A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 03 2010

1 Plus and 1 Delta on Teach Like a Champion

The second of my five “core” classroom posters (how education pays; The 3 Rs: Be Responsible, Respectful, and Responsive; our class’ “Big Goal”; our motto, “Work Hard…Get Bright!”; and a guiding principle, “Don’t be afraid to take risks or make mistakes!”) had fallen off the wall when I entered the classroom yesterday morning.  Perhaps this is attributable to the summer heat that has slowly begun to engulf the District.  More aptly, it is a physical symbol of the mood I’m in, the mood my students are in, and the mood my entire school is in—we’re tired, and we’re dragging.

At times like these—when our school’s daily attendance hovers at 50%, when teachers are anticipating the summer break as much as the students who have already chosen to begin theirs, when students roam the halls as if they had already begun their summer odysseys–it’s hard to maintain the focus that is required to end the year on a strong note.  Time brandishes its knife and pops the tire in the schoolbus, bringing it to a standstill.  Each period becomes a century and each day becomes a millennium. Where, o where, is summer?

I’ll be the first to admit that, right now, I want to be lazy (“with a great big valise full of books to read where it’s peaceful”).  This attitude has leaked into my blog habits.  I have posted less frequently and with less focus.  So I’ve decided to go through a reinvigoration process by writing a follow-up to my first post on Doug Lemov and Teach Like a Champion.


One can reasonably infer that I am a huge fan of Doug Lemov and the techniques he espouses in his new book.  Rather than bore you with an in-depth review or summary, though, I’m going to use my TFA skills and focus on one “+” (strength) and one “?” (change/area for growth).


What is most revolutionary—yet so mundane when one thinks about it—is that Doug Lemov actually went out and spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours observing teachers in order to figure out what great teachers did to be great.  In doing so, he answered the following question: what specific teacher techniques actually lead to results (read: student achievement)?

By focusing so heartily on the empirical evidence of classroom observations and analyzing this evidence with such a scrutinizing eye, Lemov has breathed fresh air into the teacher training world.  No longer do we as educators need to think solely about the armchair philosopher’s theories of education.  Lemov shows us that we can actually look in the classroom and analyze the patterns of behavior that create effective outcomes.  In other words, we can ground our ideas about great teaching in the reality of the classroom.

These practical observations are in turn supported by the erudite theories that Lemov weaves into his book.  In fact, this is actually the real strength that I am focusing on.  Any person with a lot of time and access to classrooms could put together a string of observations and publish a book with a descriptive breakdown of what good teachers do.  But that wouldn’t be enough. Teach Like a Champion isn’t simply a catalog of observations about great teaching.  It’s that plus the theory behind why and how these teachers make the magic happen.  I’m not going to say much more about the theories Lemov provides behind teacher techniques.  All that needs to be said is that, if you are reading this right now, you are someone who should read this book.


One area for growth concerns the “universality” of the book.  I noticed from the accompanying DVD clips that most of the classrooms featured were from those super high-performing charter schools (KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First).  So, in an email to Mr. Lemov, I asked the following questions:

  1. When you conducted your research, roughly what proportion of time did you spend among the different types of schools (mainly: charter vs. regular public; “failing” vs. “successful”)?
  2. What proportion of teachers at failing regular public schools were “great” teachers, as you would define them? (i.e. did you find any?)
  3. What role do you think overall “school culture” (loosely defined) plays in whether a good teacher can become a “great” teacher?
  4. In a future edition of your book, will you place more detailed information about the research that you did (related to questions 1-3)?

I asked these questions because I wanted to make the point that context matters tremendously in becoming a champion teacher.  I mentioned how our school’s average daily attendance is 60%, how a student can set a teacher’s purse on fire and suffer the mildest of consequences, and how students can say the most insulting things towards teachers, administrators and other students without being punished appropriately.  I contrasted the culture at my school with the culture I saw during my visit to the KIPP schools in Gaston, NC and the Uncommon Schools in Brooklyn, NY.  I argued that “while it would be wrong to say that it is impossible for a teacher to execute your 49 techniques in a school with a weak culture, I am confident that it would at least be much more difficult than in, say, an Uncommon Schools school.”

I ended with my hypothesis that “the culture in a teacher’s classroom cannot be separated from the culture of the school at large…that there are few teaching “islands” of “great” teaching in very weak schools.”

Lemov’s response was interesting, to say the least, and more candid than I had expected.  Here is what he shared:

I spent most (but not all of my time) in high performing charters… in part because their results were most accessible; in part because they were most welcoming to me and willing to let me observe and visit and in part because, as you pointed out, high performing SCHOOLS that control and intentionally build their cultures succeed and foster more successful teachers than schools that accept the culture students wish to bring.  So, yes, I think you can survive on an island, but it’s hard and lonely and a little society really helps.

