Poems By and For Teachers: What Teachers Make (Taylor Mali)

The following brief resume is taken from Taylor Mali’s website:

Mali is a vocal advocate of teachers and the nobility of teaching, having himself spent nine years in the classroom teaching everything from English and history to math and S.A.T. test preparation. He has performed and lectured for teachers all over the world, and his 12-year long Quest for One Thousand Teachers, completed in April of 2012, helped create 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion, and perseverance,” an achievement Mali commemorated by donating 12″ of his hair to the American Cancer Society.

Mali is the author most recently of “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” (Putnam 2012)….


What Teachers Make

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-­‐kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-­‐ feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.

Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?

You can watch Taylor Mali recite his poem on YouTube.


Kevin Hodgson, an elementary school teacher in Southampton (MA) had this to say about the poem:

A few times a year, I play poker with a group of lawyers, businss owners, federal government employees and software developers. No long ago, one of them turned to me and asked: “So, what’s it like to be a public school teacher?”

The question was asked innocently enough, but the emphasis on “public” and the unspoken meaning–“Why would anyone be a public school teacher?” –thre me off balance. I would have loved to have had the wit of poet Taylor Mali and launched into a ferocious comeback worthy of his poem “What Teachers Make.”

I didn’t.

Instead, I gave a passionate defense of the impact I have on the lives of young people every single day and then proceeded to win a few rounds of cards. Still, I could hear Mali’s poem ringing in my ear.

I’ve shared Mali’s poem with other educators in many professional development sessions, and I’ve given the poem as a gift to colleagues. With it defiant tone, the poem becomes a token of solidarity, and I am reminded of a quote from Charlie Parker that I use as a tagline for my blog: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” The poem resonates with a similar message: as educators, we need to be proud of what we do and boldly confront misconceptions that surround us.

It’s almost as important as the work we do each and every day in the classroom.*


*Both the poem and Hodgson’s remarks come from Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner (Eds.) Teaching with Heart: Poetry That Speaks To The Courage To Teach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), pp. 18-20


September 9, 2014 · 6:46 am

Arguing Over What Public Schools Should Do?*

“Why do people argue so much about education?”

I heard this question as I pumped up Mt. Hamilton. Biking up a California mountain forces you to think about many things or else you note how goofy you are for taking five hours to climb nineteen miles just to eat peanut butter sandwiches in the parking lot of the James Lick Observatory. So two friends and I chat about biking, the panoramas of the Santa Clara valley and, yes, even education.

About halfway up the mountain my friends and I began talking about the constant disagreement over schools. Victor mentioned the uproar over whether a high school should provide condoms to students. Deborah remembered a conversation with an aunt who was a “creationist.” They knew I was an educator and this led to Deborah’s question: “Why do people argue so much about education?” Let me pick up the conversation as we passed a sign that said five miles to the top.

“There’s a lot of agreement among Americans,” I said. “Most folks believe that kids have to learn the basic skills,” I paused for some breath. “They want kids to know the humanities, sciences, and arts. They want their children to be prepared for college and getting a job. And most people believe that computers help kids learn more.”

Victor said: “OK, let’s say you’re right about the agreement but what about those controversial issues we just talked about? They show less consensus and more dissensus.” I liked how Victor could use those 50-cent words.

“Well, you’re right. Even with all of the agreement, there are serious differences among people about purposes of schooling.” I took a quick breath and said: “Many people want orderly schools where kids study academics, do well on tests, and get into college.”

Victor said that they had those schools when he grew up. I said: “Fine, but there are other people who want schools to help kids become independent thinkers  who will use their minds and hearts to live full lives while working with others to build a better, more democratic society.”

Victor turned and looked at my face to see if I was joking. “Do you have anything else in that water bottle? Those are beautiful sentiments but are there people who think schools can do that with kids?” Before I could answer, Deborah said to Victor: “I do.”

Deborah said she had gone to a middle school where teachers and students worked in teams on projects that included math, science, writing, and social studies. For one project the class worked with elderly poor people in a neighborhood facility. She read the newspaper to an old man who had no children. In school, they studied what the town and state did for the elderly and the problems they have. She marveled at how much she recalled from those experiences.

We stopped for a break two miles from the summit but the conversation continued. While I munched on carrot sticks, Deborah recalled class discussions about whether euthanasia was right or wrong. She wrote short stories and even had one published in the school newspaper; for the first time math made sense to her because teachers made sure that every project–including learning about the elderly-blended math with other content. What she remembered best, as we resumed our last pull to the top, were the teachers and friends she had made that year. She wanted her kids to go to that kind of school.

