradicated if schools taught poor children sex-ed and wealth management. Rather, essential skills, knowledge, and personal growth are being sacrificed because schools are being asked to simultaneously boost test scores and eradicate poverty. And because of that, poverty-stricken children all over this country are growing up to hate learning.
In the NYT, Mr. Porter asks, “Is it reasonable to ask public schools to fix societal problems that start holding disadvantaged children back before they are conceived?” Sir, our country started asking public schools to fix these problems a long time ago via “no-excuses” charter schools. In NYC, these charter schools are often too short-staffed to offer electives beyond the core curriculum, stifling students’ creativity. Teacher retention rates in these settings are ridiculously low, and their school disciplinary policies are far too rigid. Finally, if at the end of the day your child poses too much of a “problem” at these no-excuses institutions, he/she is likely already on a list and will soon be booted off to a regular public school (perpetuating the problem). Overall test scores up, resource-sucking problem kids down.
It doesn’t look like our country is ready to ease this pressure off schools, so if we’re going to task schools with building social welfare, we should focus on holistic strategies that bring back schools as our “local, community democratic centers.” We should consider investing in ways to incentivize parents and guardians into the school building, not just to come for parent-teacher conferences. Parents should see their child’s school building as their place of learning too, where they can enroll in skills-based training programs, volunteering programs, mentorship programs, etc. We shouldn’t just extend the school day for kids who need remediation, parents should be incentivized to come and learn too (keyword: incentivize, not mandate). Twenty years ago, it was cheaper to buy produce from places we’d never heard of. Today it’s still cheaper, yet more and more of us are opting to pay more to purchase local. Investing in the fortification and expansion of our local public schools as democratic, community centers of learning might be expensive, but could be healthier for us in the long-run.
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” – Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1907
As told by the late historian Henry Adams, educators impact the lives of their pupils in a profound way. Many students go on to pursue careers relating to exciting course material brought to life by a gifted professor during their academic journeys. Others are so moved by their teachers’ demonstrations of knowledge, care, and ability to inspire young minds that they become educators themselves.
As the millennial generation enters the workforce, its members increasingly seek vocational paths like teaching that allow them to take an active role in the development of their communities. Many of these post-grads fresh to the profession are doubling-down on giving back. They are taking on some of the most challenging jobs available at charters, turnarounds and otherwise-struggling public institutions in underfunded districts.
Often, new teachers land these positions through programs like Teach For America (TFA), Teaching Fellows (TF), Americorps, and other education oriented non-profits. To reach this enthusiastic crowd, Teach For America has marketed its program to prospective members as an “illustrious two-year postgraduate service mission rather than a safe middle-class career choice.” Similarly, Teaching Fellows promotes the service aspect of their offerings, summarizing their practice as “training a generation of great teachers… for the students who need them most.”
Both have enjoyed success pitching this message: Teach For America and Teaching Fellows claim 37,000 and 33,000 alumni, respectively. Americorps has used similar themes to attract over 900,000 participants since 1994; however, Americorps’ service opportunities are broad in scope, and only an (undisclosed) portion of their members enter into education.
It is commendable that these groups match eager-to-help graduates with the schools and students who need the most aid. That said, matching is but the beginning, and the programs do possess flaws. All too often, conditions are so bad that teachers don’t last. Despite their passion for the practice and appreciation of the students, they quit. Some abandon their posts mid-semester, while others depart once their program commitments expire.
After four years at a charter school, Sarah Fine quit too. In her essay Schools Need Teachers Like Me, I Just Can’t Stay for The Washington Post, Fine notes, “Nationally, half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, and in urban schools, especially the much-lauded ‘no-excuses’ charter schools, turnover is often much higher.”
That is not to say that Teach For America, Teaching Fellows and Americorps are wholly responsible for our lamentably high teacher-turnover rates. Undoubtedly, these programs wield significant power; they are responsible for the placement of tens of thousands of teachers in jobs. That granted, there are millions of teachers across the nation, and TFA, TF and Americorps staff only a small percentage of them. Moreover, structural problems concerning resource allocation in our education system gave rise to the problems these not-for-profits seek to mitigate. Regardless, TFA and TF are useful to us in that they have clearly stated agendas, defined training protocol, and vocal alumni; the wealth of information provided by these sources lends well to discourse.
