What I Learned From Teacher School

When I told people I was going to teacher school many of them said something along the lines of "Oh, that's great, you'll make a great teacher!" I never challenged anyone about it — they were just being nice and that's basically what you say to someone who tells you they are going to teacher school — but I always wondered how they would know this, not ever having seen me teach anything. I even wasn't sure that I'd make a great, or good, or even passable teacher — I hadn't seen myself teach anything.

I was talking to someone the other day in the context of jobs about how teaching is one of the bigger intellectual challenges. And although it's been a while since I went to teacher school, and although teaching was something I never went into (through a series of detours along the way), there were a lot of things I learned at teacher school that stuck with me.

One of the best things I learned was that the onus of responsibility for teaching something is on the teacher. Which is to say, if a student isn't understanding something, it's not the student's fault but rather the teacher's responsibility to teach it better. It's a subtle but important distinction, and applies to contexts outside of education.

If you make an argument about something and someone doesn't "get it," then maybe it's less about that person's supposed level of intelligence and you not making a clear enough case. If someone doesn't understand an expectation, maybe it's not so much on them as it is on you for not making that expectation clear enough. If something you say wasn't clear, make it clearer. Etc., etc. It's a good lesson.

During teacher school, I was most fascinated by my psychology class. There is a great deal of study about how the brain works in the context of learning information. Two things that stuck with me in particular are the concepts of "chunking" and the Magical Number Seven.

The Magical Number Seven is easy to understand — basically it says that we only have the capacity to store seven random unrelated items in our short-term memory. We come across this regularly, which is why it has stuck with me, when we see a phone number written down and try to remember it: Say, "382-5968." It's weird but if you add one more digit, you'll probably forget it by the time you get to the phone.

Now you might argue and say that you'll successfully remember a larger string of numbers, and that's true, but it's only because you "chunked" that information into larger bits. So if I tell you that the phone number you need to remember is (718) 382-5968 (and please don't call this number — I just made it up), and you got through without writing it down and you feel excited because maybe you remembered ten items, it's not really the case because you already knew that "718" is the area code for telephones in the four outer-boroughs of New York City, so you "chunked" that bit of information. Your brain just skipped over "718" because it associated those three items (digits) with something else.

I may come back to this post and add other things that I learned that I can't remember right away, because they're all really cool.

When teachers are good, and not just handing out dittoed worksheets, they are like technicians. Part of what seemed overwhelming to me was coming up with lesson plans that were all really tight and awesome. When I entered my teaching program, the instructors — mostly administrators — treated the lesson plan with a great amount of respect. When you read a good lesson plan, you can tell that kids will probably learn something. But remember that many teachers have three or more "preps," meaning three or more different classes to prepare for, and there are basically 180 instructional days during a school year. So as a teacher, you're on the hook for somewhere around 500 or more interesting, awesome, tightly structured and well-thought-out lesson plans. Holy Moly that's a lot of work!

I didn't get the sense that the teachers themselves thought as highly about the lesson plan in particular. They'd do a lot of it intuitively, and over the years the master teachers developed activities that worked, and not every lesson fit into a tightly structured 50-minute time frame. Some school instruction doesn't look like it has a lesson plan, and that's not necessarily a bad thing — kids are still learning — but when you do a lesson plan properly, it's a pretty foolproof format to follow.

The key components of a lesson plan are basically the same no matter how you learn it, and it's interesting as well to see how a lot of writing follows the general idea of a lesson plan — there's an introduction that calls up prior knowledge, there are arguments in the middle, there's a conclusion to make and then there is some sort of exhortation to think about some idea in a different context. Op-ed writing really seems to follow this format.

It's been a while since I've thought about how to write a lesson plan, but if you go over the basic tenets of putting one together, you'll recognize a lot of it and perceive the usefulness of each step. Here's one step-by-step primer that is what I basically remember. It chops up the thing into ten steps, and includes the following main areas: Learning Goal, Resources, Standards, Anticipatory Set, Introduction, Direct Instruction, Guided Instruction, Assessment, Closure and Differentiated Instruction.

