Monday, January 31, 2011

Teacher, I Mean Teaching Quality Series, Part II: Teaching for Dummies

In my last post of this series, I discussed the myth of the innately talented teacher. So, you might ask, if great teachers aren't innately so, what, then, are the components of great teaching? People have spent entire careers and written entire books answering this question, but I'll take a crack at a brief and superficial explanation.

In the last post, I talked some about teacher education or teacher training. Before flying solo, aspiring teachers need education, training, and experience. Does that mean all teacher education programs work well? Absolutely not, but that doesn't mean they should be eliminated. I say they should be mended and not ended. Furthermore, the only route to teaching does not have to be via university programs; however, alternative paths should be equally rigorous and thorough. (School finance blogger Bruce Baker offered this data-rich analysis of the current state of ed school programs.)

I completed my master's degree in Education at a well-regarded program. Overall, the program is well-regarded with good reason. Even so, some of my classes were a waste of time and some of my internship experiences could have been much better designed. Some of the courses could probably have been eliminated from the program or fused with others. Otherwise, the useless classes were primarily so due to lack of preparation on the part of their instructors. The best courses were thoughtfully designed and executed, assigning rich and varied readings, facilitating stimulating discussions, giving useful and practical assignments, and offering insightful, actionable feedback (hey look at that--I just listed some components of quality teaching!) The student teaching/intern experience, however, is the most important piece of teacher training, so important, in fact, that it should be extended to a year or two. Cooperating teachers should be better vetted and compensated and teacher candidates paid an intern's salary. Again, some unconventional internship experiences should be considered as equivalent experiences, if only in part.

Good teaching means preparing for classes, a.k.a., lesson planning, preferably in chunks called thematic units. The teacher should have a good idea of what he wants students to know and to be able to do. Lesson planning also includes being technically and logistically prepared for class: making copies, preparing power point presentations, reserving needed technology, giving feedback on student work. Teachers shouldn't necessarily have to write down and turn in lesson plans, especially if that's not how they plan best, but they should show evidence of planning in their teaching and reflections. After all, a teacher can easily write down and turn in great lesson plans without actually executing them well in the classroom. Preparation should also include on-going learning in teachers' content areas, pedagogy, management, and assessment.

Classroom management is probably the trickiest and most important part of teaching. A teacher can be very knowledgeable about their content area and pegagogy and write great lesson plans, but without appropriate, positive, and effective classroom management techniques, it will be very hard to implement instruction. Of course, the key to management is engagement, i.e., if students are engaged, classroom management is much less of a factor. Even so, teachers must think hard about factors such as seating and classroom layout, facilitating student participation, dealing with peer interactions, navigating and discouraging negative or distracting behaviors, channeling students' energy positively and keeping them on task, recognizing effort and positive behavior, and giving useful feedback.

For me, the following are key to effective classroom management (which is not to say I was always able to do them consistently):
  • staying organized.
  • consistent and transparent routines and lesson plans, so that students know what to expect.
  • fair, limited, but consistent rules, so that students know what is expected of them.
  • a focus on catching students being good rather than on catching them being bad.
  • treating all students with respect and empathy.
  • allowing respectful and reasonable disagreement.
  • disciplining students discretely and so that their dignity stays intact.
  • choosing my battles wisely.
  • providing options, choices, and a sense of ownership for students whenever possible.
  • acknowledging the significance of peer relationships (I taught mostly secondary school :)
  • avoiding rigidity, e.g., allowing some movement and relevant chatter within the classroom. 

