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What’s the best way to teach teachers?

September 16, 2014 at 6:41 PM EDT
According to a new Gallup poll, the majority of Americans believe teacher preparation should be more rigorous. But what’s the best way to teach teachers? Jeffrey Brown sits down with Elizabeth Green to discuss her book, “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone),” and the different ways to initiate best practices.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: What can be done to improve the quality of teaching?

An annual poll out today by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa finds that majorities of Americans believe teacher preparation should be more rigorous.  There was also support for stronger certification requirements and evaluations, more training and practice time for teaching candidates, and opposition to using student test results to evaluate teachers.

A new book explores what better teaching may look like.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: The inspirational teacher, she or he is the stuff of movies and stories and, if we’re very lucky, the individual in a classroom who turns on to a given subject or even a lifetime of learning.

But in an age of reformers pushing teacher accountability and unions demanding teacher autonomy, a new book titled “Building a Better Teacher” argues that one thing we don’t spend enough time on is how teaching actually works and how teachers themselves should be taught.

Author Elizabeth Green is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Chalkbeat, a nonprofit education news organization.

And welcome to you.

ELIZABETH GREEN, Author, “Building a Better Teacher”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Building a Better Teacher.”

One thing you’re trying to do is get rid of the myth of the kind of natural-born teacher.

ELIZABETH GREEN: Yes, yes.

I think we assume that there’s either — there’s good teachers and then there’s bad teachers, and then so what we need to do is get more of the good ones and fewer of the bad ones.  ®MDNM¯But the reality is that teaching well is a skill, and it requires a lot of craft, knowledge and specialized ability that goes beyond just knowing a subject really well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why is that not kind of obvious? I mean, why is our system set up in a way that doesn’t sort of value or think that way?

ELIZABETH GREEN: I think there’s a lot of reasons.

One of them is that we haven’t devoted any energy to studying teaching.  The education schools study almost anything but pedagogy, anything but the craft of teaching,because it’s just undervalued in our society.  So, as a result, we know actually — we haven’t known historically very much about what we should be preparing teachers to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you focus on — a lot on the teaching of math.  So, give us an example of how it’s done poorly.

ELIZABETH GREEN: Yes, I think that too often what teachers are doing is they don’t anticipate what students are going to have — the mistakes that students are going to have.  And they just try to have answer-getting strategies.

And that treats math and other subjects as if they don’t really make sense.  But what really skilled teachers learn to do is anticipate how are students going to misunderstand, not just what’s the right answer, but how would a student get a wrong answer, and how can I reverse-engineer that and help them find a path to the right answer, so that they really understand that math should make sense, and every subject should make sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so and you cite models in Japan, which actually pick up on some work that was done here in the U.S., right? But this is a different system here in the U.S.

ELIZABETH GREEN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would need to be done to change the teaching and creation of teachers?

ELIZABETH GREEN: Yes, so what Japan did successfully that we didn’t is, they took up ideas that work and great individual classroom models and they were able to take them to scale, a whole country.

They succeeded because they treat teaching as a craft and a public act that should be studied.  So thousands of teachers will come to see one teacher teach in Japan, and they will then discuss the lesson afterwards, like you would dissect a great act of surgery or a film.

In the U.S., we treat teaching as a private act.

JEFFREY BROWN: That even goes to how we sort of devalue teaching, period, right, when it comes to wages or just value as a profession.

ELIZABETH GREEN: Yes.

I think the fact that we think about teaching as something that’s physical work, not cognitive work, is part of that undervaluing, but it is really very cognitively demanding.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did you find from teachers themselves as you went around and talked to them in terms of their sense of how well-prepared they are, their fears because they don’t feel prepared, et cetera?

ELIZABETH GREEN: Yes, teachers — teachers definitely do not enter the classroom feeling that they’re prepared.  Most teachers will tell you that their teacher training institution didn’t leave them feeling prepared.

And then they do know that they don’t have the time and support they need to learn to teach.  So, just an example, a group of teachers that I have met with in New York City had a study group, and it wasn’t unlike what teachers have in Japan.  They have study groups where they have subject-specific, so a bunch of history teachers or a bunch of math teachers will meet and they will share their lesson plans.

But there is one big difference.  In Japan, the teachers had sanctioned time in their schedule to go watch each other teach, a crucial piece.  In the U.S., when I asked them, do you have any — have you ever seen each other teach, they said — they laughed, like they would never have time to do that.  They’re doing this in their off-hours.

So just the structure of the U.S. education system holds back what teachers know that they need.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is there any possibility of changing that structure, because that would require, what, more — hiring more teachers, I would assume, to give them more time for that?

ELIZABETH GREEN: Actually, I don’t think it would require more resources.  I think it requires a changing of culture and a changing of allocation.

So we spend — the estimate that I have — the best estimate that I have seen is $9 billion a year on professional development for teachers, like training during the school year.  It’s just that it’s not effective training.  It doesn’t focus on practices that teachers really need in the classroom.

There are innovative programs that are doing this differently, and that, truly, 25-year veterans enter these programs and they say everything changed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do we need to make it harder to be a teacher?

ELIZABETH GREEN: I think there’s been a lot of focus on raising the bar before — beforehand, like, let’s get the best and brightest, and certainly it’s important to focus on recruiting talented, passionate people to education.

But we have 3.7 million teachers in this country, so that alone cannot be enough.  And, in fact, the programs that only focused on recruiting Ivy League students into the classroom, like Teach for America, have really learned that they need to focus on training, too.  It’s not enough just to be really bright.  You have to learn how students think.  You have to learn how to teach them.  And that’s different than being good in school yourself.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.  The new book is “Building a Better Teacher.”

Elizabeth Green, thank you.

ELIZABETH GREEN: Thank you.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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