Building a Better Teacher: Many Ways, Many Challenges

A mix of history, journalism, education policy, and social critique, Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher, How Teaching Works (and How To Teach It To Everyone) is a fascinating hodgepodge of a book. It is about the world of teaching, from kindergarten through high school – and it has lessons for higher education.

Building a Better TeacherGreen, a talented journalist and writer, starts the reader with a simple and powerful thesis: good teachers are made, not born. This is an important idea worthy of thoughtful exposition. As she develops her argument, though, curiosity gets the better of Green. She looks at teachers, schools, policies, countries and cultures. Her narrative wanders and the result is a promising but frustrating mixture, not unlike the current state of K-12 education reform today. Intentionally or not, Green effectively captures today’s challenges and the lack of a coherent high-level educational dialogue.

Simply from a “who teaches?” perspective, the numbers are daunting. The US employs about 3.7 million teachers and within the next decade, we will need at least a million more. Most teachers quit within five years. Teachers are extraordinarily important to children learning. Teachers are increasingly under scrutiny and criticism, as are the schools and training programs that ready them for the classroom. Accountability is the watchword and we have plenty of critics and crises. Yet there is little agreement on how to measure or how to assess effectiveness, let alone what is best practice.

To understand what makes a great teacher, Green focuses on a few stars. She looks at the career of Deborah Ball, a superb math teacher in Michigan and now dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. Ball was able to generate outstanding mathematical learning from surprisingly young students (shades of Socrates teaching the slave boy in Meno).

Green studies Doug Lemov, a charter school founder and later teacher trainer in a charter school network. Lemov started his quest by looking for a basic text that would cover teaching fundamentals. When he could not find one, he began writing one. This led to a series of techniques which he championed in his schools and with larger audiences. They work for some students, but not all. They come with trade-offs: students do not always truly engage and drop-out rates can be high.

Good teachers consistently question and review their teaching. Green contrasts the value of jugyokenkyu, a Japanese form of collaborative lesson study with American practice, where most teachers rarely work together or collaborate. Further, American culture and practice tends to treat the classroom as a closed space. It is not necessarily so across the world.

Green sheds light on the work of Eric Hanushek, who focused attention on outputs (test scores). Hanushek argues that the single most important factor in a child’s learning is the quality of the teacher and the instruction provided. Hanushek’s ideas have been widely taken up by policy makers across the nation.

Green gives little consideration to the larger socioeconomic and policy-driven environments in which schools operate. She is keen to avoid any single silver bullet approaches to improving teaching and student learning. Her balanced approach makes sense, but her selective use of research does not point in any one actionable direction. In fact, the work is strongest when conveying the ongoing hard work that goes into developing, assessing, and improving teaching. It is work that requires caring, curiosity, and the courage to question and revise, again and again.

I read the book with higher education in mind. Green’s work highlights the significant advances taken place in K-12. It made me think of the limited steps we have taken to develop strong teachers across our colleges and universities. There have been improvements. We have developed a scholarship of teaching and learning. Graduate programs are increasingly providing pedagogical training. Many institutions have invested in teaching and learning centers. All are good, but viewed collectively, they seem small in light of the labors taking place in the K-12 world.

Learning how to teach well is ongoing hard work. Green’s book makes this crystal clear. More support, more resources, and more attention to teaching well is essential if more students are to learn. Anyone who has put in time teaching – at any level – knows this to be true.

David Potash

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