It is clear that Lemov thinks that the school culture and context play important roles in a teacher’s development.  While it is possible to be the “great” teacher alone on an island surrounded by shark-infested waters, life is less nasty, brutish and short if you have others who are on the same page.  If you can build the faculty culture together and set the high bar for performance (academic, behavioral, and otherwise), great teaching–and, transitively, great learning–is going to be easier to come by.

My criticism, then, is not about the fact that Lemov focused too closely on“high performing charters,” since we both agree that this is where one would most likely–and one does, as he has shown–find the “great” teachers with the great techniques outlined in the book. Rather, it is that Lemov doesn’t provide enough of the context behind his research.  I don’t recall any real details about the breakdown of schools he visited and where he ended up finding the “great” teachers.

I just feel that by not explicitly providing this context, teachers who read this book may walk away from their reading chairs with unrealistic expectations of how the techniques might be implemented in their classrooms.  I know that when I watch some of the videos, I become–and I am somewhat ashamed to admit this–depressed.  I feel this way because I know that it will be extremely difficult—dare I say impossible?—to develop a classroom culture in the context of my school’s culture that will look like one of those featured on the DVD.  I realize that the purpose of Lemov’s book isn’t to exactly mimic what great teachers do, nor is it to create replica classrooms. A good teacher takes what s/he can and leaves what s/he can’t in order to move closer to “greatness.”

Perhaps an analysis of where one is more likely to find “great” teachers was out of the scope of Lemov’s first book (i.e. it is simply and purely about great teaching, removed from context).  But, I think the education reform movement would find tremendous value if it began to map out how teachers of different abilities are distributed throughout our nation’s school, whether public or private, charter or non-charter, low-income or high-income, low-performing or high-performing.   Is there a link between the school setting and the quality of the teacher?  And what causes what?  Do great teachers determine the positive overall culture? Or does the culture constrain how good a teacher can be?  If we drop in a teacher “dream team” into a low-performing school should we expect a successful transformation or should we expect that formerly-”great” teachers will become merely “good” teachers in this newer, challenging environment?  These are all questions for which Lemov’s research and countless hours of observation may have answers.


In the email, Mr. Lemov suggested I visit one of the Uncommon Schools schools.  Coincidentally, a fellow DC CM had already inquired about this and had discovered an opportunity for an all-day open house/workshop on “Classroom Culture and Achievement” hosted by Uncommon Schools.  Even though this workshop was planned for a Friday in May, I decided I had to go.

One morning later that week, I sheepishly entered my principal’s office to request permission to attend this session.  I was sheepish because the administration had just chastised the entire staff that week about how teacher absenteeism had been abnormally high (our school is not alone).  Even though we were in the middle of high-stakes testing, many teachers had called in with “illnesses”.  On top of this, we were informed about the current substitute teacher shortage in DC during this time of the year. Put simply, we were urged to be in school every day.  Naturally, I worried that she would shoot down my chance to see (another) one of the best charter schools in the country (I spent part of spring break visiting KIPP schools in North Carolina).  Time is undeniably precious!

To my surprise, my principal approved of my “professional development” leave.  In fact, she asked me for the details.  It turned out that she wanted to come, too!  Unfortunately, our school’s prom conflicted with the day’s events, so she was unable to join me and a few dozen other TFA DC CMs for the fantastic open house opportunity held at two Uncommon Schools campuses in NYC (more to come on this visit later, including multimedia!).

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4 Responses

  1. Catherine

    Hey Mr. K! Thanks for this blog, it’s great! My best friend from college just finished his first year as a CM in New Orleans. I am genuinely inspired by the work that TFA does. I’m halfway through an AmeriCorps program where I serve as a college access advisor just across the river from you in Alexandria. Though we work in different school systems and in different capacities within our schools, it really is nice to see some similarities – I don’t feel so alone! Anyway, thanks for the insight and your thoughts. Also, did you know your blog was linked on The Quick and the Ed yesterday? http://www.quickanded.com/ (you might have been linked before, but this is the first time I saw it!)

    - Catherine

  2. Thanks for your comment, Catherine. Greatly appreciated. Yes, part of the beauty of teaching is that, no matter the context, there are many things that all teachers will experience in the same way. And, yes, I did know that Education Sector was linking to me recently. In fact, I have been invited to attend and contribute to one of their upcoming education policy panels at the end of the month. I’m, to say the least, excited.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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