Once lessons and units have been planned, the teacher must decide how she will present the material or demonstrate the skill she wants the students to know and be able to do. Before presenting, teachers should have or gather some idea of the students' prior knowledge of or proficiency in the topic or skill. Then, they'll need to show students why the topic is relevant or interesting. There are many ways to present (similar to what I said earlier, there are entire courses just on this aspect of teaching): traditional lecture, using exemplars, via text, using visuals, using technology, etc. Some caveats, though: teachers should avoid trying to "present" too much material or too many skills at once, nor should the "presentation" part of the lesson take too much time. While engaging and effective presentation can be and often is creative, it should avoid gimmicks. For example, I doubt the effectiveness of expecting kids to learn new material "cooperatively" without any knowledge of what it is they are supposed to know and be able to do, nor would I advise, for example, teaching map skills by way of a podcast. (For more on limitations of the learning styles theory, check out this article.) Furthermore, quality teaching is not rigid and does not get bogged down in attachment to methods that are simply part of the latest trends or ideology. Best practices and methods must be chosen and blended based on how effective they are and how particular groups or individual students respond to them.

Once the material and/or skill has been presented, the teacher must consider how students will practice and hopefully be on the road to retention or mastery, or developmentally appropriate mastery, of the material and skill. Again, the road to mastery can take many forms, but the practice should match the skill. If students, for example, are learning about osmosis and note-taking then they should probably take notes on a text, lecture, or demonstration of osmosis.

Once students have been presented with the material and skill and been given a chance to practice and work towards retention, the teacher should assess student knowledge and performance of skill. Even more so than presentation, students' learning can and should be assessed in varied ways; assessment does not necessarily mean tests. This part of teaching serves the dual purpose of assessing student knowledge and the effectiveness of the teaching. Integral to the assessment/evaluation process should be teacher and student reflection on what they've learned, how they learned it, and how it was taught. I will dedicate an entire post in this series to teacher evaluation, so stay tuned. . .

This component, similar to classroom management is not technically part of instruction, but is very important nonetheless. Quality teaching is not possible without strong and caring, but professional and appropriate, relationships between a teacher and her students. That being said, a good teacher-student relationship can fit many molds. I don't mean at all to imply that the connection should be a personal one, but there should be a connection and the student should be able to trust and respect the teacher and vice-versa. Furthermore, knowledge of students' educational background, aspirations, and family situation (without, of course, overstepping boundaries or violating students' privacy) can really help to inform teaching.

In conclusion, quality, effective teaching is thoughtful, well-planned, ordered but not rigid, clear, content-rich, respectful, applicable, engaging, and interactive. The components of teaching described above are carried out successfully by trial and error and after some experimentation. Also, how they are implemented is heavily dependent on the population and even individual students in front of the teacher. That's where the teacher education and training piece is so vital: hopefully, teacher candidates learn what has worked and has been effective from others who have already taught, from those who are currently in classrooms, and from research that has studied programs and policies BEFORE they have the immense responsibility and task of being in classrooms themselves. Of course, learning should forever continue on the job, but it's imperative to start with a strong base. Finally, these components, successfully executed, don't exist in a vacuum, that is to say, without adequate resources, support, and leadership. More on this in future posts. . .


  1. I agree with this no-nonsense approach to teaching. A solid lesson plan goes a long way in terms of classroom management. Time and tempo are important too--the students get the sense that every moment you have together is important, but that you aren't playing beat the clock either. Thinking about how I am going to evaluate skills while I plan a day/week/unit is big for me. I can let myself off the hook on some elements--knowing what I'm teaching with the goal of mastery/ a traditional test or essay assesment and what activities/discussions are enrichment, discovery, reinforcement, or just for the fun of learning.

  2. Curious - Do you think you got enough classroom management training in your ed program at GW? If you don't want to comment specifically, do you think ed programs in general contain enough on that subject? I've heard several teachers complain they didn't get enough training on this subject, especially concerning teens, and especially in the numbers we see in modern public high school classrooms.

  3. You can't manage a secondary classroom well until you authentically don't care whether the students like you or not. This is why it is especially hard for young teachers. In the beginning, you need to try out varied strategies and really learn from your failures. Your failures will be at the extremes; you will care too much and get hurt, and you will be too strict and will hurt others unnecessarily. Gaining confidence doesn't mean you become jaded, cruel, or hardened; it means the learning is more important than you/your ambition/your do-gooderness/your control/your cult of personality. It is a kind of maturity and getting there will break (and make) your heart as a teacher.