Thanks to the proliferation of blogging platforms, we need not imagine the day-to-day realities of a teacher at one of these high-turnover schools. A quick search-engine query for “why I quit teaching at a charter school” yields hundreds of anecdotes, op-eds, and testimonials. Many former educators describe exactly what circumstances led them to walk away from a profession they loved. We took the time to read these teachers’ thoughts, and identified some recurring themes.
The most common problems cited by departed teachers were insufficient training, micromanagement in the classroom, burdensome workloads, inadequate compensation, a lack of recognition for their efforts, and the promotion of a “hero culture” by principals and training programs that says more, harder work can overcome structural incongruencies.
Regarding the former-most complaint — insufficient training for new teachers — consider that Teach For America participants engage in training that goes on no longer than five weeks. Further, NPR writes that TFA has “helped open the doors to alternative-certification programs for teachers…[so that] today 1 in 5 new teachers is certified by a path other than a bachelor’s degree or master’s in education.” After their abbreviated training sessions, new hires are barraged with evaluation methodologies they must integrate into curriculum while actually teaching students and developing lesson plans.
One former teacher offers that there seemed no end to the influx, stating, “I had to read a book on how to properly teach. I had to collaborate with coworkers on how to properly implement one educational theory after another. I watched videos and read articles about effective teachers… I was told to give more exams, score more exit tickets, give more assessments… They encouraged me a lot, saying… that I would be much better next year… but I felt like I wasn’t a teacher anymore.”
Sarah Fine further details what micromanagement in charter schools looks like, writing, “One afternoon [in the Spring of 2010], when my often-apathetic 10th graders were walking eagerly around the room as part of a writing assignment, an administrator came in and ordered me to get the class ‘seated and silent.’” She continues, decrying that she and her colleagues would spend “weeks revising a curriculum proposal… only to find out that the administration had made a unilateral decision without looking at it.”
The same out-of-practice professor also complains of “the ever increasing role of bureaucracy… in our system of education” and “the overuse of assessments” to the point that “we have created students who see reading as a test and not a pathway to learning.” Many other teachers speak against the overuse of testing, and the pressures on teachers in “no-excuses” schools to make their students perform. An anonymous educator writes in The Guardian that “the passing on of every ounce of exam burden my way took its toll,” and contributed to her departure from the classroom.
In telling teachers that greater effort is the path to improving student scores (i.e., promoting the “hero culture”), schools and training programs “[lean] heavily on the rhetoric of bootstrapping, [which makes] new teachers tend to feel individually culpable when things go wrong in the classroom,” says Lean Donnella of NPR.
Former charter teacher Sarah Matsui writes that her trainers at TFA tried to convince new teachers “that a ‘can-do attitude’ is all it takes to overcome systemic gaps in our schools.” However, she notes, “Scaling up even the best of intentions or holding the highest expectations for individual students will not change the differential funding of our separate school districts.”
Matsui provides an example of starkly different per-pupil expenditures for the city of Philadelphia’s (79% black and latino students, $9,299 per student annual spending), relative to neighboring Lower Merion, just outside the city limits (91% white students, $17,261 per student annual spending). Preaching that hard work is all that is needed to overcome this massive disparity in resource “reinforces the myth of meritocracy,” according to Matsui.
Irrespective of their beliefs on meritocracy, teachers are expected to work harder, stay later, and make excellent of what little they’re given. Abbas Manjee writes of his early experiences at a charter school that, “Like any first-year teacher, my life revolved around my profession: plan, create, assess, grade, adjust, repeat.” He shares that over time, expectations spiraled out of control and eventually, “it wasn’t enough to just teach well anymore.”
Manjee described teachers’ expanded roles, noting, “We make phone calls home. If someone doesn’t pick up, we call again. We connect with social workers during lunch to investigate student concerns,” and continues listing other behaviors not typically associated with teaching. Unfortunately, the added time and stress inherent to educators’ expanded responsibilities does not come with a comparable rise in wages. Sarah Fine says of her pay that, “over the course of four years, my school’s administration steadily expanded the workload and workday while barely adjusting salaries.”
Regardless of their successes, efforts, or acumen, many teachers find themselves unsung in avenues aside from income. To this point, Deanna Lyles shares, “I quit because I wanted to be treated as a professional.” Another comments that, “I just got sick of being in a profession that I felt held no real status in this country.” Sarah Fine observes that, “When people ask me about teaching… what they really seem to mean is that it’s unfathomable that anyone with real talent would want to stay in the classroom for long.” In his essay Why I Quit Teaching, Abbas Manjee says plainly that the “complete and utter disrespect for my profession has finally gotten to me.”