No one interrupted Deborah’s recollections. When she had finished, Victor said: “Deborah, your school was really different than mine but I’m not sure I would like my kids to go to that kind of school. It sounds too loose.” He continued, “I want a school that is a real school where they teach you what you have to know to get the right job or get you into college. It is nice to help out old people and have discussions but that’s not what schools are about.”

As Deborah started to protest, I said: “Hey, look, here we are finally reaching the top of the mountain on a beautiful day and we are arguing about which schools are good for kids. Don’t you see,” I said, “that there is no right answer here. There is no one best purpose for public schools. There is no one best system of schooling. There is no one best way of teaching or learning. People are going to disagree because their values differ.”

As I sat in front of the planetarium soaking up the sun, I continued. “That’s why parental choice keeps coming up over and over. That’s why many districts offer kids different programs. Both purposes are attractive to different people. Too few educators and public officials, however, lay out these differences in purposes and then try to seek the best of both.” And that,” I ended, “is why schools have been a battleground.” There was an awkward silence. As I got back on my bike I knew that this conversation was over. The discussion had gotten me up the mountain but it gave us no neat answers to a puzzling question. And on that swift, beautiful descent down Mt. Hamilton I thought about other things.


*An earlier version of this post appeared November 25, 2009


Filed under Reforming schools

The Book That Got Teaching Right (Samuel Freedman)


Samuel G. Freedman has authored seven books one of which is Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School. He is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker.  This piece was published September 1, 2014.

In the course of a few decades, I became separated from my copy of “Up the Down Staircase,” Bel Kaufman’s classic novel about a New York City schoolteacher. So after Kaufman died, in July, at the age of a hundred and three, I felt compelled to reread the book. I called up my neighborhood Barnes & Noble to reserve a copy. Considering the stunning popularity “Up the Down Staircase” had enjoyed—it spent sixty-four weeks on the best-seller list after its release, in 1965, inspired a popular film adaptation in 1967, and ultimately sold more than six million copies—I assumed that the coverage of Kaufman’s death had renewed interest in the book, and that copies would be selling out.


Instead, very much to my surprise, the Barnes & Noble clerk informed me that “Up the Down Staircase” was out of print. Unconvinced, I checked several online booksellers, and, sure enough, no current edition was available. So I grabbed a copy from the library, and as I plunged into it I realized just how sadly appropriate it was that the book had fallen into obsolescence What place can there be for a book about the large struggles and little glories of a teacher, at a time when teacher bashing has become a major strain, even the dominant strain, of what passes for “education reform.”

There is no small amount of autobiography in “Up the Down Staircase.” Kaufman was the granddaughter of the renowned Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, whose Tevye stories inspired “Fiddler on the Roof.” She came to America as a twelve-year-old immigrant from Russia, and, like many Jewish immigrants, she used public school as a ladder of upward mobility and Americanization. And, like so many Jewish women of her era, she then became a teacher herself. She ultimately spent about thirty years in New York’s public schools, and those experiences deeply informed “Up the Down Staircase.”


Kaufman’s story centers upon Sylvia Barrett, a first-year teacher at a massive public high school named after Calvin Coolidge. At its most straightforward level, the book follows Barrett through one semester, as she learns her own craft through trial and error, and gives up a job offer from an élite private school in order to stay at overcrowded, underfunded Coolidge, where she is so desperately needed. Yet Kaufman composed the book in an almost presciently postmodern style, largely assembling her story through an accretion of found objects: bureaucratic circulars, homework assignments, wastebasket contents, doodles, and interoffice memos among teachers.

Though Sylvia is unmistakably the story’s heroine, Kaufman was no sentimentalist. Coolidge High has dropouts, runaways, mind-numbing rules, a lunchroom riot, intimations of heroin use out in the neighborhood. Sylvia’s students are reading, she estimates, at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. When she pours her attention into a brutish boy with some intellectual talent, he misreads the gesture as a come-on and very nearly rapes her. Another of Sylvia’s students, a sixteen-year-old girl, tries to commit suicide after the male teacher whom she adores returns a love letter she wrote him, line-edited as if it were a term paper. Sylvia’s nickname for her assistant principal is Admiral Ass, and some of her colleagues, she writes, are “the bitter, the misguided, the failures from other fields,” who “find in the school system an excuse or a refuge.”

I have spent a good part of my journalistic career writing about education, which has involved going into schools and seeing teachers teach. To revisit “Up the Down Staircase” was to find myself in a recognizable and deeply truthful place. And to follow Sylvia Barrett on her exhausting and exhilarating trajectory was to see, in fictional form, many of the teachers I have admired for doing their valiant work in obscurity, at best, and amid societal contempt and scapegoating, at worst.

