Good Teaching Is About Hard Work, Not A Halo

Doug Lemov, a teacher himself, believes passionately that champion teachers are made, not born. He studied successful teachers, and describes specific classroom management techniques that could help all teachers be more effective educators.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

A panel of educators, set up by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, today released a report which set out what American public school students should learn in math and English from kindergarten through high school - proposed national standards to replace the current patchwork that varies from state to state. But any standard, any curriculum, requires effective teachers who can get their kids to keep quiet, pay attention, and focus on their lessons.

In the most recent New York Times Magazine, Elizabeth Green drew a portrait of Doug Lemov, a teacher who believes passionately that champion teachers are made, not born, and he describes the specific classroom management techniques. You can read that story through a link at our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And teachers, we'd like to hear your secret methods to engage your students. Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

As always, the conversation continues at the Web site, too. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Uncommon Schools is a network of college prep public schools in New York and New Jersey.

Doug Lemov is a teacher and founder of Uncommon Schools, a network of college prep in New York. And he joins us now from a studio in Albany. Doug Lemov, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. DOUG LEMOV (Founder, Uncommon Schools): Thanks, Neal, nice to be with you.

CONAN: And the story in the Times Magazine describes a video you made of a teacher named Bob Zimmereli(ph), in front of a class full of fifth-graders. Can you describe how he starts?

Mr. LEMOV: Sure. It's Bob Zimmerli.

CONAN: Oh, Zimmerli, excuse me.

Mr. LEMOV: Sure. I think you're talking about the - this is a video of Bob actually substitute teaching, which is, as every teacher knows, the toughest situation you can possibly be in. So Bob is substitute teaching, he's teaching in a tough room of kids. It's a low-performing group of kids in a school that's really struggling. And Bob doesnt know anyone in the room. And he starts off by saying, thank you guys very much - as Mr. Blank says, your normal teacher.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEMOV: And then he's trying to get the kids started. You know, he's really got 30 seconds to win this battle, or as any teacher knows, it can go south really fast and it's going to be a painful hour. So Bob starts giving directions to his students and he gives them very clear, very observable directions about what to do. Take a pencil out, turn your paper. Nothing else on your desk. Is anything else on your desk? Put it under your seat.

CONAN: Well, not all the kids do that.

Mr. LEMOV: Not all the kids do it. But because Bob has been savvy enough to break his directions down into concrete, specific - and this is maybe the key -observable directions, he can then start positively reinforcing the kids who have done it, 30 seconds into the class. So now Bob starts sweeping across the classroom left to right, acknowledging the students who've done it. And this is actually really interesting. He's not praising the kids. He's not saying, oh, it's so fantastic, you did what I asked you to do.

Because that shows that you're surprised that someone's followed your -surprised that someone's met your expectations or followed directions.

He just acknowledges them, just like you're doing. Thank you very much. I like it. Thank you. Thank you. And as you watch the video, you can see this wave of compliance sweep across the classroom. The kids start looking around, and what they see is the normal sea of compliance. Other kids are doing this, too. I'm going to get involved. You know, I'm going to give this a try.

And because the directions are so clear and specific, you really have to willfully decide not to do it. And you can actually see the kids kind of getting with him and going with him. And you know, two minutes into the lesson, he's got every kid on task. It's really - I'm glad you started by asking me about Bob...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEMOV: ...because he's an incredible teacher. He teaches at the school we run in Rochester; it's called Rochester Prep. And he is, he's a master. And the thing that inspires me about watching him is when I watch him, he's brilliant. But the things that he does are replicable. And I really believe that other teachers can learn to do them, and aspire to be just as great and just as game-changing as a guy like Bob.

CONAN: We're talking with Doug Lemov, managing director of Uncommon School, a network of college prep schools in New York, and author of "Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College."

If you're a champion teacher, call and tell us the technique that you use to get your kids to engage; 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And Doug Lemov, it was interesting - you're talking about very specific instructions as opposed to something like: Kids, pay attention.

Mr. LEMOV: Yeah. If you tell a kid to pay attention, and the kid doesn't do what you want them to do, and you say back to them: I thought I told you to pay attention, I think most teachers know that the answer is going to be: I was paying attention.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEMOV: So you sort of lack the accountability piece there, if you don't make your directions observable. And what we noticed - you know, the genesis of this book, Neal, is I went around and watched great teachers like Bob Zimmerli in every school that I could find. You know, teachers who had overwhelmingly, kids of poverty, kids who - for whom the door of opportunity was closing, if they had - you know, in the schools that they've been in. But in these classrooms, or in the schools that they were in, teachers were getting tremendous results.

