Louisiana Sunshine

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 18 2011

Teach Like a Champion

I am in love. With my birthday gift card, I bought a copy of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. I’m most of the way through, and I’m so excited. I love these techniques, and I love how explicit the book is about what to do and how to do it.

I’ve been teaching college classes for a while now, and I learned how to do it with just about no training. So I figured a lot of stuff out on my own, and I observed other people teach, and had people observe me, and stole ideas and handouts and assignments. And I think I got…good. Not fabulous, but respectable.

But after a few years, I got a little burned out and I definitely plateaued skill-wise, and while I’ve been pretty good about revamping my curriculum and assignments and making sure that the course content and structure is strong (because, honestly, the planning part is kind of my favorite), it’s been a good long while since I’ve put the kind of time and thought and energy into teaching (and what I actually do in the classroom, in particular) that I did when I first started.

But, wow, I have so many ideas now! I’ve been struggling with the post-spring-break slow down and what appears to be early-onset senioritis (I teach juniors) and feeling bitter about the fact that I’m working harder in my class than my students are–but holy crap, it’s totally fixable!

One of the things I’ve been thinking about/noticing as I read this is the ways in which college classroom culture doesn’t really support effective learning.  As I think about how I can adapt some of these techniques to college-level classes, I’ve been struck by how…inappropriate?…some of them feel.  Inappropriate in the sense that I (and I would wager most college instructors/profs) tend to regard my students to a certain degree as autonomous adults.  So while I believe it’s my responsibility to make the material relevant to them and to support their learning, the decision about whether to come to class / apply themselves / do their homework / study is ultimately theirs.  But the way that that sense of their adulthood manifests in the classroom (in mine, anyway) is that beyond some baseline expectations about participation/decorum/respect/attention, I don’t expect (or ask) them to do things like:  sit up straight, keep their feet under their desks, track the speaker.  And it would feel really awkward and wrong  (and maybe condescending?) to ask them to do that.  Because they’re adults, right? and even if you disapprove of how another adult comports him/herself, you don’t really criticize their bearing or carriage unless you’re fixing for a fight.  Or some hurt feelings.

But, since college students are still students and since I am the authority in that room, it’s maybe not as out of bounds as it feels to me.  And I bet it would help the class energy if no one were allowed slump.

(I have lots to say about various other techniques and the bad habits I’ve developed (for example, saying something is “right” when it’s only partly right, which I do ALL THE TIME), but I’ll save that.  Because that’s about me, and I’m fumbling here toward some broader idea about college education.)

So I ended up feeling with a lot of these techniques that they would be incredibly effective, but at the same time feel really out of place in a college classroom.  Because there’s this weird–but I think pervasive–idea that our college students are ready to learn.  That they know what to do and how to behave and how to study and that they’re in charge of their own education, so let’s leave them alone and get busy presenting material.  And, except maybe for freshman, it’s not really the professor’s job to teach them things like study skills or how to take notes or sit up and pay attention in class.  (And even then, many (or most?) universities have dedicated college skills classes, because nobody really thinks that your gen chem professor’s job is to teach you how to take notes.  Or pay attention in class.)

Except if the students don’t know how to do it, shouldn’t we be teaching them?

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t great professors out there who do an amazing job training students to do the kind of thinking/work they they need to.  Because there are.  And they do.  But even for those professors, I’d be willing to bet that there’s a real emotional/conceptual barrier between asking student to follow a precise procedure on an assignment and asking them to always maintain eye contact with the speaker.  Or to take notes in a particular format, or organize their binders in a particular way.  And I bet that barrier exist in all kinds of ways and places — not least of which is that *very* few college professors have been actually taught how to teach in any kind of systematic way and, therefore, like me, have cobbled together a bunch of stuff that more or less works for them.  But imagine how much more everyone would get out of their college experience if the expectations about classroom behavior were more defined and rigorous — if even in a 150-person lecture hall, you couldn’t really tune out and read the paper, because your professor was expecting you to make eye contact with them at all times.

I’m kind of harping on the eye contact/sitting up straight thing b/c it’s such a simple change that I bet would completely alter the energy in the room–but there are all kinds of other techniques that might be really effective but would seem really invasive.  Like greeting students at the door or making them rehearse how to pass out papers or turn in homework.   Those techniques, however, are meant to reduce the amount of class time you spend transitioning and therefore would be incredibly useful in a class that meets for only 2.5 hours per week.

Anyhoo.  That’s a long and rambling post that I’m not *quite* sure I actually got to my point.  But in any case, I’m excited and I plan to spend a chunk of the weekend figuring out how to adapt some of these techniques to my class.

(Cold calling vocabulary words?  I  can totally make that happen.)

Oh, but also this makes me super excited to actually start teaching middle school!  This is part of why I applied to TFA in the first place — I don’t just want to be a good teacher, I want to be a kickass teacher.  And look!  concrete strategies that I can use to make that happen!

4 Responses

  1. Wess

    I really like your thoughts here. What IS a college professor’s job? To present information? To teach? To motivate and inspire? To train? You’ve inspired me to post some of my own thoughts on the subject…

  2. Teach Like a Champion is chock full of executable strategies, and I’m glad you discovered them! Speaking as a recent college grad and current TFA teacher, I just want to add… please set those high expectations for your college students. If some of the strategies in Teach Like a Champion seems to invasive, look into strategies for presenting in business, or giving workshops. I’ve found that the best teachers, make the best presenters in the business context, they know exactly how to manage AND engage.

Post a comment

About this Blog

a Teach For America teacher's blog

South Louisiana
Middle School

Subscribe to this blog (feed)