One reason “Up the Down Staircase” has aged so well has to do with the particular moment in which its story is set. Kaufman’s own teaching career coincided with a golden age in public education, and it was a golden age for some largely ignored reasons. Public schools were only expected to send a small fraction of students on to college. Congress’s restriction of immigration in 1924, not fully lifted until 1965, gave schools two generations to acculturate and assimilate newcomers. The horrific job market during the Great Depression, combined with commonplace sexism of the day, filled public-school faculties with overqualified educators, many of them women with no other career options apart from nursing.

At Coolidge High, though, the ground is beginning to shift. One of Kaufman’s characters is a black student sent there as part of an integration plan. Several others are Puerto Rican. Even before the urban upheavals of the nineteen-sixties, the relaxing of immigration laws, and the white flight from big cities and urban public schools, Kaufman was able to register and record the tremors of change. And she fully grasped the thankless position of the teachers left to impart knowledge and instill citizenship in the face of awesome obstacles.

Around the same time that “Up the Down Staircase” was published, New York City was convulsed by a battle over community control of public schools. The struggle reached its apogee between 1967 and 1968, with the installation of a black governing board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, its dismissal of several dozen white teachers, and a series of citywide teachers’ strikes in response. In retrospect, one of the most significant aspects of the controversy over “decentralization,” as community control was formally called, was how it fostered the idea of teachers as the enemy. Decentralization was the product of an alliance between organizations run by liberal élites, such as the Ford Foundation, and low-income black and Puerto Rican communities. This created a pincer effect, with middle-class white teachers and principals portrayed, from both above and below, as the problem. They didn’t live where they taught; they didn’t care.

The race-baiting element of teacher bashing has subsided over the years, as many nonwhites have gone into teaching. But the alliance against teachers remains intact, and, if anything, it has grown stronger.  Today, the élites are not only foundations but also hedge-fund philanthropists and politicians from both parties. Teachers’ unions are routinely portrayed not as legitimate stakeholders but as nefarious special interests. The mass firing of teachers—whether in Central Falls, Rhode Island, or by Michelle Rhee during her reign as schools chancellor in Washington, D.C.—are widely hailed as an overdue cleansing of the Augean stables. Hurricane Katrina provided a convenient excuse for getting rid of virtually the entire teaching and administrative staff of New Orleans’s public schools.

The antipathy toward teachers is often expressed through extolling the exceptional ones. In the nineteen-eighties, that meant books and films and TV shows about Jaime Escalante and Marva Collins. In the current moment, it means valorizing Teach For America participants, who commit only two years to the job. And it means, as in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” believing that charter schools are the answer precisely because they aren’t in the devious hands of teachers’ unions and career educators. After I finished reading my library copy of “Up the Down Staircase,” I discovered that it is also available as an e-book. So I can only hope that the download generation will discover it. Kaufman did not write a period piece; she wrote the most enduring account we have of teachers’ lives—not naïve, not exculpatory, but empathetic and aware. Early in the book, Sylvia writes, in a letter to a college classmate who is living in the suburbs:

“I’m told that Calvin Coolidge is not unique; it’s as average as any metropolitan school can be. There are many schools worse than this (the official phrase is ‘problem-area schools for the lower socioeconomic groups’) and a few better ones. Kids with an aptitude in a trade can go to vocational high schools; kids with outstanding talents in math, science, drama, dance, music, or art can attend special high schools which require entrance exams or auditions; kids with emotional problems or difficulties in learning are sent to the ‘600 schools.’ But the great majority, the ordinary kids, find themselves in Calvin Coolidge or its reasonable facsimile. And so do the teachers.”


Filed under how teachers teach


In the recent film “The Robot & Frank,” an elderly Dad, played by the fine actor Frank Langella, is slipping into dementia so his adult son and daughter debate how best to help him out: get him into an assisted care facility, says daughter. Get him a domestic robot, a caregiver that cooks, cleans up and converses with Frank, says son.

Son wins and brings a robot to his Dad’s home to start care-giving. The sharp tensions between Frank and the mechanical caregiver dissolve as Frank realizes that he can resume his previous career as a cat burglar with the aid of the robot. So with this comedic story-line dominating the film, the serious moments of Frank realizing that he will no longer be the person he was—-Langella captures those emotions without saying a word–are lost. Thus, what could have been an insightful film, a study of the crushing  consequences of dementia on a person and family get twisted in the writers’  failure to decide whether they were doing a comedy or serious film.