Clearly, a multitude of factors contribute to the early departure of new teachers from the profession. Some problems — like inadequate training and teacher departure immediately upon completion of program terms — can be remedied by the not-for-profits specializing in training in placement. Other issues, like teachers under-compensation and heavy work loads, require broader, structural solutions that necessitate significant power to implement. To that end, no single tech firm or teacher placement program can fix them, no matter how noble their goals or innovative their methods.
Clearly, teacher turnover is a dynamic issue that deserves our attention. Catherine Ionata notes in the NY Times that “Research has shown that teacher-student relationships are absolutely crucial to student success,” and that “These relationships cannot be built in a year or two.” At the risk of childrens’ educational outcomes present and future, we must work harder and engage more fully in our efforts to lower the teacher turnover rate across our nation.
When I was in kindergarten, I absolutely loved when my teacher provided me with a clear, descriptive rubric aligned to Common Core Learning Standards with every assignment. If you think I’m joking, it’s because I am. CCLS didn’t exist when I was in Kindergarten. I remember playing with Legos, building toy railroad circuits, drawing and pretending to be Superman, and of course, crying for my mother. And I’m pretty sure my Kindergarten teacher wasn’t using a rubric to assess the rigor of my sobbing.
Recently, an article from the Atlantic has been making its rounds with educators on social media. In short, the article juxtaposes America’s strict, academic “reform” approach with Finland’s “let kids play and figure it out” approach to kindergarten. It’s an insightful case study of two well-intentioned, yet very different schools of thought in public education.
Any time a concerned American suggests we take lessons on education policy from Scandinavian countries, they’re often blitzed with negativity. “It’s a small, homogenous country.” “They’ve never had to deal with our kind of immigration.” “That’s nice, but they’re all white.” Some of these criticisms may be valid, but they’re not solutions-oriented. They’re just statements that make excuses for our own lack of excellence in schools.
Obviously, we’re not Finland. But, we can still learn and adopt some of its best practices for our own needs. Or are we just too damn proud? In this standard Finland vs. America argument on education, we tend to ignore Finland’s neighbor, Norway. Finland is nearly as populous as Norway (and nearly the same square mileage). Both countries have a comparable labor force and both countries have similar immigration levels. However, Norway tends to score closer to the U.S. on the PISA, which is significantly lower than Finland. Norway’s teachers don’t need a masters degree, and yet there’s a national teacher shortage prompting ad campaigns to attract young professionals to teaching — sound familiar? Back in the early 2000s, Norway instituted a national system of standardized testing (called the NKVS). Again, sound familiar?
I don’t know about you (yes, you), but things haven’t really changed for me: I like to play. As a child, I loved to play. If I learned from playing, then that’s just awesomesauce. As a teacher, some of my most memorable “teacher moments” occurred when I purposefully built for play in my classroom. Yet, it was significantly hard to create the conditions necessary for play teaching high school mathematics. There was a constant nag in my head reminding me my students just had to pass the New York State Algebra 1 Regents exam. Otherwise, we’d both be judged as failures.
Working in education technology today, I’m even more passionate about play in school, but that’s also because I’m further removed from the classroom and the daily struggle to balance rigor, engagement, and fun. The thing is, we have to draw a line somewhere. I can’t imagine how much more anxiety I would have if play did not exist when I was in kindergarten. I can’t imagine how much more grade-driven I would be if my teachers used CCLS-aligned rubrics while I ran around making fart sounds and holding spaceships I made from Legos. Play time at home wasn’t exactly reliable because I grew up in a broken home, so I had to make the most out of any fun I could get.
There is no evidence to support that children cannot learn from play or learn and play simultaneously. A former student of mine used to tell me about how he already knew so much about the Crusades because of Assassin’s Creed. Sure, it’s a video game, so there are inaccuracies. In the classroom, those are called “teachable moments” (take note, those of you who have never taught). These “teachable moments” are opportunities to foster authentic discussion. It’s possible to have both. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What I’m really trying to say is children need and benefit from play. We know this. If we’re going to insert literacy skills into kindergarten, it should be a data-driven decision, as in it’s backed by strong evidence. However, the data seems to support Finland’s approach. Why are we so stubborn with this? Let’s stop underestimating children. Bring back the crayons, the Lincoln Logs, and the Play-Doh please.