So if you were to do a lesson on, say, making a bomb, your lesson would go something like this:

1. Learning Goal: "The student will learn how to make a bomb" — it's coming back to me now that there is a difference between a "goal" and an "objective" — when you watch war coverage you get this, because a "goal" would be to win a war and an "objective" is a clearly definable aim like taking control of a village. In our example, the goal would be to learn how to wreak havoc and the objective would be making the bomb. Or something like that. "Learning goals" or "learning objectives" — "learning" here being an adjective and not a verb — are supposed to be written in clear, active voice. This isn't always followed, either — if you parachuted into a classroom, you might feel like you were teaching if you merely "discussed" something, but a good lesson plan has a clear objective: The student will learn something specific, say, the three factors that contributed to the Civil War. It's a subtle but important distinction.

2. Resources: "In the supplies cabinet in the back of the room, you will find all the items you will need to make your bomb — timers, explosives, etc." Somewhat obvious, but it's also important to make sure you have all the materials you need at hand.

3. Standards: This was a new category for me, and seems to be a worthwhile "step" to figure into the mix, especially now that schools and classrooms are being held accountable to teach state standards (and after No Child Left Behind, de facto national standards).

4. Anticipatory Set: This is a jargon-y way of saying something along the lines of activating a student's prior knowledge about a topic, e.g., "You've all been watching the news from Afghanistan and you know that improvised explosive devices are a big issue for our troops . . ." Basically it's getting a student in the frame of mind to take in information. A good "anticipatory set" can get a student focused in less than a sentence.

5. Introduction: "So today class, you will learn how to make a bomb, from beginning to end, from first wire to detonation."

6. Direct Instruction: You, the teacher, will show a student how to make a bomb.

7. Guided Instruction: The students themselves make the bomb.

8. Assessment: The teacher checks to make sure the student has made the bomb properly. This could include setting off the bomb, for example. This is also known as "checking for understanding" and could involve anything from a quiz to a simple hand-raising or "thumbs up-thumbs down."

9. Closure: Generally, this is something that closes out or wraps up a lesson; it's not enough to simply say, "OK, class is over" — the teacher should recap and illuminate what the class has accomplished, e.g., "So someone tell me what we learned today" and the student or students will confirm that they learned how to make a bomb, etc. A teacher will then instruct the student to think about or repeat the process in a different environment (that's called "transference," the idea being that your brain makes more connections with information as you call it up in physically different environments).

10. Differentiated Instruction: A relatively recent tenet of pedagogy that acknowledges and takes advantage of how students learn differently; the goal here would be to do an activity in more than one "modality," e.g., singing a song, drawing a picture, listening to a teacher.

You'll see the techniques of proper lesson plans in action in lots of places. Cookbooks, for example — and a lot of cookbooks could do this better. For me personally, learning how to put together a lesson plan was something that I remembered long after teacher school. It was good stuff. One of the best lessons I took away from this was not to take anything for granted — if you talk to someone, start from point A and move logically to points B, C and D.

Now is probably an appropriate time to add that I also took a lot away from the concept of "modeling behavior," which I already mentioned in a different context earlier this week. That's "modeling" as a verb, by the way — funny how educational jargon seems to love turning verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs. No kidding, I think modeling good, decent behavior is the single most important thing a parent can do for a child. When you think about it, we all kind of develop that way, and if children aren't preoccupied with internal logic — like what is "hypocritical" and what isn't — then they're aping what adults are doing. If you cheat on your taxes or your wife or the bill at a restaurant, then your kids are probably picking up on that.

I'll add that it's also important for parents to model useful values. Take reading, for example — a child won't figure out that it's useful to know how to read unless a parent instills value somewhere along the way. I think parents would be well served by at least having a bookshelf full of books, because it telegraphs to a child that books are a normal thing to have in your home. I don't even think a parent has to read them, just have them in the background. Somewhere along the way a child will perceive that books are a normal part of the world and maybe even pick one up sometime. I'll add newspapers in there — I don't think a parent has to be seen reading a newspaper — leaving it on the coffee table would be enough. The goal is to model that reading is a normal thing to do. In the past I've called this the "fake like you read" method — just pick up a newspaper, at least make sure that it's the right side up, move it around a little and return it to the table. Like I said, I don't think it takes a lot to model behavior, but you have to do something.

