By Steven Farr
Reviewed by Alex Diamond
English Teacher (South Korea)
Teacher Leaders Network
This fall 4,500 teachers will take the same path to their first-ever classrooms. The vast majority of these will come in with no completed traditional coursework in the field of education. All will teach in some of the toughest schools in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the country, where students lag as many as a few years behind their more-privileged peers in reading level and other academic skills. Yet Teach for America (TFA), the organization that selects and places these teachers, believes an intensive five-week summer training institute is enough to prepare them.
Whatever you think of this claim— and there's an ongoing and very much unresolved debate over whether TFA teachers are better than the alternative—Teach for America has spent considerable time and energy studying the most effective teachers to design an impressive condensed teacher-training program. And now they have brought their approach public for the first time in a new book by Steven Farr, Teaching as Leadership: The Highly Effective Teachers' Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap.Reading Teaching as Leadership was for me likely a different experience than it would be for many classroom teachers. As of this writing it's been less than three months since I finished my two-year commitment to TFA. I've been through TFA's summer training and received ongoing support based around the same teaching principles. Though criticisms of the length of TFA's training are warranted, the principles behind their training have a lot of value and the book is therefore full of helpful, specific and practical suggestions.
The book is organized around six principles that characterize the most effective teachers. They are:
Some of these may seem obvious (of course you should plan with a purpose) but the book gets into the practical nitty-gritty of how good teachers do these things. For planning, it suggests beginning with a vision of success (what will students be able to do?), turning that vision into an assessment of some form, and only then writing a daily lesson plan. For daily planning they recommend a basic "I do, we do, you do" model as a starting point. Certainly, TFA didn't invent all of these teaching approaches, but the organization has twenty years of experience working with effective teachers to draw on to explain them.
1. Set big goals
2. Invest students and families
3. Plan purposefully
4. Execute effectively
5. Continually increase effectiveness; and
6. Work relentlessly
Indeed, the strength of the book is the dozens of teachers' anecdotes sprinkled throughout every chapter that illuminate the practice behind the theory. Not sure how to involve parents? The book includes a diversity of examples, from weekly newsletters and phone calls celebrating high quiz grades to having students keep binders with work to show their family. Not sure what an appropriate big goal would be? You can read a number of examples from different subject matters and age groups, with an analysis of how these goals led to achievement. Not sure what effective execution actually looks like? Teaching as Leadership pairs an explanation with a number of ideas of how to, for example, check for student understanding in the middle of the lesson. As I read the book, there were multiple times when specific ideas jumped out at me and I thought, "I could do that." Perhaps just as important, many of the anecdotes are inspiring (they are usually paired with impressive achievement data) and keep the book focused around students.
In addition to being a source of good ideas, Teaching as Leadership caused me to reflect on my own teaching. There were times throughout my reading (a good example is its insistence on a classroom management plan that is both predictable and consistent) that I had the discomfort of realizing ways my own teaching practice could be improved. As part of continually increasing effectiveness, the book argues that good teachers see teaching as a series of learnable skills, and embrace errors as opportunities to grow. Teaching as Leadership is appropriate for anyone either undertaking a project of teaching self-reflection or seeking a toolkit of specific suggestions for improvement.
Throughout the book, Farr is very clear that these teaching principles, while broadly applicable, are intended specifically for teachers working at the wrong end of the achievement gap. Though the book is full of examples of teachers whose classes make exceptional gains, it makes no bones about the efforts that this may require. Part of working relentlessly, according to the book, is expanding the time teachers spend influencing students. Though this may include inspiring students to study flashcards as they wait in lunch line, Farr also writes about teachers wading through floodwater to teach 12 students in their backyards or spending evenings at the local McDonald's to tutor students/fry cooks during breaks. Though I have observed this level of commitment from fellow TFAers, it's worth asking whether it's realistic to expect it from people for whom teaching represents a lifelong profession rather than two years of intensive service.
While Teaching as Leadership doesn't respond to this criticism, it anticipates at least one other. A large part of the book (including most teachers' success stories, most of the discussions of goal-setting, and the assumed starting points for teachers' self-reflection as they strive to increase their effectiveness) is based on a quantitative, standards-driven measure of learning. Farr admits there is an open debate about the standards movement in education but writes (correctly) that "whatever your view of learning standards, all states and districts now use them to guide instruction, and it is important to think about your role as a teacher within that reality." True as this assessment may be, it is possible that the book will put off teachers who object to the growing emphasis on standardized testing in education.
Whether you are a fan or detractor of Teach for America, the organization has in 20 years become a significant force in public education. Facing the need to quickly train teachers for some of the toughest placements in the country, they have compiled an impressive body of research on what principles hold true for effective teachers. Teaching as Leadership is undeniably oriented toward a specific view of achievement, one based on tests, numbers and state standards. Nonetheless, it includes both teaching theory and specific suggestions that can improve any teacher's practice.
Alex Diamond teaches English at Gyeonggi English Village in South Korea. From 2008-10, he taught World History and World Geography at Melrose High School in Orange Mound, Memphis, TN as a member of Teach for America. His article “Do I Really Teach for America: Reflections of a Teach for America Teacher” appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Rethinking Schools. He welcomes email at email@example.com