And I tried to look for commonalities, and what are the things that these teachers do in common. And I found that they consistently gave - one of the many things that they did - is they give, you know, concrete, specific, observable directions. And one of the other benefits of doing this, is that when a teacher like Bob Zimmerli does this, he's also teaching because - and I can attest to this, personally, as a former middle-school student.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEMOV: When directions are vague, there's a lot of opportunistic opportunistic, off-task behavior. And there's a certain number of kids who may not be following the task because they - we just weren't really clear about it enough as teachers. Students may not - the issue may be what I call incompetence, which is they don't know how to do what you ask them to do. When you tell a student to pay attention, does the student know that that means sit up, get your eyes on me, and put your feet on the floor?

So, if you give them more specific directions - sit up, get your eyes on me, put your feet on the floor - you're actually teaching the kids who don't know what to do. You're eliminating the ambiguity that lets some of the kids sort of exploit that, and you're making it much, much harder - a kid really has to willfully decide that they're going to defy you.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Some will.

Mr. LEMOV: There are - some will. But you've isolated those students. Instead of they're being, you know, a significant majority of the class or a significant group of the class, you know, it's really - it's the kids who really want to go toe-to-toe - and then you have to have strategies to deal with those students, but it's a much smaller group of kids.

CONAN: Aren't some kids going to feel like you're babying them?

Mr. LEMOV: You know, I think this is the other thing that really excited me about this work, which is, you know, some people say, like, well, is this a formula? And the answer is, no, it's not a formula - that behind every artist is an artisan, that you learn the techniques, you master the tools. You know, I use an analogy in the book of a sculptor. That to be a great sculptor, first you have to learn to handle a hammer and a chisel. There are concrete techniques you have to do to make the chisel run across the rock. But then to be a great artist, you apply it with discretion and mastery.

And great teachers deliver this technique in a way that it doesn't belittle students, that shows the respect of them. And you know, it's one of the most exciting things about watching video, is you sort of see the existence proof of yeah, there are really clear ways to do this. And that's one of the reasons why we included video in the book and why, when we do trainings for this work, we always base it around video.

You know, we - the work starts with great teachers, not with me. And that's -it's important to me that - this is not my theory. This is what I see great teachers, game-changing teachers, do. So the work starts with what they do. And when you watch them in action, you see that yes, it's possible. Yes, you can make a difference. Yes, you can have a classroom that changes your kids' lives.

CONAN: And there are some teachers who are, I guess, by their nature, charismatic and walk into that classroom the first thing, and everybody's eyes falls on them, and they're able to do it by the power of their personality. At least according to this article, Doug Lemov, you are not one of those people. And if great teachers are to be made and not born, you had to make yourself into one.

Mr. LEMOV: Yes. I think I'm, you know, as a teacher, I made a lot of mistakes along the way. But I kind of felt, you know, the only thing that's more - that I care more deeply about than a great teacher is my own family.

You know, I have three kids. And the most important thing in the world to me is being a great dad. And anytime someone can give me something that makes me a better dad, I'm going to take it because it's - you know, even if I was the best dad in the world, I would take that advice because the work is so important.

And you know - and teachers who feel that way around their kids, they find solutions, they work hard at it. You know, I didn't get to the point that, you know, great teachers like Bob Zimmerli got to. But I think one of the things that I would like teachers to take away from this is, it's not a halo, you know?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEMOV: We have an incredible teacher at one of our schools - again, the school in Rochester. Her name is Colleen Driggs. And some people think that there's magic, that when Colleen walks into the room, like a spell falls over the kids. But we show this video in training of Colleen teaching her kids vocabulary words. And while she's teaching the vocabulary words, she's using these nonverbal hand gestures that she's actually taught her kids. And the nonverbal hand gestures are sit up straight, put your eyes on the speaker, and put your hands down and listen. And she manages to - she uses these nonverbal gestures 17 times in the course of a four-minute video for teaching. It's not a halo, Neal. It's hard work.

She's incredibly intentional and diligent about what she's doing. And the most exciting thing about Colleen's lesson is that any teacher can learn that and practice it and do it. And obviously, they'll put their own stamp of - they'll put their own unique stamp on it. But any teacher can do those things.

CONAN: Let's get some teachers on the line. They're calling to share their secrets of classroom technique; 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Let's start with John(ph). John calling from Muncy. John, you have to turn the radio down. And John is listening to the radio. So we're going to put him on hold and go to someone else.

This is Maryanne(ph), Maryanne with us from Ann Arbor.

MARYANNE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MARYANNE: OK. Yeah, hi. I'll just try to say a couple of things quickly. One is - here's two things that students really respect. I went to the University of Michigan. Students really respect if you know your subject really, really well. If they see that you have studied your subject incredibly well, then you've won half the battle. Because if you can answer any subject, they -question they have about your subject, if you have profound knowledge, then you will get a lot of respect from your students. If you...

CONAN: So don't be just 15 pages ahead of them.

MARYANNE: Oh - or two pages ahead of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: OK.

