Harry and Rosemary Wong met at a teacher’s conference in Dallas in 1976. Harry was the keynote speaker. Rosemary brought a copy of Good Housekeeping in case the speaker was boring. Fortunately, she didn’t need it. At a boxed-chicken dinner held after the event, Harry offered Rosemary his apple. She got so flustered that she left. (She later discovered Harry is allergic to fresh fruit.)
Harry and Rosemary reconnected after the event over their shared love of food. “When I was hired by a school district in the New Orleans area to do a presentation, I contacted Rosemary [who is from New Orleans] and asked her if she would like to attend a dinner with the officials from this school district and if she would select a restaurant,” says Harry. “Since then, we have been selecting restaurants all over the world.”
The Wongs have been married for 35 years. They say “it is a marriage made in heaven.” It is also an inspirational partnership between two educators that has brought us The First Days of School, which sold 4 million copies, THE Classroom Management Book, and countless professional articles.
Q | What is your background?
A | We are classroom teachers. [Harry taught high school science and Rosemary taught elementary and middle school]. We both have doctorate degrees, but more important, we have spent much of our life studying the research [on education] and writing about and working with teachers on what is needed to create an effective teacher. We don’t spend time on the latest program or fad. We have spoken with over a million people and delight in helping teachers be more effective through our presentations and our writings.
Q | What are the challenges of working together and being married?
A | A teacher at one of our presentations came up to us at the break and asked, “You two have been married for 35 years and it’s working. I can’t even keep my marriage together for 35 days. What is your secret?” The secret sauce is that we share everything. We have adjoining offices with no door. We see each other 24/7. We even have a kitchen that allows both of us to cook simultaneously. Our other passions are restaurants, Broadway shows, and expedition travel. We do all of our presentations together, and we have written seven books and over 150 professional articles. [Harry creates the initial work and Rosemary finishes with additional text, graphics, editing, and formatting.] The division of labor works perfectly.
Q | Tell us about the focus of your work.
A | Our passion is teaching teachers how to be effective. The research is very specific that the only way to improve student achievement is by teaching effectively. Of course, a well-managed classroom will reduce behavior problems, but more important, the more effective the teacher, the more the students will learn. There are three characteristics of effective teaching: 1) classroom management; 2) lesson mastery; and 3) positive expectations—all backed by 50 years of research. Even though we are best known for classroom management, our focus is really lesson mastery because the research states that a teacher who learns how to teach a lesson effectively can raise student achievement two years in one year. But a teacher can’t teach in a classroom that is chaotic. Classroom management is the foundation for effective teaching.
The better organized the classroom, the fewer the discipline problems, but more important, the better the learning environment and the better the opportunity for student achievement to take place.
Q | What is the research basis for your work?
A | As students ourselves, we are always looking to what the research says will produce the most positive results in the classroom. We were following many of these practices in our classrooms with positive results. The research validated our classroom experiences and reassured us to be steadfast in our practices.
For well over 75 years, hundreds of educators have researched and written on effective teaching. Our experience started with the book Looking in Classrooms, written by Thomas Good and Jere Brophy, who came to the conclusion that effective teachers know how to implement the three characteristics of effective teaching. Since the 1970s, hundreds of educators, including ourselves, have replicated that work. The research says to have an organized plan.
[Effective] teachers are proactive, having a plan to prevent problems, as opposed to teachers who are reactive. Reactive teachers, because they do not have an organized management and instructional plan, stop the lesson constantly to scold, correct, and coerce students to compliance. In THE Classroom Management Book, we emphasize the importance of how proactive teachers prevent chaos and establish a predictive, consistent environment.
Q | Why is consistency crucial?
A | People like to know what is going to happen. They like consistency. We have our favorite stores and restaurants because they are consistent. People do not like uncertainty. Businesses that are successful know this and work on consistency. Scholastic Teacher is consistent! When they open the magazine, readers know what to expect—vibrant color, “how-to” stories, and reviews. Likewise, successful classrooms are consistent. When consistency is created, students always know what is going to happen in class, even to the point of taking over the class in the teacher’s absence. When classes are consistent, students will say, “I like coming to school because everyone knows what to do. No one yells at me and I can get on with learning.”
