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August 05, 2014

Elizabeth Green spent the past five years researching what makes a teacher effective. (Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company)

Summer is winding down, which means teachers across New England are preparing for the upcoming school year, from creating lesson plans to creating course materials. But how prepared these new teachers are largely depends on how they've been taught to teach. Elizabeth Green, the author of Building a Better Teacher, has spent the past five years researching what makes a teacher effective, and whether those skills can be taught. Green recently sat down with WGBH's On Campus to discuss her new book.

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Interview Highlights:

Carapezza: Many of us had that one great teacher that saved our lives. I was lucky enough to have several. Did you ever have one of those teachers?

Green: Yes, I had several too. And it was actually one of my teachers that set me on my life path to become a journalist. His name was Mr. Mathwin.

Carapezza: What was it about Mr. Mathwin?

Green: I think like with a lot of great teachers, from the outside it looked like it was charisma and personality. He had all these funny quirks that we thought were hilarious. He always ate soy nuts before that was even a thing that anyone did. He made us do this race to the top of the stairs, it was this crazy competition we loved. But when I began to really study what makes a great teacher, I realized that all those personality quirks of Mr. Mathwin's were not the things that made him life-changing. It was really the very careful, methodical ways that he structured our learning opportunities, so that he could really start from where we understood and then take us to a further place.

Carapezza: How can great teaching be taught to millions of teachers across America at scale?

Green: That's the big question. All the evidence suggests that we're not doing it right now, but it is possible. There are a few things that are really important that just don't happen today. One of them is that we have this culture of privacy in schools. One teacher I spoke to told me that his first mentor told him that teaching is the second most private act, you definitely do not want to be caught watching someone else do it. Teachers operate with a closed door unfortunately. So that's one of the barriers to having a culture of learning. Second you have to have time to do it. In other countries, the time teachers spend in front of students is just about 600 hours a year or less. In the U.S. it's about two times that. So that leaves very little time for them to think about what they're doing, go see someone else do it and learn and get better.

Carapezza:. What are some of the other skills that those young aspiring teachers should develop in order to be effective?

Green: There is an art and a science to leading a classroom discussion. It's not the students who are doing that work, it's the teacher. They're doing it by carefully planning.

Carapezza:. Why do you think that kind of practice, that level of debate in a classroom, is so rare?

Green: I think it's rare because it's really hard to do. It's totally possible if you're taught how to do it. But take me, for example. I tried to teach. I value that kind of discussion. When I did this session with a teacher in New York City Public Schools, we had two lessons planned. We had planned for there to be a discussion, I tried it, it was an absolute disaster. So the next lesson, what did I do? I gave up. So what's really necessary is just simple training.

Carapezza: How should schools address this problem?

Green: Focus on teaching as a craft. I went to the Boston Teacher Residency and I sat with the futures teachers in training as they did practice session where their colleagues played the role of students and they played the role of teachers and they practiced these very micro-granular skills. For instance, walking between the rows of students while they work on a problem. That's a very tiny little slice of teaching, but you need to practice that. You need someone to give you feedback on what you could have done better in this specific moment, with this specific student. So if programs, if schools, focus on that - teach teaching as a craft - this is totally possible.

Last year, three Massachusetts teacher training programs received poor grades in a national report adding fuel to the debate on how to teach America's school kids. The report was issued by the National Council on Teacher Quality and was highly critical of how colleges and universities are training the next generation of teachers: 

higher education, new business models, college, elizabeth green, teaching

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