By: Abbas Manjee VP, Teaching and Learning @ Kiddom Former HS Math Teacher
In honor of World Teachers Day, I’m sharing a piece I wrote on Yo Mista! a few years ago about one of the most passionate and inspirational teachers I’ve ever had. I’ve made some minor edits, as I originally wrote this when I was still teaching high school. Here it is:
I recently Googled “John Strauss” and was surprised none of the search results said, “the best teacher I’ve ever had in high school.” In fact, there was barely any information or mention of the John Strauss I wanted to read about, a true rock star of a teacher and a living legend at the high school I graduated from.
Mr. Strauss was my senior year English teacher. He was not a young, highly motivated, self-proclaimed hotshot. Nor was he part of some national movement claiming its teachers were more effective than others. When I had Mr. Strauss, he was already a veteran teacher, humble and modest. He had a sense of humor and was deeply committed, but most importantly, he had passion. In fact, there’s a picture of him in my senior year high school yearbook with a caption that reads, “Mr. Strauss is a perfect example that a passion for teaching can bring enjoyment to classes.” When I read that at the tender age of eighteen, I probably didn’t understand what that statement really meant. I finally got it when I read it again at twenty-seven with a few years of teaching experience of my own. This guy was the real McCoy.
In school, I typically did not enjoy English class, nor did I enjoy reading books in general (fun fact: I do now). Yet, Mr. Strauss’s English class was something I looked forward to every single day. My first memory of Mr. Strauss is of him reenacting a scene from the Greek tragedy Hecuba. Mr. Strauss was hunched over and in despair, reciting lines from the play and channeling Hecuba’s sense of loss. I was stunned at how “into it” he was. This happened somewhere around the beginning of the school year and it completely won me over.
Strauss would go on to reenact various scenes from literature in front of the class throughout the year. He helped us all individually connect to the text. We didn’t waste time test-prepping for the AP exam in May, yet many of his students scored well year after year. We would instead spend a lot of time as a class discussing texts we were assigned to read. Even if I didn’t do the reading, I couldn’t help but learn something from the discussions he facilitated. After that, we would reflect on our readings via writing, and he would challenge us to improve our style and thought process. I remember I was trying to squeeze an essay that was six paragraphs into five and he said, “You know six paragraphs are okay, right? Stick with what feels natural.” That blew my mind. This wasn’t going to be a cookie-cutter, formulaic class. So instead I decided I should just do what the man said: actually learn to write well and coherently.
I don’t ever recall Mr. Strauss printing worksheets with Illinois state standards highlighted at the top. I never even knew what standards were covered in senior year English. I never received a document that summarized which standards I struggled with or mastered. We never took a single multiple-choice test in his class, ever. Shit, I didn’t even know what my grade was half the time.
We, the students, received our feedback from the source. Strauss often conferenced with us one-on-one during our writing assignments. We didn’t memorize dictionary definitions of new words. Instead, we developed our vocabulary through our literary discussions. It was kind of hard not to know the meaning of a new word given how much it got thrown around during discussion. If I hadn’t read the homework the night before, the classroom discussions sparked so much interest in me that I ended up finishing books well ahead of deadlines. I was usually a pretty good bullshitter during classroom discussions, but in Mr. Strauss’s class, I didn’t want to be. This, coming from the kid who went to Spark Notes for just about everything.
Like any veteran, Mr. Strauss had some classroom tricks to keep our attention during discussions. If a student had his/her hand up in the air, he would look him/her right in the eye, but call on someone else. It was confusing, but hilarious. This small, but clever trick kept us on our toes. Of course, we could’ve reacted to his surprise cold-calling the wrong way, i.e. Strauss did it to call on someone not paying attention, etc. The problem was, we were all participating and paying attention, so it wasn’t really a problem. There was nothing to do but play his game.
Someone could argue we didn’t have issues because it was an AP class, but from what I actually saw for myself, Mr. Strauss was successful and well-respected in every class he taught. He was liked by his colleagues, his students and even by students who never took his class. In fact, my younger brother never had the opportunity to take his class, but Strauss went out of his way to check up on him every so often since I had expressed concern about being so far away from him.
