Teaching Revealed

If you have time to read only one chapter of one book this fall, consider the first pages of Building A Better Teacher, a new book by journalist Elizabeth Green. It opens with you—the reader—temporarily cast as the protagonist. You’re a teacher walking into a 5th grade classroom. It sounds contrived, I know, and yet it works.

“Your job, according to the state where you happen to live and the school district that pays your salary,” Green writes, “is to make sure that, sixty minutes from now, the students have grasped the concept of ‘rate.’”

What do you do?

In this way, we walk through the hundreds of micro-decisions a teacher must make in a single hour. Do you call on Richard, a new African-American student who says he hates math but has his hand raised anyway? If he’s wrong, will he shut down for the rest of class?

You call on Richard. His answer makes no sense to you. Do you correct him yourself right away? Or do you call on the white girl next to him who has the right answer more often? You decide to ask the rest of the class if anyone can explain what Richard was thinking. No one responds. You feel the dread creep in. But then Richard speaks up. “Can I change my mind?”

In just a few pages, Green rips open the “black box” of the classroom and reveals, as few education writers manage to do, the intellectual chess match that is teaching. Richard’s new answer is not right—but it’s closer. You want to know why he is doing what he’s doing. There’s a reason, and it matters. He’s not the only one who is confused. Your mind is racing, trying to decode his logic. Other hands go up. You ask Richard why he changed his mind. He explains himself, haltingly, and you start to realize that Richard is thinking mathematically, even though his answer is wrong.

This is why teaching is hard. Not because kids try your patience (though there is that); not because it doesn’t pay enough (though that’s true, too). It’s hard because it is hard–and we’ve been treating it like it’s easy. The dynamics of teaching 25 or 30 kids to think for themselves is far more complex than anything your average American physician faces on a daily basis, as Green notes.

Appreciating that complexity is critical to changing the way American taxpayers, teachers, parents and kids look at teaching and learning. That’s why this book could not be better timed. Outside of the classroom, the U.S. education debate has become insufferable. It has little to do with the cerebral contest facing teachers every day. Technocratic reformers cling to mantras about “choice” and “accountability” like junkies unable to loosen their grip on the data pipe. Meanwhile, cranky union leaders and ideologues reflexively demonize tests, standards and “corporate reformers” without regard for facts–and insist everyone should simply leave teachers alone and fight poverty instead (as if education could ever be disentangled from any serious fight against poverty).

Both sides are long on angst and short on vision. “The cold truth,” Green writes, “is that accountability and autonomy, the two dominant philosophies for teacher improvement, have left us with no real plan.” Instead, most teachers are left to “make it up” every minute of every day in the classroom.

It’s time for the conversation to evolve. The next frontier is to help teachers develop their craft in a scientific, replicable way. At a time when higher-order skills have become more valuable in the U.S. than any other country—and when the absence of skills comes with a bigger financial penalty than almost anywhere else—America’s 3 million teachers should not be left to reinvent the science of teaching each morning.

There is another way. Green tells the stories of the small but captivating group of revolutionaries who have spent their lives trying to help teachers in a systematic way—training them to provoke discussion, to build suspense, to predict the mistakes children make when they learn geometry and to allow kids to struggle productively down in those rabbit holes. These veteran teachers and trainers have done the work. They’ve written a common curriculum for teacher education, video-taped sample lessons and designed tests to assess teachers’ strengths and weaknesses in order to customize training. None of this is mystical.

Now the rest of us need to listen. Education deans, professors, principals, school boards and teachers should embrace their work and bring it to life outside of a few isolated schools. Policy makers need to take all that energy they’ve spent debating value-added data and dedicate themselves to finding time for teachers to watch each other teach and hone their craft in a serious way. U.S. teachers have far less time to do this than most teachers around the world—a major but fixable problem. If we really think teaching is hard and education is important, it’s time to stop beefing over old feuds and start getting tactical.

This book review originally appeared here on the Emerson Collective website.

EducationAmanda Ripley