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Author Elizabeth Green speaks in Philadelphia about teaching

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Journalist and author Elizabeth Green came to Philadelphia this week and made the case that good teachers are made, not born.

Once you accept that, Green said, then it becomes obvious why school districts, higher education, all levels of government and the private sector should be developing policies and practices that will better support the people in the nation’s largest profession.

Green, who is also the editor-in-chief of the education news outlet Chalkbeat, appeared at the Notebook’s annual member appreciation event Wednesday. That was also the day that her book, Building a Better Teacher, was named one of 100 notable books of 2014 by the New York Times.

On Thursday, Green spoke at the Education First Compact, a forum convened by the Philadelphia Education Fund that includes participants from the School District as well as various organizations and advocacy groups.

She explained how her own assumptions about teaching were upended as she researched the book, traveling within the United States and abroad to study the profession. Green spent hours in classrooms and interviewed top educators and education professors.

Two schools of thought — often clashing — now govern the nation’s efforts to improve teaching, she says. One is to hold teachers more accountable, primarily by measuring their students’ test scores and progress: "Get rid of the bad ones." The other is to give teachers more autonomy over what they do day-to-day, treating them more like professionals and trusting their judgment and expertise.

Neither approach fully gives the teachers the support they need to become more effective, she argues.

Accountability basically sorts teachers into good and bad, and not always using the right metrics. Autonomy, on the other hand, does not recognize that teachers need additional help in order to take more control over what they do every day.

Teaching is complex, taxing, and all-consuming, requiring dozens of instant, crucial decisions in the course of one class period. Yet the policies and practices in the United States do not recognize the rigor required or invest the resources needed.

In her book, Green writes at length about how teaching is a craft based on human interactions that can nevertheless be enhanced through the proper preparation, school culture, and collaboration. From the introduction:

Teaching [is] that hilarious and heartbreaking theater that unfolds between children and teachers every day. The work that, when done well, with trained skill, can induce in a student a near-magical feeling: the trembling sensation of beholding a new idea where nothing existed before.

The subtitle of her book is How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone).

One of her main points is that great teachers must be able to get inside students’ heads. For example, they must know more than how to teach students the rote steps of arithmetic; they must be able to figure out the thinking behind students’ wrong answers.

Take multiplying numbers. She offered this problem: 49 x 5. Most people know quickly that the answer is 245.

But frequently children come up with the answer 405.

Can you figure out why? Anyone?

The Notebook partners with Chalkbeat in covering the topic of expanded learning time.

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