But that film is not the point of this post.

The point is that while there are tasks that robots can do to help infirm elderly, ill patients, and students the connection between a machine and human being cannot replicate the fundamental cognitive and emotional bonds between humans that sustains caregiving, doctor-patient and teacher-student relationships.

And robo-caregivers, robo-doctors, and robo-teachers have surely entered the world of elderly care, medicine, and education.
































Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sherry Turkle, has written often about machine-human interactions in articles and books (see here). She has raised questions about robots as caregivers and was called by one writer a “technology skeptic.” She responded in a letter to the editor in the New York Times.

I had written that after a 72-year-old woman named Miriam interacted with a robot called Paro, Miriam “found comfort when she confided in her Paro.”

But I still believe that robots are inappropriate as caregivers for the elderly or for children. The robots proposed as “caring machines” fool us into thinking they care about us. Maintaining eye contact, remembering our names, responding to verbal cues — these are things that robots do to simulate care and understanding.

So, Miriam — a woman who had lost a child — was trying to make sense of her loss with a machine that had no understanding or experience of a human life. That robot put on a good show. And we’re vulnerable: People experience even pretend empathy as the real thing. But robots can’t empathize. They don’t face death or know life. So when this woman took comfort in her robot companion, I didn’t find it amazing. I felt we had abandoned Miriam.

Being part of this scene was one of the most wrenching moments in my years of research on sociable robotics. There were so many people there to help, but we all stood back, outsourcing the thing we do best — understanding each other, taking care of each other.

Now consider robots and teaching. There are tasks that robots can do to help teachers teach and children learn (see here, here, here, and here). But these tasks, as important as they may be in helping out homebound students or grading simple five-paragraph essays, such tasks and others do not add up to what is the core of teaching: the emotional and cognitive bonds that grow over time between teachers and students and are the basis for learning not only what is taught in the classroom but also learning close and personal–beg pardon for using an outdated word– the virtues (trustworthiness, respect, fairness, reliability, loyalty) of  character. And, yes, the flip side of those virtues can be learned from a few teachers as well. That is the personal side of teaching that “social robotics” cannot capture. In short, teaching is far more that seeing children and youth as brains on sticks.

David Kirp, professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, made a similar point in a recent op-ed piece.

Every successful educational initiative of which I’m aware aims at strengthening personal bonds ….. The best [schools] …  create intimate worlds where students become explorers and attentive adults are close at hand…. The process of teaching and learning is an intimate act that neither computers nor markets can hope to replicate. Small wonder, then, that the business model hasn’t worked in reforming the schools — there is simply no substitute for the personal element.




Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

A College Professor Teaches History in High School

Not a “man bites dog” media story for sure, but university professors who willingly choose to teach at a high school for a semester or a year, well, that does cause a few heads to turn. Previous posts I have published (see here for a math professor and here for an education professor) raise similar issues to what this history professor learned by teaching for a semester at Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh (PA).

I have now been at Allderdice for five months, long enough to see sharp differences between high school and university teaching situations. From the very beginning the sharpest contrast has been in the physical environment and pace. Allderdice crowds into one building 3,200 students while [my university] has about 1,400 spread over 80 acres. The only room available at Allderdice for quiet study is a chemistry storeroom. At [my university] I share an
offiice the size of the men teachers’ room at Allderdice, with one colleague.

Moreover, nothing is leisurely at Allderdice. Clerical chores, opening exercises, and hurried conferences with students and colleagues crowd the hour between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. The five-minute break between classes is far too short to reinvigorate a teacher. Lunch half-hour is a race upstairs in the midst of a throng of students, a contest for a place at the head of the line, a few minutes respite in a crowded cafeteria where masses of students sit within eyesight, and
another dash to oPen the classroom before chaos erupts in the hallway.

Since January, I have been teaching six classes a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in order to be free to teach and observe at other schools on Tuesday and Thursday while my three Allderdice colleagues take my classes. By seventh Period on these crowded days, I teach poorly,
my energy dissipated, and my nerves worn thin. How my colleagues stand a similar pace year after year I do not understand.

My schedule-and the schedule of regular high school teachers-gives me far too little time to see students individually. Sixth period is usually crowded with appointments l can never talk to students over coffee, a happy pursuit which probably occupies far too much of my time at [the university]. Like many of my colleagues at Allderdice, I am unable to give students the individual attention they deserve, except by writing lengthy comments on their essay examinations
and other papers. When will citizens and school boards give teachers time to teach properly ?