MARYANNE: You know, if you know your subject really well and you have broad knowledge, broad liberal education - I teach Spanish - that really wins half the battle. And if you are a great teacher, then, you know - I hardly use discipline. If I send a kid to the office, that kid is going, you know, be in trouble with the principal because I never send a kid to the office.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MARYANNE: I literally never send a kid to the office. If your program that you're running in your room is fun and interesting and the kids like it and, you know, like one thing that foreign language - I have to teach all my class, by 56 minutes, all in Spanish. You talk about doing that in English.

CONAN: Oh, wow.

MARYANNE: Yeah. Spend 56 minutes talking to kids in Spanish in Spanish 1. But if you're using the Steve Krashen(ph) method who's the - our guru for foreign language, you're doing that in Spanish. You have to be keeping them entertained, you have to be playing games, you have to be using something called total physical response - where the kids are up out of their seats, using their bodies. You have to make it enjoyable. You have to make sure they're having fun, that their inhibitions are down.

CONAN: Let me ask Doug Lemov. These techniques - do you think they would work in Spanish or French or Italian and Russian?

Mr. LEMOV: There are a couple of things that Maryanne is saying that I think are really compelling, and that I see when I watch great teachers in the classroom. And one thing, you know, Maryanne said, I don't discipline. And one thing that we see about great teachers is that they manage to make the discipline they do invisible by catching it early. One of the things we tell teachers in training is if you're mad, you waited too long. That a gentle correction and a reminder to a student before it gets serious is the best and most - you know, is the best and most constructive thing to do.

The second thing is that, you know, my book, actually, is not just about classroom management. It's actually about great teaching techniques, because you can't have one without the other. That we actually define discipline in the book as teaching kids the right way to do something, and that the most likely reason why kids aren't doing what you ask them to, if they're not, is that you haven't taught them.

But beyond that, there has to be something for kids to say yes to. You have to engage them in a lesson with real content and real teaching. So half the book is actually about the teaching techniques that Maryanne's talking about that are, you know, questioning techniques. And one of the techniques, for example, is called stretch it. Which is, you know, when a student - many teachers, when a student gets an answer right, they say right or good. And that's the end of the conversation. And actually, I argue that the reward for getting it right should be another question, a stretch-it question that pushes you to engage even more rigorously. And that sets the expectation that, you know, more learning is the reward for achievement.

CONAN: Maryanne, thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking with Doug Lemov about what makes a good teacher. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Stephan(ph). Stephan with us from Rochester, New York. Stephan?

STEPHAN (Caller): Hello?

CONAN Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

STEPHAN: Hi. Yeah. I teach in the city of Rochester, where Doug's done a lot of his observation. I just recently went through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards - went through the certification process there. And one of the things that helped me do is articulate some of the things that I've been doing well for many years, many of which are described in the article I read in the Times on Sunday. I guess - one of those being, you - a great deal of preparation and thought needs to go into the content of a lesson, and then you've got to be able to honestly transmit to students the sense that this material that - or this activity is very, very, very worthwhile, important, interesting - and even if you don't personally think it is, I sure do. And that's got to be both...

CONAN: And not just for the purpose of passing the test.

STEPHAN: Right. It's - right. And so you've got to demonstrate enthusiasm, but that enthusiasm can't be faked. They - kids smell phony a mile away.

CONAN: It's interesting that he was talking, Doug Lemov, about getting, you know, the language. In the article of the New York Times magazine, a lot of people were talking about similar kinds of techniques to yours, but not having the language.

Mr. LEMOV: Well, that's one of the things that we are most passionate about. You know, we - I help run the network of really incredible schools with incredible teachers in them, and I'm so honored to work with them. And they're just hungry to get better, which is so inspiring to me because teaching is, I think, the most important job in the world, and it's such hard work. And one of the things that teachers need to get better, is each other. They need a shared vocabulary to talk about, you know, in a very granular, technical sense, the things that they do in the classroom. So that, you know, yeah, it's great if an administrator like myself or one of my principals walks into their classroom and says, you know, use what to do. Break your direction and sound into concrete, observable...

CONAN: Right.

Mr. LEMOV: ...you know, strategies. But it's even better if one of their peers says, hey, there was a moment when you could have done that - when they can build each other up and we can have a culture, among our teachers, of learning, when we're always trying to get better. I think we've managed to build that in our schools, and I think a lot of it goes back to shared vocabulary. You know, you couldn't have a thing called democracy if you didn't have a very specific portfolio of words to describe the functions of democracy.

CONAN: Stephan, thank you very much for the call. And Doug Lemov, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. LEMOV: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Doug Lemov, managing director of Uncommon Schools in New York, with us today from a studio in Albany. His book, "Teach Like A Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students On The Path To College," will be published in April.

Tomorrow, Father Greg Boyle started a project that provides hundreds of hard-core L.A. gang bangers hope, jobs, and a fresh start. Father G. will join us. Plus, the real war in the Pacific. Be with us then.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, and this is TALK OF THE NATION in Washington.

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