When I began teaching 24 years ago, all I had was an Ivy League education and a case of Michelob, both courtesy of my parents. I’m not complaining. They were both handy. The beer endeared me to my new roommates, three guys who taught at the same school. As for the degree, if pressed, I could translate Baudelaire. And I knew enough about British and American literature to feel confident that I could succeed at the high school English position I’d signed on for.
Very quickly I realized I was in over my head. Hired straight from college through the Alternate Route, I’d had no training. I knew how to analyze poetry, but I didn’t know how to manage a class, much less engage 30 students in an intellectual discussion about Shakespeare’s sonnets. I turned to my roommates, but they were of little help. One taught shop, another was too swamped with his AP History lessons and grading to help me, and the third–a science teacher–announced proudly one night at dinner that he’d mapped out all of his quizzes and tests for the year and had no intention of ever deviating from that schedule, whether the kids were ready or not. I didn’t know much, but that struck me as a little rigid.
That fall, in my first month of teaching, I lost 15 pounds. Owing to its reliance on Oodles o’ Noodles and sleep deprivation, this isn’t a diet I would recommend. For 20 days, I was observed every single period by the superintendent, the assistant superintendent, the principal, the Humanities Department chairwoman, and another English teacher. In this tiny affluent district, the administrators clearly had too much time on their hands. Meanwhile I stayed up till midnight every night to write lesson plans and grade papers. The assistant superintendent used my planning period every day to chide me for not planning enough. One day she asked, “Do you really want to teach?” and I replied, “Yes,” without thinking. Had I thought about it, I probably would’ve said, “No,” and maybe a few other things, as well.
For those first 20 days, I was required to carry a four-inch blue binder from class to class, handing it over to these people who would take notes on my performance. The principal often dozed off in my class, and no matter what I did, he wrote, “Closure???” every day. If he felt particularly alert, he would add extra question marks.
The assistant superintendent frowned through every lesson. One day when she left the room for a few minutes, the students asked me in a panic, “Why is she watching us? What is she so mad about?” I explained that she was watching me and that they shouldn’t take it personally that she didn’t laugh at my jokes. Then she returned to the room and—I found out later when I read her notes—resumed counting the number of times I said “OK.” The next period, I handed the binder to the Humanities Department chair, who duly noted that some of my students were chewing gum.
The English teacher—a quiet, thoughtful, patient man—wrote sympathetic notes about what he sometimes did if his students behaved like my students. He held me up with gentle hands. He understood how hard I was trying.
The good news is that I made it through that year and many more. I learned a TON along the way. But a lot of it was through trial and error (mostly error), and as I look back, it didn’t have to be so difficult. Effective teaching involves strategies and techniques that you can learn and practice. But you need to know what they are.
That is why I’m so pleased that Doug Lemov is on the planet. His book, TEACH LIKE A CHAMPION: 49 TECHNIQUES THAT PUT STUDENTS ON THE PATH TO COLLEGE, will save many teachers–rookies and even more experienced teachers–from the agony that I went through. The techniques he describes are practical and proven, and if you teach, they will make your life easier and help your students achieve at higher levels. Many high-performing schools (e.g., Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First) are already using them, to great effect.
If you’re an educator and you haven’t read this yet, you need to. And if you’re not an educator, buy it for a friend who is. I can almost guarantee you’ll be thanked with a beer.
***BONUS NOTE FOR EDUCATORS: Here’s a link to more information about Doug’s work.