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What Core Skills Do Teachers Need To Be Effective?

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Xochitl Calix, a student at the University of Michigan, practices teaching.  (Emily Hanford/American RadioWorks)

Jasmine Bankhead went to a traditional teacher prep program in the early 2000s. She took about a year’s worth of coursework that was all pretty general. Bankhead was expecting to learn a lot when she did her student teaching. But on her first day, she says, “my mentor teacher, she came in, we talked for a few minutes, and she was like, ‘OK, I’ll be in the library from now on.’ And just like that, I was by myself. And although I complained a little bit to my student teaching supervisor, I still felt like I was expected to make it work.”

Jennifer Green did a nontraditional program back in the 1990s. She got five weeks of training in things like “introduction to classroom management” and “introduction to planning.” Then she was a teacher, in a huge, struggling high school.

“I would come in in the morning. I would close the door,” she says. “I would struggle through the day. I would cry three times a week after my third period, which was my most challenging group of students. I would dust myself off. I would tell my fourth period class that I had terrible allergies and that’s why my eyes were so red.”

She says she got no help. The first time an administrator came to check on her it was January -- and the administrator just needed to know if she had enough textbooks.

Green and Bankhead both wanted to become great teachers. But the system didn’t seem set up to help them do it.


There’s a pervasive American myth that good teachers are born, not made, and that good teachers have a set of inborn traits that naturally blossom as they figure the job out on their own. To get better teachers, the theory goes, schools need to find more people with those traits. The other myth is that teaching is easy -- the work involves children and the content is pretty basic, so it must be easy.

“Teaching is complex work that people actually have to be taught to do,” says Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan. Ball spent years as an elementary school teacher and was always praised for being a “natural,” but she says teaching never came easily. She worked hard at her job.

Now, she’s trying to dramatically change teacher training to focus on the specific knowledge and skills that teachers need to effectively help students. Understanding math and knowing how to teach it are two separate skills. And understanding how to teach math well doesn’t come naturally.

People who want to be teachers “deserve to learn how to do this work well,” Ball says. “And the children that they teach particularly deserve to have those teachers taught.”

Teaching resident Grace Tesfae (left) working with students at Cesar Chavez Academy High School in Detroit. The classroom teacher, Cortney Kosmala-Jackson, is on the right.
Teaching resident Grace Tesfae (left) working with students at Cesar Chavez Academy High School in Detroit. The classroom teacher, Cortney Kosmala-Jackson, is on the right. (Emily Hanford/American RadioWorks)

Professionalizing Teaching

Ball and her colleagues at the University of Michigan have started treating teacher preparation like any other profession. That means identifying the core set of skills, techniques and knowledge required by an entry-level employee in that field. To be a plumber, for example, one needs to know how to vent a sanitary drainage system. To be a pilot, one needs to know how to do a crosswind approach and landing. And one would have to prove one can do these things to get licensed.

“This is true primarily at least across occupations and professions where people’s safety is at risk,” Ball says. “And I do think it’s of great concern that we don’t as a culture appear to think that children are at risk when we don’t execute that same kind of responsibility” when it comes to training teachers.

There’s a lot of resistance to the idea of defining a core set of skills and knowledge that teachers should know before they start teaching, Ball says. It goes back to the belief that the ability to teach is a personal trait, dependent on individual style and talent. But Ball isn’t advocating that teachers give up their personality. She’s just trying to ensure every new teacher has the right skills for the job.

High-leverage teaching practices

About 10 years ago, Ball and her colleagues at the University of Michigan decided to try to identify what that core set of teaching would look like.

Tim Boerst, chair of the Elementary Teacher Education program, says the question they asked themselves was this:

“When a teacher goes out into the field, what are they routinely going to be needing to do? And how are those routines, those particular practices, really important in the learning of students? Because there are all kinds of things that teachers routinely do. Which are the ones that we’re going to be picking that we really think advance the learning of academic subject matter?”

They got a bunch of teachers and researchers together and came up with a list of the things they thought all beginning teachers should know how to do. Their list had 84 things on it. That was clearly too many. They needed a set of skills they could actually teach in their two-year program, so they whittled their list down to 19 skills and gave them a name: high-leverage teaching practices.

The list includes skills like these:

  • Leading a whole-class discussion. “In instructionally productive discussions, the teacher and a wide range of students contribute orally, listen actively, and respond to and learn from others’ contributions.”
  • Designing a sequence of lessons toward a specific learning goal. “Teachers design and sequence lessons with an eye toward providing opportunities for student inquiry and discovery and include opportunities for students to practice and master foundational concepts and skills before moving on to more advanced ones.”
  • Eliciting and interpreting individual students’ thinking. “To do this effectively, a teacher draws out a student’s thinking through carefully chosen questions and tasks and considers and checks alternative interpretations of the student’s ideas and methods.”
  • Analyzing instruction for the purpose of improving it. “Learning to teach is an ongoing process that requires regular analysis of instruction and its effectiveness.”

