Chapter 3 of Teaching as leadership is, surprisingly, quite good. Reading it made me even more frustrated about what happened in the first two chapters. It seems like chapter 3 is based on a completely different premise than the first two chapters.
Chapters one and two seem to say, “Here are some practices we’ve found in highly effective teachers. You should try them too.” Though some of the practices are pretty risky (like telling your class that they’re going to have two years of gains or having your students call you every night to talk about homework and share stories about your lives), the potential problems with some of these practices is ignored. There are a few times where the practices of the highly effective teachers are compared to those of ineffective teachers (like where the ineffective teachers give up and complain when they can’t get through to parents on the phone while the highly effective ones walk home with the kids and wait until the parents show up), there is little ‘middle ground’ offered. You can either be ineffective or you can be a highly effective hero.
My main complaint of the first two chapters is that TFA fails to give the new teacher an option, one that could make the teacher a ‘moderately effective’ teacher, for instance maybe some other options for how to contact parents without going through the extreme measure of walking your students home. TFA seems to be saying, “You have a choice: you can be highly effective or ineffective. Choose one.” As a result, the first two chapters are not very useful in guiding a beginning teacher. My concern is that the beginning teacher, by trying to emulate the ‘highly effective’ teachers will spread themselves too thin and become ineffective by trying to do too much. Chapters one and two present oversimplified ideas with few warnings about some of the pitfalls associated with some of the strategies of setting big goals and of investing students and their families.
Chapter 3, ‘Plan Purposefully’ (is ‘purposefully’ a real adverb?) began the way I figured it would with an inspirational vignette about a creative activity for teaching natural selection from a TFA alum and Arizona teacher of the year. Then, a few pages later, I was pleasantly surprised. I got the sense that this chapter was based on a completely different premise than the first two. Suddenly I see suggestions that are not unique to ‘highly effective’ teachers, but are just what ‘moderately effective’ teachers do. A perfect example is their suggested lesson cycle, the five step lesson, made popular in the 1980s by Madeline Hunter. Now, I’m a big fan of the Hunter method for a beginning teacher, but I find it ‘incongruous’ in this book since it is not a lesson cycle for someone who is trying to get 2 or 3 years of gains in one year. I’d expect to see instead a lot about cooperative learning and about discovery learning – techniques that when used by a master can create more gains than the standard lesson structure described here.
What this chapter had that the first two lacked was thoughtful ‘counterpoints.’ For instance, on page 131, Jerry Hauser talks about how he ‘overrelied’ on cooperative learning. “too often working in groups means individual students don’t get as much practice as they need if they’re ultimately going to be able to do the work on their own.” This is the kind of thing new teachers need to hear. Some ideas sound good when they are described in a sentence or two, but unless new teachers know that there are some difficulties associated with a particular strategy, they will not know what traps to watch out for.
Where was this kind of thing in the first two chapters? Why not have a quote from someone in chapter 1 that says “I was too ambitious with my goals at first and it intimidated my students. When I realized this and made my goals more realistic, I had a lot more success.” A sentiment shared by a lot of teachers who make the mistake of having goals that are too big. Why not have in chapter 2 a quote like “One of the toughest thing about maintaining a friendly environment is making sure students know that I was their teacher and not their friend. When I realized that, I backed off a bit and became more professional.”
Chapter 3 is practical and balanced. I just can’t understand how it can be in the same book as the first two chapters. Once they decided that it would be OK to present practical advice that wasn’t necessarily unique to ‘highly effective’ teachers, they could have gone back and added some realism to the first two chapters. They really missed an opportunity to do that. It wouldn’t have been too hard — maybe it would have required adding another 5 or 10 pages.
I was impressed by the ‘backwards design’ explanation for planning units and also liked the idea of making the assessments first so teachers know what they’re trying to accomplish.
I have some issues with the last five pages of the chapter that I want to discuss here, though. I didn’t like the section where ‘Activity-Driven Lessons’ are discouraged. Often after I think of a topic, a good activity comes to mind, and this can precede my examining the learning standards. The problem with the ‘dodge ball’ activity about the American Revolution wasn’t that she made the activity before thinking about the standards. The problem was that it wasn’t much of an activity. You can, after making an activity, analyze if the activity is just a fun thing or if it accomplishes something. If it doesn’t, you have to tweak it or ditch it. Still, it’s not a bad idea to think of an activity right after you think of your topic. Compare to the activity that was described about natural selection in the beginning of the chapter. That was a great activity, and not because the standards were considered first (so she says).
Finally, at the end of the chapter from pages 136 to 137 we see the first mention of the incredibly important topic of classroom management. I skipped ahead to see if there were more mentions of this, and I think there are about 7 more pages in the next chapter, starting on page 161. Now, if I had 100 minutes to tell new teachers the essentials about teaching, 30 minutes would be about classroom management. Without it, it doesn’t matter how big your goals are or how many investment strategies you have or how purposefully you plan. You’ll get nowhere. On 137 they give two bulleted lists. Of the three items on the ‘rules should be’ list, I think the first two contradict each other. For some rules, You can’t phrase them in the positive, as the first bullet says, and also have them clearly stated, as the second bullet says. “No talking during independent work” is a lot more clear than “Be respectful of others.” Your rules can be phrased in the negative if that makes them more clear.
The second bullet on ‘Consequences should be’ encourages teachers to make one of the worst mistakes in all of teaching , “verbal warning.” You’ll have to read some of my older blog entries to see the problem with ‘warnings,’ since it’s something I’ve written about extensively. The short explanation is that when you make ‘verbal warning’ your first consequence (and you promise the students that this will be your first consequence) every student can take advantage of this free pass. Also, I’m not that into the idea that “Every student needs to know where he or she stands in that system at any given moment.” I like things to be a little mysterious when it comes to classroom management.