  4. Maura- Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughtful & relevant comments.

    I'm really glad you mentioned reinforcement, enrichment, and discovery because I left those concepts out and they are very important ones. I also appreciate your observation of there being a fine line between keeping students engaged and rushing. It's important that students are shown that we as teachers respect and take their time and learning (and our own) seriously--then they are much more likely it to take it seriously themselves. At the same time, we have to allow adequate "think time" and factor in that different students will work and learn at different paces.

    You are on the mark about learning from our failures and not worrying about students' liking us, though it can be quite a challenge to navigate those feelings & lessons. I've made all of the mistakes you mention (and then some)! I learned to start each class of a new school year with a lesson not on content, but on class rules & expectations. I only had 4 or 5, the biggest one being respect. We talked & wrote about what respect meant. I explained to my students that they did not have to like me (or one another), but that they had to treat me and one another with respect and that we had to work together and be civil. Likewise, I didn't need to like them (though I probably would :) but I needed to treat them with respect & dignity, that I was not their friend, but rather their teacher and there to help them learn and support their learning. I explained to them that I didn't "like" some of the people I worked with, but that I had to get along with and work with them. The students often looked surprised when I told them this, but in a liberated kind of way. Having this conversation took a lot of pressure off.

    The next lesson or activity would be to talk about the topic of the course & why it was on their schedule & how & why it was relevant & important.

  5. Cara-Thanks for reading & I agree!

  6. Susan B.-

    I was in a secondary ed program and lots of my cohort members were also dissatisfied with the classroom management piece.

    As I recall, the course with classroom management was one of the ones that was poorly designed and where the professor, though kind & knowledegable, didn't often seem well-prepared for class or like he/she had put much thought into the course's design.

    That being said, we did learn about lots of theories of classroom management. It is good to learn the theories, to have them as a base. The problem is once you're in the classroom, the theories don't usually strictly apply and end up going out of the window. I think what everyone wanted and needed were more practical strategies.

    It is actually very difficult to teach classroom management, though; it's really something learned by doing and trying different things.

    Again, this is why I firmly believe we need to extend and tighten up the apprenticeship/intern portion of the teacher training experience. Also, this is where mentoring of new teachers is key. I had some veteran mentors my first year and they really helped me with classroom management. Finally, we need to make sure that working conditions and class sizes are such that the teacher is given a reasonable chance of being able to successfully manage their classes.

  7. Hope you will consider joining our "I (HEART) Public Education" Blog Campaign for Valentine's Day. Please read on:

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  8. This is a great article for someone like me that is going to classes to become a teacher. Though I do agree with a longer intern period, for me this would be impossible to do. I am 37 year old, single dad with an 8 year old daughter and am far away from when I have to student teach, but am already wondering how I will complete the most important part of my training/education! It makes me wish I would have stuck with my original dream of being a teacher when I was 18-19 and not going to a technical school to work in IT for that "quick salary."

    I'll figure out how I will get my student teaching done, because I am determined to be a teacher. I do know that in addition to student teaching, PA requires a minimum of 190 hours in a classroom setting before they will even let you student teach. It should be fun how to figure out how to do that also. :)

  9. Dan:

    Thanks so much for reading & commenting. I meant to say in the post that the longer intern period should be compensated. Think of a med school program, except shorter: one to two years in coursework and internships (internships not being the same as student teaching, more like your 190 hours) and one full year of residency, otherwise known as student teaching, that would be paid at a half or reduced salary.

    I realize, however, that my theoreticals don't help you in the short-term. I went to ed school before I had kids and once I had three of them, I had to take a break from the classroom. In between parenting, I've been focusing on my writing. I am also 37 and I'm wishing I had done more as a writer when I was 18-19 and before I had children. I feel like I wasted a lot of time (and I don't mean at all that teaching was a waste of time). Sigh.

    If it helps, from what I've seen, people who have spent some time in the "real" world before going into the classroom, not to mention people who are parents, bring a lot of wisdom to teaching with them. There also do seem to be a fair number of programs and grants for career switchers such as yourself.

    The best of luck to you.