Helping Teachers Learn Those Skills

Teaching teachers is particularly difficult because everyone has some experience of either being a student or teaching something informally. And those prior experiences shape ideas about what education should look like.

When a student comes into the teacher preparation program at Michigan, faculty want to know what beliefs and skills students are bringing with them. Professors then tailor the curriculum to focus on the things students don’t know. They also work hard to help pre-service teachers unlearn habits or beliefs they picked up from their own years as children in school that are not productive ways to help kids learn.

To figure out what incoming students already know about teaching, Michigan faculty asks them do a role-playing exercise where they actually do some teaching. The pre-service teachers are given a piece of paper with a math problem on it. The paper also includes an answer. Here’s one of the problems the Michigan students are given, with an answer a student might actually have given.

ARW Math Problem

The Michigan students get a few minutes to look at the problem. Then they sit down with a graduate student or professor who plays the role of the kid who came up with the answer 83. The pre-service teacher’s goal is to find out what the student did to produce that answer, and why. The entire teaching moment is recorded on video.

The point of this simulation is to see how well the Michigan student can elicit and interpret student thinking. That’s one of the high-leverage practices, and it’s hard to do. Even if the pre-service teacher can figure out what the student did, it’s really hard to leave space for the student to explain his or her own thinking.

Often, rather than eliciting the kid’s thinking, the “teacher” tells the kid what she thinks the kid was thinking, says Boerst. He calls it “filling in student thinking.”

“And that happens in classrooms all the time,” he says. “Teachers make assumptions about what kids are thinking. Kids don’t really know how to say otherwise or maybe aren’t inclined to say otherwise. Like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I was thinking 'cause I don’t really want to say what I was thinking.’”

Boerst says this can lead teachers to think kids understand the material when they don’t.

By watching and coding these simulated assessments, Boerst and his colleagues have found that half of the students coming into the elementary teacher prep program at Michigan do this “filling in of student thinking.”

Teaching students out of this habit is one of the goals of the Michigan teacher prep program. But just reading or talking about the fact that you shouldn’t do this as a teacher isn’t enough, says Boerst. People have to practice doing it a different way.

Anna Arias and Betsy Davis, instructors in the Elementary Teacher Education program, watch video of their students practicing teaching, in the Brandon Center at the University of Michigan.
Anna Arias and Betsy Davis, instructors in the Elementary Teacher Education program, watch video of their students practicing teaching, in the Brandon Center at the University of Michigan. (Emily Hanford/American RadioWorks)

Teacher preparation in the United States hasn’t been focused enough on practice, says Ball. Traditionally, students in teacher prep programs spend a lot of time reading and talking about teaching.

“The assignments in the past were much more reflection, analysis,” Ball says. “In some sense, we could have been misled by people getting good grades for writing well. And, although it may sound a little too extreme, I think we’re more interested now in whether they can do it well, not how well they can talk about it.”

At Michigan, students are continually recording themselves as they practice teaching, and then watching the video and analyzing it. When teachers encounter a difficult moment in the classroom, like a misconception that they aren’t sure how to debunk, they have a tendency to just get through it and try not to think about it again.

“Many of us have had that experience of, ‘OK, phew, that’s over, I don’t have to do it again,' ” says Betsy Davis, a professor in the elementary education program. That’s exactly what Michigan is trying to train its pre-service teachers not to do. Instead, the program tries to instill reflection for the purpose of improvement into everything, especially mistakes.

“By having the interns watch their own video of their teaching really carefully, they see things or they hear themselves saying things that don’t make sense or that are missed opportunities,” says Davis. “And that’s one of the things we ask them to highlight in their videos: What did you miss the chance to do that if you were doing this over you would do?”

A New Approach to Student Teaching

But is all this video recording necessary when most teacher preparation programs include a student teaching component? Many people expect student-teachers will learn practical skills from the veteran educators with whom they are paired.

The problem with pinning all the practical experience on student teaching is that the quality of those experiences varies widely. Even more shocking, data collected in the mid-2000s showed that more than 20 percent of first-year teachers had no student teaching experience at all. Forty-two percent of science teachers did no student teaching.

Remember Jasmine Bankhead, the student teacher who was left alone in the classroom on her very first day? That’s not so uncommon. Student teachers are either given too much responsibility, or they’re not given enough; they make copies or do recess duty. Or they just sit and watch the teacher teach. They might see really effective teaching, and they might not.

All of these things were happening when students at Michigan went out into the field for their student teaching experience. It was always a scramble to find classrooms to send them to. There was no consistency. Students “were actually starting to pick up some negative practices from the field,” says Elizabeth Moje, an associate dean at the Michigan School of Education who helps oversee the student teaching program.

Moje wanted her students to see teachers who were really good at things like eliciting student thinking and leading class discussions. She needed a way to send only students to observe teachers the university knew were very effective. So that’s what they did.

Now, rather than sending the students out to dozens of schools all over the Detroit metropolitan area, Michigan rotates its students in groups to just a few different classrooms in a few different schools. It’s similar to the way medical students rotate through different specialties during their training. There’s a lot Michigan has borrowed from the medical field. In fact, all the pre-service teachers are now called interns.