If it were not for the excitement of the AP program, the constant stimulation from five colleagues who are teaching AP history in three high schools, and the sharp analytical minds of the 160 students I see one to three times a week, there would be very little intellectual stimulation in my high school job. Except during hectic lunch periods, there is no time to chat with colleagues from other departments.

Historians at [my university] will be surprised to learn that I miss department meetings where we frequently become involved in long discussions I find a half-hour to write and do research only late at night after-pdraeyp,a rations are ready for the next and I miss conversation with
colleagues who are carrying on similar research. High school, therefore, seems much less the free market place in ideas I had come to know at [my university], and opportunities for creative growth and development are not as great, except as one grows as a teacher.

Nor are teachers in high school accorded the considerations as professional people which we know in universities. They are required to be clerks, truant officers, and policemen. Books are chosen for them, and courses of studv are usually  Planned by others, although, of course, every teacher has numerous opportunities to develop original methods of presentation if he wishes to do so.

Frequent interruptions disrupt one class after another. Fire drills, air raid alerts, messages from the office, telephone calls, students distributing
bulletins, early dismissals-there seems no limit io the imaginations of people who disturb teachers. I can remember no occasion in the last five years when anyone has interrupted one of my classes at [the university]. Perhaps these conditions account largely for a significant difference in attitude which I find on the part of a larger percentage of my high school than of my college colleagues. Most of them admit to doing minimal work and to approaching teaching as a job rather than as a cteative intellectual experience. I do not believe that pay differentials account for this attitude….
Far more important, it seems to me, is the fact that high school teachers are unable because of their heavy teaching loads and the burden of their other tasks to do an esthetically satisfying job, except at great personal sacrifice. Many become discouraged, particularly if they are of less than average capability. But despite many handicaps, my high school colleagues are far better at some jobs than college professors.

High school teachers pay far more attention to their students as developing human beings than we do in the universities. One teacher after another has been able to supply me with details about a student’s personal problems and family background which have been most helpful. The counselors, principal, and vice principal, at least at Allderdice, seem to know every child in the school personally and to help them over innumerable hurdles. In coilege, we are more likely to let a student sink or swim unless he is in really serious trouble. Finally, high school instructors teach current events with great skill, while we tend to ignore them in the classroom.

My students at Allderdice are more fun to teach than their counterparts at [university].  Of course, I have only very able history students at Allderdice while many of our mathematical wizards [in the university] have somewhat more limited verbal skills. Ability differences, however, are not the heart of the matter. The more significant difference is that most of my high school students are hungry for intellectual stimulation. They are anxious to examine historical issues in the light of evidence, and they respond eagerly when challenged with a knotty problem of historical interpretation. Moreover, they seem more willing to express personal opinions and to put their opinions to the test of evidence than many college students. The false sophistication which marks many college freshmen and sophomores seems entirely-and happily-absent.

I have also been impressed by the relative intellectual sophistication of high school students. The 60 I know best at Ailderdice are remarkably well read and constantly make reference to leisure reading during class  discussions. They assimilate new ideas with great speed and often have remarkable insights into historical personalities. We are not tapping the potential abilities which lie dormant in many of our high school students. We cannot tap them fully, except in special instances where teachers have the privileges which we enjoy in the AP program, until society makes teaching a true profession offering opportunities to do an esthetically and intellectually satisfying job.

I shall be forever grateful to [my university], the Pittsburgh public schools, The Ford and Mellon Foundations, and my colleagues and the students at
Allderdice for making this year possible. I shall never again teach as poorly as I did before this exciting experience in the public schools. I shall never agaln be as free with my criticisms of public school teachers and courses of study. Nor shall I ever again accepl the argument that little can be done. Endless opportunities for improving course offerings and methods of teaching present themselves daily. I hope to continue to explore these opportunities with my new friends on high school faculties-that is if I survive until June 23!

Ted Fenton taught the first Advanced Placement history courses offered to Allderdice students in 1959-1960. He published this article in the Pennsylvania School Journal (May 1960). He was then at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) and taught for one semester. Within a few years, he and other academics passionate about improving high school social studies launched a movement then called the “New Social Studies” following on the heels of the New Math, New Biology, New Physics, etc.

