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How to Really Teach Like a Champion

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What does it mean to "teach like a champion"? Can great teachers be reduced to, and developed by, a discrete set of tools and techniques? Or is teaching ultimately an art form so individualized, so magical and elusive, that it can never be codified?

If I had to sum up the problem with our current efforts to improve teaching and learning in this country, it would be the illusion of this false choice, and the tendency of too many of us to feel we must pick one path. So before we get any deeper into 2011, I'd like to recommend we all read two books that, taken together, just might have the power to light a middle path between the extremes.

The first is Doug Lemov's 2010 debut, Teach Like a Champion, a groundbreaking, controversial catalogue of 49 techniques "that put students on the path to college." Based primarily on thousands of hours of video and in-person observations of teachers who have helped their students dramatically raise scores on standardized tests (a metric Lemov calls "necessary but not sufficient"), the book is the most concrete, specific, and immediately actionable set of recommendations I've ever encountered as an educator. Those recommendations are also, often, shockingly simple and unglamorous -- from standing still while giving students directions (Technique 28: "Entry Routine") to ensuring that all students begin each class period with their materials out, ready to learn (Technique 33: "On Your Mark").

As Lemov explains, the un-sexiness of his techniques is partly the point. "When I was a young teacher, people gave me lots of advice. I'd go to trainings and leave with lofty words ringing in my ears. They touched on everything that made me want to teach. "Have high expectations for your students." "Expect the most from your students every day." "Teach kids, not content." I'd be inspired, ready to improve -- until I got to school the next day. I'd find myself asking, 'Well, how do I do that? What's the action I should take at 8:25 a.m. to demonstrate those raised expectations?'"

Teach Like a Champion is a major contribution to the field, and a window into the central motivations of today's younger education "reformers" -- precisely because it is so concerned with providing clear, simple, and practical advice for a profession that is so opaque, complex, and unpredictable. This sort of effort at making the overwhelming challenge of teaching more accessible and scalable needs to become more commonplace; I know a number of these techniques would have been extremely useful to me when I was still in the classroom. Lemov is right -- lofty words are not enough, and there is great value in trying to chart some of education's most uncharted terrain. And yet, his book also left me with an uneasy feeling, and not because some of the techniques rubbed me the wrong way (they did). It was because once I put the book down, I was left with a sense that, in addition to some useful tools, the picture of my profession that had just been painted was still left significantly, even dangerously, incomplete.

Then I (finally) read Parker Palmer's 1998 book The Courage to Teach, and I understood what was missing. In fact, although Lemov and Palmer wrote their books a decade apart, The Courage to Teach explicitly tackles what Teach Like a Champion implicitly fails to address - that although good techniques are useful, good teaching cannot be reduced to technique, because good teaching springs primarily from the identity and integrity of the teacher.

Palmer explains: "In every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood -- and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of teaching. My evidence for this claim comes, in part, from years of asking students to tell me about their good teachers. Listening to those stories, it becomes impossible to claim that all good teachers use similar techniques: some lecture nonstop and others speak very little; some stay close to their material and others loose the imagination; some teach with the carrot and others with the stick. But in every story I have heard, good teachers share one trait: a strong sense of personal identity infuses their work."

Palmer's willingness to "enter, not evade, the tangles of teaching" is a reminder to all of us that the unavoidable first step toward creating better learning conditions for kids is ensuring that the adults in charge of them have a healthy sense of themselves -- intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. "Reduce teaching to intellect," writes Palmer, "and it becomes a cold abstraction; reduce it to emotions, and it becomes narcissistic; reduce it to the spiritual, and it loses its anchor to the world. Intellect, emotion and spirit depend on one another for wholeness. They are interwoven in the human self and in education at its best."

That's why Lemov's disproportionate focus on the "diligent mastery of the tools of the craft" is dangerous; it misleads future teachers into overvaluing the power of technique, and undervaluing the need to better understand themselves and the highly relational, nonlinear components of what they have signed up to do. I would argue this is the missing ingredient in much of today's education reform programs and strategies, too many of which are built upon the highly seductive, highly misleading appeal of solving the unsolvable. It's the culture of the technocratic answer.

Don't get me wrong -- education needs more actionable ideas, and more practical resources like the kind Doug Lemov has given us, and he's right when he says "great art relies on the mastery and application of functional skills, learned individually through diligent study." But Parker Palmer is right, too, when he reminds us of something else: that "technique is what teachers use until the real teacher arrives."