Reading Elizabeth Green’s “Building a Better Teacher” in The New York Times Magazine this weekend, I was encouraged at the ideas explored for helping those in the teaching profession become even better at what they do. As Green’s article notes, so much of the recent conversations about human capital in education among reformers have been around the pipeline – getting talent into our classrooms – and getting ineffective teachers out. But as she highlights, there is much that individuals can learn to make them more effective when they step in front of their students – and much that is not a part of the deliberate preparation regime for the vast majority of individuals who enter this profession.
I was struck that underlying both Lemov’s Taxonomy and Ball’s Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching is the recognition that an effective teacher can – and must – learn how to respond to the actual human beings sitting in their classrooms. Lemov’s techniques demonstrate there are behavioral, engagement-oriented signs that teachers can look for in students, and specific strategies they can employ based on what students are doing. These are not 49 one-liners that teachers can use to develop a routine that they perform for students. Similarly, Ball’s finding that content expertise is important – but deep content understanding alone does not a great teacher make – underscores that effective teaching involves observing the mistakes – the struggles – of students grappling with a subject, and drawing on an understanding of how students learn a subject in order to adjust explanations, examples, and practice.
In medicine and other fields, we would talk about this as professional judgment – the ability to draw on deep subject knowledge, the learned ability to observe and diagnose, and wisdom derived from practice (your own and others’) to produce the best outcomes for the person you are working with.
Here’s hoping that these important ideas continue to become a growing part of how we think about and define effective teachers – and that forward-thinking policymakers will accordingly recognize the absolutely crucial role of high-quality professional development to help us build the teaching force our students need and deserve.