When interns visit classrooms, they check in with the teacher and then work in small groups or one-on-one with students. A Michigan adviser is also in the class, observing as interns work with students. If one of the interns struggles, the advisor can jump in with real-time feedback.

For example, in a discussion about the causes of the Civil War, one intern repeatedly asked questions hoping to solicit a particular response from the middle school students that just wasn’t coming. There were lots of awkward pauses as the intern waited for the kids to pick up on his train of thought.

Adviser Rebecca Gadd was observing. When the intern had tried a few different questions with no luck, she stopped the discussion and pulled the intern aside to give him some tips.

“OK, so what I would suspect is that the way that this is explained is a little bit abstract,” she says, referring to the reading assignment.

“So you need to think, are you going to ask or are you going to explain?” She recommends that he stop asking the students questions because they clearly missed the point in the reading. It’s time to explain it to them. Just tell them what you want them to know.

Gadd is a former middle school teacher. She wishes her training had included this kind of guided practice. Teachers can go through their entire training -- their entire careers even -- without anyone taking them aside and offering in-the-moment feedback. She says Michigan got the idea for doing this from medical training.

“When aspiring doctors are practicing with patients, medical educators don’t wait until they’ve killed the patient to intervene and say, ‘You should have done this differently,' ” she says. “Instead, they intervene in the moment and say, ‘OK, we need to be doing this.' ”

Lucien Gerondeau, a student in the Secondary Teacher Education program at the University of Michigan. Behind him is Elizabeth Moje, a professor and associate dean.
Lucien Gerondeau, a student in the Secondary Teacher Education program at the University of Michigan. Behind him is Elizabeth Moje, a professor and associate dean. (Emily Hanford/American RadioWorks)

Becoming a Teacher

Michigan students in the secondary teacher education program spend two semesters in classrooms, observing and working with kids one-on-one or in groups. The idea is a gradual assumption of responsibility.

They don’t actually do what most people think of as student teaching until their third semester. That’s when they’re promoted from intern to resident, and they actually get to take charge and teach the class.

Grace Tesfae is in her semester-long residency, getting ready to graduate from Michigan in a few months. She’s excited about having her own classroom, but also scared to be on her own. “I feel like I’ll be ready when the time comes,” Tesfae says, sounding a bit uncertain.

Michigan doesn’t have much data yet on whether the new approach is working. It’s not even clear what kind of data would provide a meaningful measure of what Michigan is trying to do. They could look at test scores of students in their graduates’ classrooms. That would tell them something. But Michigan wants to know if its teachers can do things like elicit and interpret student thinking and lead class discussions. Test scores don’t tell you that.

Michigan does have its interns repeat the simulation they did at the beginning of the program, where they tried to figure out how a kid was thinking while solving a math problem. By the end of their first year in the program, most interns are no longer filling in, rather than eliciting, a student’s thinking. The Michigan interns show progress on other elements of the 19 high-leverage teaching practices, too.

Deborah Ball admits that those 19 practices are just a first bet for changing teacher education. “These aren’t necessarily the end, but they are the best bets we had,” Ball said. "And we have to have a systematic way of revising those.”

Bottom line though, from Ball’s point of view, is that the teaching profession needs to come to some kind of common understanding about the skills that are required to enter the profession. And just like plumbers and pilots, new teachers should have to demonstrate they have these skills.

Students, faculty and guests gather at the University of Michigan School of Education for "Grand Rounds," where they present and discuss issues in their teaching practice much the same way doctors present and discuss issues in their medical practice.
Students, faculty and guests gather at the University of Michigan School of Education for "Grand Rounds," where they present and discuss issues in their teaching practice much the same way doctors present and discuss issues in their medical practice. (Suzanne Pekow/American RadioWorks)

Ball has started an organization to try to develop new licensing assessments for people who want to be teachers and to work with teacher preparation programs across the country to develop common approaches to professional training. It’s a big job. The U.S. Department of Education projects that by 2020, the United States will need nearly 430,000 new teachers a year.

Ball’s ultimate goal is to make sure every first–year teacher in the United States is what she calls “a well-started beginner.” That’s what she and her colleagues are aiming for at Michigan.

“We’re really eyeing the first year, honestly,” she says. “Really, the goal is that kids wouldn’t have first-year teachers who are completely underprepared, that it wouldn’t be true anymore that you could just end up with a teacher who, this is her year to have a wreck year.”

Ball feels particular urgency about this question because in the United States, it’s poor kids who are most likely to get first-year teachers. Ball says that to improve education for all kids, and especially for poor kids, first-year teachers have to be much better prepared.


Emily Hanford is an education correspondent for American RadioWorks, the national documentary unit of American Public Media. Check out the American RadioWorks website for a more in-depth version of this article. You can also read other articles about teacher learning and listen to the accompanying radio documentary program. American RadioWorks hosts a weekly education podcast available here

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