What struck me about the article published in 1960 is Fenton’s  comparisons of university and high school teaching loads, working conditions, and climate of learning that existed in both places then. More than a half-century later, what Fenton wrote describes accurately, in my opinion, what occurs in many high schools today.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Building Better Teachers—-Mastering the craft demands time to collaborate—just what American schools don’t provide (Sara Mosle)

Sara Mosle, who teaches writing at Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark, N.J., has written about education for The New York Times, Slate, and other publications. This appeared Aug 13 2014 at:  Atlantic Online


Teaching dwarfs every other profession that requires a college degree. Nationwide, 3.7 million schoolteachers serve grades K–12—more than all the doctors, lawyers, and engineers in the country combined. Teacher shortages, once chronic, abated during the recession, when layoffs were widespread, but will soon return with a vengeance. Fully half of all teachers are Baby Boomers on the brink of retirement. Among novice teachers, who constitute an increasingly large proportion of the remaining workforce, between 40 and 50 percent typically quit within just five years, citing job dissatisfaction or more-alluring prospects. Given this drain at both ends of the teaching pipeline, schools will likely need to hire more than 3 million new teachers by 2020. That is an enormous talent hole to fill.

Yet the United States has, if anything, too many teacher-training programs. Each year, some 1,400 of them indiscriminately churn out twice as many graduates as schools can use. Program quality varies widely, so many would-be teachers don’t suit schools’ needs. In a scathing 2006 report, Arthur Levine, a former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, accused many education schools of being little more than a “cash cow” for their hosting institution. Among the problems he highlighted were exceedingly “low admission standards,” a “curriculum in disarray,” and faculties “disconnected” from the realities of the classroom.

Once hired, many teachers are left to sink or swim. In recent years, several states have adopted controversial accountability measures, known as “value added” metrics, with a view toward winnowing out poor performers who haven’t produced student improvement on standardized tests; helping teachers hone their craft has seldom made it onto the agenda. But perhaps we’re finally ready to focus attention on the far bigger and more important question of how to attract and retain the top teachers we want.

This spring, the Obama administration announced plans to begin rating teacher-training programs. Consensus on what makes an effective teacher, however, remains elusive. Student achievement does not correlate strongly with teachers’ years of experience in the classroom (beyond the initial few) or with the caliber of their preparation—whether they have acquired certification, earned a master’s degree in education, or aced state licensing exams. Even particular personality traits, such as an extroverted willingness to ham it up in the classroom, appear irrelevant. The conundrum doesn’t daunt Elizabeth Green, a co-founder of GothamSchools (a news Web site originally devoted to covering New York City schools that has recently expanded to other cities and been rechristened Chalkbeat). Her book, Building a Better Teacher, couldn’t be better timed.

At the heart of Green’s exploration is a powerfully simple idea: that teaching is not some mystical talent but a set of best practices that can be codified and learned through extensive hands-on coaching, self-scrutiny, and collaboration. Yet her account suggests that implementing this vision may entail a bigger transformation than she quite realizes.

Green begins by profiling an array of educators who have been inspired by Deborah Ball, now the dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. In the early 1980s, she was a charismatic math teacher in East Lansing, Michigan, who developed a successful approach to teaching even very young children sophisticated concepts in math. Instead of relying on rote memorization or repetitive skills practice, Ball shepherded children through in-depth discussions of a single mathematical conjecture—for example, do two odd integers always add up to an even number? The students, steered along by their teacher, deliberated together to derive proofs for their various hypotheses. Some of the most exhilarating parts of Green’s book are the detailed descriptions of precisely how, and why, these lessons succeed. Ball helped other teachers adopt her techniques not through the usual education-school lectures, but through rigorous apprenticeship: mutual observation of lessons, followed by intensive dissection of what worked and what didn’t.

Green likens the approach to the Japanese practice of jugyokenkyu. “Lesson study” is the main form of teacher training in Japan, where colleagues routinely sit in on one another’s classes and then scrutinize a single session for hours, extracting general guidance for future instruction. Japan substantially outperforms America in math on international tests, and Green clearly believes jugyokenkyu is a crucial factor in the country’s success. She recounts how some of Ball’s ideas were adopted by the state of California in the mid-1980s but never had a chance to catch on: Teachers were expected to absorb the new policies, outlined in a state “manifesto,” and then revamp lesson plans on their own, with little or no training or ongoing support. Some educators didn’t even see the guidelines—all but ensuring the reforms would fail. The rollout of the Common Core State Standards appears to be replicating this dispiriting pattern in many places.

