What is school like in the smartest countries in the world? Last year, I wrote a book that tried to answer that question from a kid’s point of view. Now fellow journalist Elizabeth Green has a new book out—from the teacher’s point of view.

Building a Better Teacher explains how teachers can get better in any country — and what it will take to finally treat the profession as an intellectual master craft instead of a charity. When people ask me what U.S. education reform should look like in the next decade, I tell them about Elizabeth’s book.

Despite the overlap in our work, I had never met Elizabeth in person. I wanted to know how her reporting had changed the way she thinks about education — and, for that matter, writing. So we met for the first time at a coffee shop in Washington, DC, the other day. We ended up talking for four hours. In this excerpt, we trade notes on hate mail, unicycles at recess and the very real possibilities for reimagining teaching in America.


Amanda: Let’s talk first about the reaction to the book. Most people don’t realize that writing about teaching is like writing about gun control. It’s incredibly controversial.

Elizabeth: You’re stepping on landmines that you would never think exist. There are reading wars, math wars, class-size battles. There are so many different sides of the debate you’d need a detailed map to articulate them all.

Amanda: Was there something you thought would be controversial that hasn’t been?

Elizabeth: Yeah, I was concerned about how teachers would react to a book that argues we need to improve teaching. But in that sense it’s been utterly reasonable. Teachers really do want to be better—and so they’re excited to have a conversation for once about what they do every day with kids.

How about you? Any landmines?

Amanda: I have been called some awful names. I have gotten hate mail. And the funny thing is, I’ve written about abortion and terrorism, and I don’t get the same level of vitriol from those stories.

Elizabeth: What is the worst name?

Amanda: I had a teacher in Connecticut call me a cunt. So that was a low moment [laughs].

Elizabeth: I wish I could be surprised but I have the same emails to match your emails.

Amanda: One of the great things about your book is that it doesn’t fit neatly into either of the extremes of this polarized debate about education.

Elizabeth: The big shift for me as a reporter was when I started to encounter this research about teaching. This research was really different. It said, what’s going on inside a teacher’s mind? And in order to illuminate that, the researchers made these records of teaching—not just a video every day for a year but also records of students’ work plus the teachers’ journals plus interviews.

They had this huge forensic operation to get inside the space that is teaching—what the teacher is doing and how that’s affecting what the students are thinking and doing. And seeing those artifacts changed my understanding of teaching...

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EducationAmanda Ripley