So with all this national spotlight on teacher evaluations and the new-education reform movement, I can’t help but worry about him and other teachers like him. I bet if this very same man walked into a new school environment today, he would not be deemed effective by his superiors, regardless of what his students thought of him. He probably wouldn’t be the model teacher organizations like Teach for America would present to first-year teachers. He might not be the teacher a charter school principal would give kudos to in a weekly e-mail. Sadly, a teacher like him is probably someone who has retired or is on the verge of retiring, pushed out by those who don’t understand, yet control the industry.
Well, I won’t forget him. And when I eventually do go back to teaching, I’m going to continue channeling as much of Mr. Strauss as I can in my classroom. It’s crucial to focus on students’ all-around development and creativity, not get stuck on national, state, or school standards (regardless of how good/bad they are). In reality, it’s all fluff in relation to how important connecting with someone (or something) can be. If you disagree, get at least a third year of teaching under your belt and then let’s talk.
“Yo Mista… why this place really called the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop? Do they really mean gay?”
I recently took two of some of my closest students out for ice cream to tell them I wasn’t coming back to teach this school year. I’ve known David and Ken for three years now. I’ve written about Ken before; I think of him as my second younger brother. These young men are slated to graduate this upcoming winter, but more importantly, I have witnessed them grow up right before my eyes. Both of them are turning 19 soon, so we’re at a weird place where we can’t figure out if I’m their teacher, an older sibling, a friend, or some kind of hybrid. These are often the best relationships I forge teaching high school because they’re built upon real connections and blurred lines. I know we’ll stay in touch long after they graduate.
I had mixed feelings as I walked out of the subway to meet them. I was really excited to see them again, but I knew telling them I wasn’t coming back would be tough. Both David and Ken have their math credits, so they wouldn’t have had me this year anyway. That’s me trying to rationalize the situation. The reality is, when you teach at-risk students and develop a mentorship, you just know you need to be around physically whether or not they’re even on your roster. David and Ken are best friends, but unfortunately, they don’t have many adults in their lives to guide them positively. These guys ask me all kinds of things via text, from questions about a job posting to fashion advice. No joke, last week Ken texted me a picture of a bearded hipster wearing flannel and an oversized knit cap asking, “Hey Mista, know where I could get one of these hats?”
I met the David and Ken at a Starbucks near a subway entranced and we proceeded to walk a few more blocks east to the ice cream shop. David looked tired and for good reason: him and his girlfriend had recently welcomed a baby boy in their lives. He looked like he hadn’t been sleeping well. Ken looked about as fidgety as ever, using every hand gesture known to man to explain how many hours he spent playing and conquering some new video game that just came out. Man, I sound old as hell saying that, don’t I? Anyway, these guys were doing well and hadn’t changed a bit, which made me very happy.
After the kids got over the shock effect of the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop’s name, we ordered our desserts and walked to a nearby park. After more small talk, I finally mustered up the courage to tell them I wasn’t coming back to teach. David seemed to take it well and asked probing questions. “So, like what will you do? How did you even find it?” He can be very practical when he’s not trying to be the class clown.
Ken, who has already gone through so much, fell silent. “I knew you wasn’t coming back. I knew it. Nobody wanna buy me stuff unless it’s doing good in school, or if it’s bad they wanna say.” Ken is not only very observant, he’s also incredibly experienced with loss. He has experienced more trauma than most people I know will ever experience in the course of their lives. He turned to David, “I told you it was going to be bad. I told you!” This kid limited this own excitement for free ice cream based on prior experiences being taken out to eat. Damn.
We spent a good hour afterwards just talking and catching up. There were periods of insane, teenage laughter followed by short, awkward moments of silence. One thing was clear: no matter how many poop jokes were made, Ken’s feelings were hurt. Three years ago, Ken was a very angry young boy who couldn’t keep his trauma from seeping out of his skin during the school day. Now he was calm and somewhat himself. It made me feel so happy to see how much more resilience he’d developed in three years.
I promised David and Ken I would stay in touch and be responsive via text, Facebook messenger, or whatever else the kids end up using this year. Since meeting them weeks ago, I’ve gotten messages from them already. David asked me to help him sign up as a tasker on TaskRabbit, and Ken sent me more pictures of clothes followed up with questions on where to purchase them. “Ken, you’re going to look like one of those hipsters that try to look like they haven’t showered.”