At first, Green decides that Teach for America and some charter-school leaders are now following in Ball’s and Japan’s footsteps—albeit with plenty of stumbling. She focuses on Doug Lemov, an entrepreneurial-minded educator who started a charter school in Boston in the mid-1990s and later became a managing director and teacher trainer with the Uncommon Schools charter network. As part of his job, he began compiling an inventory of effective teaching techniques. The taxonomy became a book, Teach Like a Champion, and a cause célèbre within the charter movement; videos of sample lessons circulated like samizdat literature. There’s technique No. 2, “Right Is Right”: teachers refuse to accept students’ half-baked responses to questions and insist on well-formulated, and eventually correct, replies. Technique No. 32 is “SLANT,” which stands for “Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head, and Track the speaker,” a formula for eliciting attention from students. But the motions of following a lesson, Green soon discovers, aren’t necessarily a sign of genuine engagement.

The taxonomy includes plenty of useful, even commonsense, advice. Yet Green reveals how, in practice, Lemov’s early acolytes in the charter world became obsessed with a disciplinary approach that dictated no talking in hallways, silent lunches, and skyrocketing suspensions for even minor infractions. What at first appeared to be a huge success—Lemov’s school initially posted impressive test scores—turns out to be a more complicated story. Green finds that out of some 55 students who started at the school in seventh grade, only 11 made it to their senior year, an astounding rate of attrition. A later class began with 100 sixth-grade students and was winnowed to 30 by graduation.

Japanese “lesson study,” she observes, was premised on the notion that “children needed structured opportunities to talk in order to learn.” Lemov banked on a rather different principle: that “learning first required the foundational ability to be quiet and listen.” As Green concludes, Lemov had built a vocabulary that Deborah Ball might admire for describing precisely what teachers should do in the classroom, but applied it to “a sort of teaching that she didnt do.” Green ends up saluting Ball and Japan for getting the balance between classroom discipline and student engagement right.

But Green’s account cries out for a look at the bigger picture. She is absolutely correct about the importance of self-critical reflection and collaboration. What she is not the first, or I’m sure the last, to miss are the structural obstacles to importing such an apprentice-style ethos into American teachers’ experience. As it happens, an administrator introduced lesson study as part of the staff’s professional development at a school where I’ve worked. There was just one problem: we teachers—juggling tutoring before and after school, supervising clubs, or coaching sports—had only one period a week to meet as a group. It would be generous to say lesson study didn’t work; it never got off the ground. There typically isn’t time in American teachers’ workdays for this kind of collaborative enterprise.

That lack of time is an American anomaly, and it is key. Since 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has been overseeing tests of 15-year-olds every three years among its members. The PISA exams, as they’re called, show that American students’ performance is barely above average in reading and trails substantially in math. The tests also record other information about classroom instruction around the world, and American researchers, policy makers, and pundits have pored over the results for clues to improving our schools. For example, the United States falls roughly in the middle of the pack when it comes to class size. Countries with far larger classes than we have, such as South Korea, outperform us. So do countries, like Finland, with smaller ones. Not surprisingly, some reformers have concluded that reduced class size isn’t the secret to student success.

But class size is a crude measure of a more important, encompassing concept that is worth attending to: teacher workload. How much time do teachers spend on classroom instruction, and how much time do they have outside of class to devote to the other considerable, less visible aspects of the job: lesson planning, paper grading, conferring with students, calling parents, meeting with colleagues to discuss methods and goals. Here, the PISA results are not ambiguous. Every single country that outperforms us has significantly smaller teacher workloads. Indeed, on the scale of time devoted by teachers to in-class instruction annually, the United States is off the charts. We spend far more hours in the classroom on average, twice and nearly three times more in some cases, than teachers in any other OECD country save Chile. Finnish high-school teachers, for example, clock 553 hours in the classroom each year. In Japan, home of jugyokenkyu, that number is 500. In the U.S., it’s 1,051. (Figures for elementary and middle school show roughly the same skew.)

In practice, this means that most teachers in this country have zero time to work together on new pedagogical approaches and share feedback in the way Green advocates in her book. They rarely have an opportunity to watch other teachers teach, the single best kind of training, in my experience; they’re too busy in their own classrooms (not to mention outside them).

A big problem with American education, in other words, is how we conceive of the job. Green is right: there’s much about teaching that isn’t instinctive, and as her book usefully shows, learning how to perfect the art is demanding. It is high time to correct a common misimpression: teaching isn’t the relatively leisurely occupation many people imagine, enviously invoking a nine-to-three school day and long summer vacations, which in reality seldom exist. We think of no other white-collar profession in terms of a single dimension of job performance. We don’t, for example, regard lawyers as “working” only during the hours they’re actually presenting a case before a judge; we recognize the amount of preparation and subsequent review that goes into such moments. If teaching is such a plum post, we might ask ourselves why attrition rates are so high.

