The science of great teaching
Now that researchers are studying the secrets of highly effective teaching, parents can use this knowledge to their children's advantage.
The right way to teach
Many of Lemov’s techniques are easily applied to homework help or communicating with teachers:
Cold calling: When teachers call on all kids regardless of hand raising, the entire class is engaged because anyone may be called on anytime. Worried that your kid isn’t engaged in class? Ask your child’s teacher about how he or she chooses who speaks in class.
No opt out: Great teachers don’t allow kids to skip out on participation with a simple “I dunno.” If your child seems to be a non-participator, talk to the teacher about what can be done.
Positive framing: This means correcting students with positive statements — try it with your child when helping with homework. Focus on the present and assume the best of intentions (not laziness or carelessness). Guide your child by offering corrections ("You can do it this way") instead of criticism ("Don’t do it that way").
Right is right: If your child's teacher doesn’t insist on fully correct answers, you can still help your kid understand the idea of a completely accurate answer in conversations and projects. When your child makes a sloppy or less than true comment, ask questions to draw out a more complete and accurate answer.
Ratio: This refers to getting students to do more of the intellectual work as the lesson proceeds. Even though your child’s teacher may not be using this technique, you can try it at home in any situation where you’re teaching your child a new idea. First describe the idea, then talk about it, and gradually move through questioning, helping your kid think it through on their own.
The J factor: Teachers who are able to inject joy into their lessons (not as an aside) — adding unpredictibility, suspense, drama, and humor — are far more likely to open kids to learning and ensure that students remember the material. If your child is struggling, bring levity to the loathed subject matter with a song, dance, or joke.
By Carol Lloyd
“Honey, what are you studying in class this week?”
“That sounds fun.”
“What else is happening?”
“Miss Beal is benching everyone all the time.”
“Oh really? Why?”
So goes those dinner conversations in a million households where parents attempt to pry out details from the hidden lives of their children at school. We parents want to hear about our children’s learning. But if you’re anything like me, there’s an ulterior motive: You’re curious about the teacher. Is she good, bad, or exceptional? Does he hold kids accountable? Does she really know my child?
In my patchwork career, I’ve taught a veritable smorgasbord of topics — from cooking classes for preschoolers to reading remediation for high school dropouts. Brimming with enthusiasm and little else, I’d always assumed I rocked the classroom, never thinking too hard about just how little I thought about teaching.
Then I became a parent, and the usual pageant of educators paraded through our family, leaving thumbprints all over my daughters’ psyches. Teachers, I realized, were the great influencers over the most precious thing in my life: my kids. And just as wonderful teachers suddenly seemed immensely powerful, the dangers of an awful one loomed equally large.
Recent studies bear this out. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek has found that students with a teacher in the top 5% gained a year and a half’s worth of learning, while students with teachers in the bottom 5% learned only half a year’s worth of material. In a study of Tennessee teachers, statistician William Sanders discovered that after three consecutive years, students with low-performing teachers scored 50 percentile points behind similar students with high-performing teachers.
But here’s the rub: Would I really know a great teacher if I saw one?
The parent-teacher trap
How could I know if my daughters’ teachers were worth their union dues? Was it enough for my kids to like their teachers? If my daughters were bored in class, whose fault was it?
A recent experience underscored my difficulty assessing teachers. One of my daughter’s teachers carried out a disciplinary measure the kids referred to as the “walk of shame”: The misbehaving child was forced to walk around the class while the other students glowered and scowled to induce maximal guilt.
This exercise seemed twisted enough to warrant writing a letter of complaint to the school district, which I did to support the more upset parents. But I didn’t storm the principal’s office to get her into another class or even confront the teacher. The irony was that my child — who was never subjected to the walk of shame — seemed to thrive in this class.
Over the years, I’ve realized that I don’t know enough to assess my children’s teachers one way or another. I’ve always gone with my personal taste. I admired the “creative” teachers who wrote operas about space aliens, or the “observant “ones who noticed my kids’ special talents. Then there were those who gave me pause — the one who constantly joked about retiring, the one who confused my daughter’s reading issues with those of her best friend.
But couldn’t my taste in teachers say more about my comfort zone than my children’s learning? What if I were to stop relying on my parental instinct about great and not-so-great teachers? Was there a way to identify the qualities that go into an outstanding educator?