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Administrator Magazine: Leadership
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Doug Lemov spent years observing great teachers.

Teach Technique, Not Strategy

Author Doug Lemov says we need to stop talking about the philosophy of teaching and offer practical advice instead.

Doug Lemov didn't set out to write a book about the teaching craft. As managing director of a group of urban charter public schools, he was just trying to get some answers for his teachers. They were hungry for tips on how to solve problems in the classroom that were getting in the way of engaging kids.

"Many of the questions came from the best teachers. They were painfully aware that even good teaching wasn't sufficient to close the gap for poor kids," says Lemov. "They wanted every tiny thing that could make them better because they saw how high the stakes were and how challenging the task."

So he observed great teachers in action and shared their techniques. As more people asked about his research, he figured he was on to something.

The resulting book, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College, gives teachers practical ideas on how to run a more efficient, inspired, and joyful class. His simple yet powerful techniques help focus kids' attention and squeeze the most learning out of every minute in the classroom. Lemov is founder of School Performance, an Albany-based nonprofit that provides diagnostic assessments, performance data analysis, and academic consulting to high-performing charter schools.

Q Can every teacher learn how to teach like a champion?
A
Emphatically, yes. Great teachers come in every stripe and shape and color and variety. They are extroverts and introverts. They are funny and straightlaced. They are hip to popular culture and out of it. Anyone can be a great teacher. I really believe that. You don't have to be born somebody to change lives. It's a matter of adapting, finding the version of yourself that works.

Q Where do teacher colleges fall short?
A
They teach things that are intellectually rigorous as opposed to practical techniques. I describe a lot of mundane things in the book (such as methods for passing out papers) that many think are not worth talking about, but ironically that's what we should be teaching.

Teaching is a performance profession. You are live. Every other performance profession that I know doesn't call it professional development, they call it practice. Before they get in the game, they practice it over and over again.

Q So you went into the trenches to find practical advice for teachers. Why?
A
I have a fundamental belief that the answer to teaching resides in the classroom. Teaching doesn't have an attracting-people problem, teaching has a keeping-people problem. I want to keep our best people doing this work in the hardest part of the field for the longest possible time. To do that, teachers really have to see that their kids are learning, and see their classroom is an orderly place to do the work they want to do. That's urgent. I love teachers. They do the most important work in the world.

Q You say in the book that great teaching in an art. What do you mean?
A
A common misperception is that I'm saying there is a formula. It's quite the opposite. Yes, there are techniques. But the right technique at the wrong time is as wrong as the wrong technique. Master teachers have a corpus of techniques that they rely on and have a great sense of when to use them. Whenever I do a training, I show a video of three or four teachers using the same technique. I want teachers to understand they have to find a vision of themselves. Most artistic endeavors have fundamental techniques that people tend to overlook. The artistry is in the application.

Q Much of your focus is on efficiency. How vital is it to make the most of the time in the classroom?
A
It seems like such a small issue because time drifts away in seconds here and there, so you never perceive yourself as wasting an entire class period. But it's life and death. There is more we can do with every minute if we are more intentional about it. If there is one thing I want teachers to take way from the book, it is a healthy obsession with time.

Q You also sound like you are trying to inspire teachers to inspire students.
A
There is a certain leap of faith when you step in front of a classroom. You think, I'm going to be inspired by the work and not let cynicism pervade the way I approach kids. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are enthusiastic, the kids will be enthusiastic. If you are pessimistic, it will show up in your students.

The exciting thing about these techniques is that you can see a difference by the end of the day. For example, with the technique "What to Do," it's a shift from saying "don't" all the time to giving clear directions, such as "Turn your body to face me. Bring your legs around. Put them under the desk." It bolsters teachers' faith that they control the classroom and that their decisions matter.

Q Is it possible to implement these techniques without a complete buy-in?
A
I talk a lot in the book about shared vocabulary. One of the greatest powers is peer-to-peer influence of teachers. There is a real benefit to social networking. It helps to have a supportive administration, but I also believe you can make a classroom better if you live on an island.

Q What are your top picks among the techniques in the book?
A
People ask this all the time. I tell teachers to choose two techniques-one you are good at and one you aren't. If you look at a technique that you already do, then focus on getting 20 percent better at that.

In the first five years, new teachers should master:

  • Positive framing—making interventions to correct student behavior in a positive and constructive way
  • Strong voice—commanding the classroom through fewer words, saying things that are worthy of attention, avoiding engaging in other topics, appropriate body language, and quiet power
  • Cold call—calling on students whether or not they raised their hands
  • 100 percent—getting 100 percent of students to follow a direction
  • Do it again—when students fail to complete a basic task you've shown them how to do, doing it again and doing it right is often the best consequence

Q What about the teachers who say they are overworked and don't have time to learn one more thing?
A
That's almost the argument for it. These are things, if you can invest time in them, they can save you time in the end. The payback in time saving in the classroom is huge-you'll get back so much calmness it will make your life more efficient. You deserve to love your work and to have it be rational at the end of the day. Teachers will never be paid like investment bankers. The work will always be hard. You deserve to feel successful and to have your personality shine through in the classroom. We do this for the joy of the material. That is the greatest gift of this: It lets you love your job.

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