In closing, Green decides to teach a lesson herself and is thrilled to find that it goes well, thanks to so many of the techniques she learned in her reporting—and, it’s worth noting, thanks to plenty of planning. She recounts spending hours getting ready for this one lesson, selecting readings, conferring with a seasoned teacher, and rehearsing how she would present the material to the class. All this, and she wasn’t grading a single paper or speaking to parents or meeting individually with students. Such work constitutes a large portion of what teachers do each day. It’s why the job, done right, is so hard and burns teachers out so fast.

The goal isn’t to lighten teachers’ load but to redistribute it. At one point, Deborah Ball remarks that what she loves about teaching is that it is so hard—by which she means intellectually challenging and rewarding. Teaching is all-consuming, and that absorption is part of the joy of the job. But if teaching is to be a profession of the mind (as well as of the heart) that retains top talent and delivers results on the same level that other countries boast, the people who spend hours with our children in the classroom also need what they currently don’t get: the hours with peers and mentors that are essential to improving their craft.




Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct

School reformers now (and in the past) are (and have been) divided among themselves. So often, they seek similar goals–students who are literate, can think clearly, have requisite skills and knowledge to enter and finish college or start a career,  and  contribute to the larger community– but split over which of the goals should have precedence and how to achieve the ones they prize.





















Reformers fighting among themselves, of course, is hardly new.  For generations, traditionalists have fought progressives over the purposes of schooling, what content and skills had to be taught, how teachers should teach, and how students should learn. Whether it was the 1890s, 1960s, or the 1980s, ruptures between school reformers occurred again and again (see here, here, and here). And so it is today over how best to educate poor white and minority children, whether Common Core state standards are a boon or bane, and do charter schools help or hinder children and youth.

Yet whether school reforms come from the political right, center, or left championing  particular changes often leads the most well-intentioned of reformers to commit mistakes again and again. It is those repeated mistakes, generation after generation, that have been so obvious to historians, lay observers, and critics that I turn to now.

Charles Payne included in his book, So Much Reform, So Little Change, a “School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct.” He did so because he and other researchers ( I include myself), have had direct experience with each item in the Pledge. This device of a constructed Pledge seeks to alert wannabe reformers and active policymakers who authorize changes to think first, consider what else has been done, and not repeat the errors of the past:

Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct

I will not overpromise.

I will not disrespect teachers.

I will not do anything behind the principal’s back.

I will not take part in any partisan or personal feuds.

I will not equate disagreement with “resistance.”

I will not put down other programs.

I will not expect change overnight.

I will take time to study the history of reforms similar to mine.

I will not try to scale up prematurely.

If I am not in the field myself, I will take seriously what field workers tell me.

I will give school people realistic estimates of how much time and money it takes to implement my program.

U.S. and international readers who have either participated in reforms or been the target of planned changes will nod their heads in agreement with one or more of these statements. Each reader may have his or her favorite part of the Pledge backed-up with a story to illustrate the folly reform-driven policymakers engage in when they plow ahead in mandating classroom changes.

While I agree with each item of the Pledge (and can offer additions as well), a few favorites are:

I will not disrespect teachers.

I will take time to study the history of reforms similar to mine.

If I am not in the field myself, I will take seriously what field workers tell me.

Much of my professional life has been devoted to teaching, writing, and researching  how policies get translated (or not) into classroom practice. And the inventory of errors and miscalculations that policymakers have made in formulating, adopting, and putting into practice the reform du jour.

If anything, I have focused a great deal on the importance of teacher involvement in making and implementing policy. David Tyack and I have written in Tinkering toward Utopia (pp. 134-142) about the crucial importance of teachers being seriously involved in thinking through and adapting school and classroom reforms directed at classroom teaching. We have argued that policymakers, past and present, too often have ignored what teachers think and do and have used a top-down, outside-in strategy to improve teaching and learning. Tyack and I have advocated an inside-out strategy to school reform–be it Common Core standards, buying and deploying new technologies, or restructuring low performing schools–where policymakers respect and involve teachers while creating the conditions that will help teachers implement desired reforms.

Listening and working with teachers to create and implement changes in classrooms will hardly rid the nation of current struggles between traditionalists and progressives over the degree to which public schools should serve the nation’s economic interests. Those battles, nay, even wars, mirror the deeper conflicts, past and present, over the purposes schools serve in a capitalist-driven democracy. The voices and experiences of teachers have been largely ignored in this recent thirty-year top-down, outside-in effort to make public schools an arm of the economy. To make lasting changes in teaching and learning, reform-driven policymakers have to figure out an inside-out strategy where teachers, the very people who put policy into practice, are working allies, not uninvolved enemies.






Filed under school reform policies