Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

Three Ways We Can All Become Better Teachers

I talk with Elizabeth Green, author of Building a Better Teacher

When we think of a teacher, we often think of our childhoods and desks, and the person at the head of the classroom.  But in many ways all of us are teachers in so many aspects of everyday life.  Whenever we want to educate someone about something, or help them understand our perspective or point of view, drawing from the craft of teaching can be helpful.  Teaching, after all, is about communication.

In Building a Better Teacher, Elizabeth Green draws upon years of interviews and research as an education writer and CEO of Chalkbeat to make the case for why teaching is a craft and that it can be taught to anyone.  Her excellent book should be read for a detailed account of the history of teacher education, an international context, and an entertaining narrative.  Here, I have distilled a few core insights from Elizabeth that each of us can use in learning to become a better teacher both inside and outside the classroom.

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First, recognize there are no “natural born” teachers

Elizabeth writes: “Even those charged with training teachers—the ones who, by definition, should believe teaching can be taught—believe the natural-born-teacher narrative.”  For example, Sylvia Gist, dean of Education at Chicago State University told her “I think that there is an innate drive or innate ability for teaching.”  Research shows that expertise in various areas takes time to develop (e.g, the famous 10,000 hour rule).  There are also likely some differences in talents between various people in the teaching profession to begin with.  However, she is right to emphasize that teaching is a craft and the focus on innate talents might take away from the striving and incremental work needed to get better.  As she told me: “There is almost always an important training component required.  You can’t expect people to learn that on their own.”

Next, focus on a “learning culture” rather than any “best practice”

The way to get better may stem from the Japanese concept of jugyokenkyu – or the constant process of trial, error, and improvement.  Elizabeth told me: “Teachers do their craft in a community of peers.  Americans believe in a demonstration of greatness, or a best practice that everyone else should try to emulate, whereas the Japanese believe in the lesson study model which puts every aspect of teaching under the microscope as an inherently imperfect thing and engages the teaching community in a conversation on what can be better.  Teaching is always under a constant process of experimentation and improvement.”  She also noted that as a journalist and CEO she applies these techniques in her work because journalism is a form of teaching.  There is always the “instructional triangle of teacher, student, and the thing being taught.”

Elizabeth Green
Finally, learn to look at your “student” with love in your heart

Near the end of her book, she steps into the classroom to experience what being a teacher is really like.  And she learned that teaching is really about empathy.  She told me: “You have to have real empathy for your students as human beings.  I’ve applied that to my work as a manager and to my human relationships outside of work too.  I’ve had to force myself not to think about how things affected me but how it affected her.  I call it mind reading—whether it is academic or otherwise you have to imagine what is going on in that person’s head.  You have to remember all the steps that were invisible to you at the time you were learning to get there.  Parents, teachers, and really all of us, are sometimes unable to push aside our own emotional reaction and try to understand what the other person is feeling.”  She gave examples of how you might storm out of a meeting, or shut the door on your child, or scream at your partner simply because you failed to try to put yourself in their shoes.  Educating, after all, is first about understanding and about genuine care towards the person you are trying to teach.  It’s about learning to look at your student with “love in your heart.”

© 2014 by Jonathan Wai

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Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

 
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