Even classroom management skills come in handy in "real life." They talk in teacher school, for example, about making sure kids have stuff to do, that the only time you really have discipline problems is when you have free time at the end of a period (which makes a tightly constructed lesson plan that much more important). In an office setting, that obviously applies.

They also talk about "proximity," which is basically just a way of getting in someone's physical space. Dudes arguing on the street understand the concept of proximity intuitively, but you see it elsewhere — when a shop clerk comes out from behind the counter, he or she is moving into your physical space in a way that changes your behavior (think of when someone follows you around a store, for example). If you remember this happening in a classroom setting, the teacher is probably doing it because kids are being squirrely — they seem to stop being squirrely when the instructor walks by them, or stops and stands by them. Sometimes you'll see a speaker move through a room — this not only perks people up but has the effect of changing their behavior to make them more attentive. You see cops do this, too. Anyway, that was interesting to me, too.

The other helpful thing I learned from teacher school came from an administrator, who in the context of teaching us how to get a job explained to us what kind of candidates he was looking for. It's an old joke that the best reason to teach is "June, July and August," meaning summer vacation. Don't laugh — I've heard people say this. The administrator said that he had job applicants tell him this, too.

It would be pretty ballsy to say "June, July and August" at an interview. And it's not the worst reason to teach — a lot of people like the idea of busting ass for nine months and then having three months to do other stuff (though for teachers "other stuff" usually involves taking classes, teaching summer school or something work related anyway). It's just that a principal doing the hiring wants to hear a little more commitment.

"When I ask you why you want to teach, I only want to hear one thing: 'I love kids,'" the administrator told us in class one night, "Because I love kids, and that's the only reason you should want to be in a classroom, because you love children."

When he said this you believed him — he didn't sound creepy or phony or like he was trying to get a job. He sounded like someone who loved what he did and chose the obvious career path. I would have hired him.

Suffice it to say, as a guy in his early 20s who intended to become a high school teacher, the line didn't roll off my tongue as easily. It was hard to get it right. I wanted to stretch out the "love" part, but this made it sound way too much like Matthew McConaughey's David Wooderson character in Dazed and Confused: "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age."

I stood in front of the mirror and tried out a short, clipped version — sort of a half-frown/hand flip that suggested that was a simple manner of having love for kids. No good — I looked too much like Steven Van Zandt's Silvio Dante character in the Sopranos (that was before the Sopranos, but that's what it looked like — just less jowly).

A couple of guys in class who were about my age ran into the same problem — no matter how we played it, it sounded terrible to be a man in his early 20s who loved kids. It would be different if we were going to work in an elementary school — those kids were kids you could love without anyone feeling weird about it — but an 18-year-old? And did I really love that 18-year-old? I wasn't so sure.

But I never forgot that bit of advice.

It's funny because it really applies to lots of other jobs. I've tried to get that across since then, with varying levels of success. I'm thinking in particular about the time I called writing a memo a sort of "art form" — the person definitely did a double take. Another bit of advice I learned along the way — if you'll allow me to get sidetracked — is that you can basically say any old dumb thing during an interview, just as long as it doesn't sound truly idiotic; the person interviewing you is probably zoning out and glossing over a lot of your specific background anyway, and just as long as you don't say something dumb, you'll probably "pass."

I can't remember if I actually heard this from someone or whether I'm conflating the memory with some movie I saw, but I remember someone telling me about what "they" expect to hear at an interview for a job at an investment bank. Just as prospective teachers are expected to "love children," prospective investment bankers are expected to want to make money. So you don't roll in and talk about how "fascinating" mortgage-back securities or derivatives are, or how you "love the atmosphere" of this "center of the financial world." Instead you should shift a little in your chair, look the person in the eye and say simply, "I want to get rich" — because that's really what it boils down to — if you want to get rich, then you'll help the company become rich and everyone gets rich. Be direct!

Posted: November 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For Reals No For Serious | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,