Teaching is a lot like acting, a high-energy, performance profession that requires a person to act as a role model. But when teachers go through training and professional development, the performance aspect of the job is rarely emphasized or taught. Acknowledging this aspect could be a missed opportunity to restructure ways teachers learn new skills and tactics.
Actors, musicians or acrobats spend hours perfecting their craft because that’s how they improve. Teachers on the other hand, are often asked to identify teaching tools and tactics they’d like to try and to reflect on how those new elements could be integrated into the classroom.
“Knowing what you want to do is a long way from being able to do it,” said Doug Lemov, managing director of Uncommon Schools, a non-profit school management organization and author of Teach Like a Champion and Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better in a recent Future of Education conversation with Steve Hargadon. He started trying to improve teaching by identifying the best practices of exceptional teachers and giving workshops on those “gold nuggets” to less experienced teachers. While many teachers found what they learned helpful, they couldn't put the new methods into practice.
“Every other performance profession prepares people by practicing and breaking things down into sections,” said Lemov. So he shifted his professional development workshops to emphasize practicing good teaching strategies rather than just thinking about them.
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Those first workshops were a learning experience in building on skill sets. Lemov remembers in one of his first groups, teachers pretended to be unruly students in a class taught by another teacher present. The teacher tried to give her lesson as her “students” misbehaved. She was unable to do so; they were throwing too many challenges at her at once. “What just happened there is she practiced failure,” Lemov said. “She just got better at losing control of the classroom.”
At this point he realized that, like learning a new piece of music or the lines to a play, the challenges of the classroom had to be broken down into component parts. In order for the teacher to practice succeeding, to feel the satisfaction of a well-given lesson to a controlled classroom, she needed to first practice controlling simple behaviors. Then gradually, the pretend students added in new types of challenging behaviors, adding layers of complexity so she could improve at a manageable pace.
“So often we ask people to do things that are outside their realm of possibility,” Lemov said. That’s a disservice to the learner because it gives the impression that the difficult task is insurmountable when in fact it was thrust on the person too quickly. Lemov gave the example of teaching his son to play baseball and allowing his son to try the batting cage after he’d just barely learned to connect with a slow pitch. His son changed his practiced swing to randomly connect with the ball, undercutting all his previous learning. The rate of failure in the batting cage was too high for his experience and time practicing.
That’s not to say that failure is bad. In fact, Lemov councils that failure needs to be a much more accepted part of the teaching practice. “You can’t learn if you are afraid to fail,” Lemov said. “To really learn something teachers and students have to embrace the normalcy of falling down and picking yourself back up. But it needs to happen in a manageable way.”
In the workshops that Lemov now runs he encourages teachers who are “practicing” their craft to take the suggestions offered in real time and immediately try to use them. So often in teaching feedback is delayed or must be ignored in the moment for the good of the whole group. Lemov champions a space where teachers can immediately shift course and practice the difference.
But it’s not easy to get teachers to give up old ways. It’s hard to tell an earnest educator who has prepared for his work primarily through reflection that he should practice. “Getting them to feel comfortable and safe in that dynamic is a big part of what has to happen for it to be effective,” Lemov said. It has to be safe to do something risky, not a culture supported in many schools.
Through his work Lemov has observed that there is a correlation between how well a teacher gives instruction to students and the quality of the academic content. Giving clear instructions is only one of many skills a teacher needs, but Lemov found that if a teacher had mastered those external elements of the teaching craft, she was also more successful on the academic side because she thought about discussion in the same clear, measured way.
“I do think there’s a strange correlation between intentionality about seemingly little things on the behavioral-cultural side and big educational ideas,” Lemov said. A teacher who pays enough attention to make instructions clear is probably also paying close attention to how academic discussions and projects are structured.
But the most important thing is to realize that by practicing good teaching methods, a teacher can begin to embody good habits and feel successful at once difficult classroom tasks. Ultimately, professional development should make teachers feel that they can perform their jobs better, not merely know cerebrally what they should do differently.