February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

‘Building a Better Teacher’ | Professional Shelf

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Attempts to improve our nation’s public schools are varied and numerous. From No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top to increased testing and the use of value-added data, teachers and administrators have been bombarded with well-intentioned but not necessarily proven or useful solutions.

In Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) (Norton, 2014), Elizabeth Green, cofounder, CEO, and editor in chief of Chalkbeat, wades into the thick of American education with a journalist’s attention to detail. Green describes current efforts to improve teaching as two-sided. There are those who think teaching can be improved through accountability, and she cites President Obama as a proponent of better teacher evaluation systems and student testing, key factors of his Race to the Top initiative. Others support more classroom autonomy and call for teachers to be treated as professionals. Green argues that both are missing an important ingredient: teacher training programs.

What is clear is that there are no easy answers or sure-fire cure-alls; good teaching is achieved through difficult, steady work perfected and polished over time with self-reflection and critical analysis in collaboration with mentors and colleagues. With profiles of successful teachers who have spent years studying their craft, Green hopes to debunk “the myth of the natural-born teacher.” While a pleasant personality, warm sense of humor, and even extensive content knowledge aid the fledgling teacher, these qualities don’t guarantee success in the classroom.

The author introduces master teachers Magdalene Lampert, Professor Emerita in the University of Michigan School of Education, and Deborah Loewenberg Ball, director of TeachingWorks and dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, and recounts their efforts over the years to improve teacher training. The story of how they developed and implemented highly engaging math lessons taught with their TKOT (This Kind of Teaching) problem-solving method makes for compelling reading, as does a chapter on the Japanese method of jugyokenkyu, or “lesson study,” in which teachers collaborate to plan and critique lesson plans and classroom delivery in order to improve teaching and student learning.

Several chapters are devoted to the emergence and evolution of charter schools, what Green calls the “entrepreneurial education movement,” spurred in part by proponents of the “no-excuses” style of teaching that demands rigorously enforced rules regarding behavior and dress, particularly popular in charter schools serving poor urban students. Skilled teachers won’t be particularly surprised when the author reports on the limits of this approach and the realization by some charter founders that overly strict discipline and higher test scores don’t necessarily reflect teaching for rigor or deep thinking.

Green’s narrative occasionally loses momentum when she jumps from topic to topic, which also takes in a brief history of teacher training, the genesis of value-added scores, and the development of Doug Lemov’s taxonomy of teaching, but her writing is always clear and thought-provoking. And to her credit, with the help of a New York City high school social studies teacher, Green tried her hand at planning and teaching an actual lesson, an endeavor that took hours of preparation. While Building a Better Teacher doesn’t hold a magic key to superior teaching, it certainly sparks a much needed discussion about teacher training, collaboration, and technique.

For a related conversation, see our review of Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World.

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