Q | Much of your advice stems from your own experiences as teachers. How do you make sure that your work is applicable to a wide variety of teachers, including those who teach special needs students?
A | Organization is universal. Stores are organized. Restaurants are organized. Airlines are organized. Effective classrooms are organized, and it makes no difference what and where the classroom is. All effective classrooms have procedures that organize the classroom. For instance, having an opening assignment when the students come to class is a universal procedure. Special needs students especially want consistency. More than any other group of students, special education students need structure—a consistent set of procedures and daily routines to make the classroom familiar and non-threatening.
Q | What is your advocacy in education?
A | We are new-teacher advocates. We help school districts that have new-teacher induction programs. The great majority of districts do not have a new-teacher induction program. New teachers are just thrown into a classroom to sink or survive, and if any help is given, they are given a mentor who may not be qualified or available. We have taught school districts how to create a multi-year induction program that is comprehensive (many coaches and classes), coherent (where the people and parts work together), and sustained (it continues for many years after the first year). Every business trains their new workers, and the training continues until the employee leaves the company. But sadly, not in education, which is why we continue to advocate for new-teacher training and support. For an example of what we have done, read teachers.net/wong/APR15.
Q | Tell us about your school in Cambodia.
A | We were in Ethiopia when a woman showed us pictures of four schools she and her brother had built in Cambodia. We were so transfixed by the pictures of the children that we inquired about the process of our building one, too. The land was donated by the government, and the school is located five hours from one of the two major cities in Cambodia, in the jungle, where no school had ever been built. This was in 2008, and it started with about 125 students in grades K-6. Today, there are over 400 students in grades K-8, and some of the students have gone on to a high school that is not ours but we fund their housing and food. It is our plan to give any of our girls who graduate from high school a scholarship to attend any college in Cambodia. You can see our school at FDSFoundation.org.
Q | Who or what has inspired you through the years?
A | Initially, we just did presentations, and the presentations led to our book, as people asked for the information we were speaking about. Soon, we began to receive one letter after another that would say things like, “I was going to walk out of my teaching contract ten years ago. I went home in tears feeling like a dismal failure. Nothing was working until I devoured The First Days of School book, and within a few years, I was Teacher-of-the-Year!” (from Jennifer Bergeron of Houma, Louisiana). The result of helping people has been our greatest inspiration.
Q | What advice would you pass on to teachers new to the profession?
A | Professionally: Listen and learn. When you meet someone you do not know, get that person to tell you as much as [he or she] is willing to share with you. What you hear may not apply to anything happening in the moment, but years later, that tidbit that you stored away will come together with all of your stored information and create new meaning for you.
Personally: Have confidence in your ability as an educator. Practice positive expectations on yourself. Your level of poise and sureness can be read by others. Put practices into place believing in their success. And if something doesn’t work, create a new way, but always with the belief that the next time it will work. Learn from each failure to create a new success. Thomas Edison failed more than 1,000 times creating the lightbulb. When asked about it, Edison allegedly said, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a lightbulb.”
In life: The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others: devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning. You can be anyone you want to be if you work at being an effective teacher. It’s not what you have done. It’s what you do from here on out.
Q | Is there anything that you would like to add?
A | Good teachers, effective teachers, matter much more than particular programs, fads, and approaches. Programs do not teach; teachers teach.
Researcher after researcher has written to this point, which is exactly how education is run in Singapore, Finland, Poland, Korea, and all the education programs in the world. They focus on teaching effective lessons to students by being effective teachers. America is the only nation where we ignore effective teaching and focus on jumping from one program and fad to another, constantly looking for the “silver bullet,” when the obvious answer to student success is right under our noses. It is the teacher, the effective teacher. We are very proud to be a part of the noblest of all professions—teachers.
Find more great advice from Harry and Rosemary Wong here.
Photo: Ramin Rahimian