Postcards from New York (State): How can I Teach Like a Champion?

Postcards from New York (State): How can I Teach Like a Champion?

With our British colleagues, we usually practise substituting ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ for the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Doug Lemov

This unexpected line broaches many questions I considered while attending a Teach Like a Champion ‘Behaviour and Culture’ workshop in Albany in late-May.  What do ‘champion teachers’ do?  How can professional development help everyone do the same?  And how do can this be translated to a British context?

The work of Doug Lemov and Uncommon Schools has gradually reshaped my understanding of effective teaching and training.  I’m an unashamed fan of their first book, Teach Like a Champion, which I believe is the best available collection of effective teaching techniques.  The research was inductive, growing from Lemov’s attempts to collect best practice: he identified teachers who succeeded dramatically with students from the most deprived backgrounds, then sought to break down and codify their actions.  Lemov, Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi went on to explain how they use practice to help teachers adopt Teach Like a Champion methods in Practice Perfect..  Meanwhile, in Leverage Leadership, their colleague Paul Bambrick-Santoyo has reshaped my understanding of the speed and effectiveness with which leaders can develop their staff; his next book, The Rookie Teacher Project, will, I suspect, do the same for initial teacher training.  I’d been impressed by Uncommon Schools’ classrooms and leadership and culture; underpinning this, it seemed, was Uncommon’s teacher development.  This post examines their work through the prism of the two day workshop I attended, from the perspective of a teacher and a professional development leader.

The workshop was a masterclass of teaching techniques: my first realisation was how much work I have to do to bring my classroom up to scratch.  I realised I could get closer to my aim of 100% on-task behaviour through clearer instructions (using ‘economy of language’), while leaving students happier about it by concluding with a ‘bright face’ (a warm smile or nod of acknowledgement).  I could employ the ‘Art of the Consequence’ to give detentions more effectively by ‘not engaging’ in discussion over the sanction and ensuring I invariably ended it with the ‘bounce back:’ the uplifting statement that nudges students back into learning positively.  Likewise, while I already scan the classroom, finding ‘Pastore’s Perch’ – the place in the room offering a full view within the narrowest angle – would make this a lot easier!  Fellow teachers often assert that the way they give instructions/detentions/whatever is perfectly good enough for them.  I would challenge anyone to fail to find inspiration to improve what they do based on this workshop.  My to do list (this paragraph just scratches the surface) may seem depressing – I have perhaps a dozen important changes to make.  Paradoxically however, I was left wildly optimistic: I know I have much to amend, but I know exactly how to make these changes.

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Doug Lemov models coaxing Practice Perfect co-author Erica Woolway into sitting up and doing some work.

If my keenness and alleged self-efficacy sound exaggerated (too much Kool Aid and not enough sleep?), describing the training’s combination of video, analysis and practice may help explain it.  We watched dozens of videos: analysing the work of real teachers in real classrooms demonstrated exactly what success looks like and why it works.  After two years dancing tango, I can break down a dance I watch into constituent parts; likewise, repeated examination of videos made clear the way teachers’ head movements or word choice combined into highly effective sequences.  Doug and the team then modelled practice activities which would help us use these methods ourselves.  Tasks grew in complexity, from practising using hand gestures and an acknowledging nod while continuing to teach through to varied routines in which students delayed their compliance and teachers honed their approaches based on feedback.  Participants embraced role play, probably because they anticipated it, perhaps also because it is hugely satisfying and great fun.  We sought to lock in changes by writing reflections and ‘to do’ lists as teachers and leaders and conferring with our colleagues (or other sole attendees) on what we would do back at our schools.

Rule 16
Call Your Shots”
            Practice Perfect

Calling a shot is to describe one’s intention before acting, it helps watchers appreciate what has been done and why.  In writing Practice Perfect and describing what they believe professional development should look like, Doug and Erica have called their shots in the clearest possible way.  Watching them enact what they had written about, I was able to collect any number of tips for running CPD.  Erica ‘supermodelled,’ for example: without mentioning the fact, she retreated from the centre of the room to the corner while discussing the excellent view available from ‘Pastore’s Perch,’ showing exactly what it looked like.  Every minute was made to matter: instructions were impeccably clear; the total time allocated to mention of logistics (like timings and breaks) was less than sixty seconds across two days.  The complexity of practice stepped up through the workshop, beginning with simple group practice and moving on to increasingly individual tasks using feedback as participants gained comfort and expertise.  More was going on behind the scenes: the team examined and acted upon feedback from day one assiduously; they also refined the workshop as it went on, removing or altering activities based on participants’ progress, while basing what they did on models scripted in advance.  The effectiveness of modelling these traits was made clear to me on the second day, when, entirely unbidden, fellow participant Anna ‘called her shots,’ as an apparently automatic action.

To me, Teach Like a Champion shows that great teaching is neither magic nor craft mystery, it is a learnable set of skills and behaviours.  Many teachers see it as mechanistic or impersonal – it’s not.  We took Lemov’s models and adapted them to our contexts and personalities.  Using the principle of ‘economy of language,’ we wrote our own scripts of what we could say; in using an expression to acknowledge students’ actions, we chose one which fitted our faces (our partners offered feedback on whether it worked!)  If leaders want to help teachers change their practice, I believe this is the most powerful tool available.  British teachers may be reticent about role play and chary of ‘standardisation;’ using ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ is just a first step to breaking down this reluctance. The workshop left me a better teacher and teacher-trainer; I hope more can be done to use these strategies in Britain.

I’m hugely grateful to Doug, Erica, Colleen, Jen, Dan, Tracey and Rob, who were most welcoming and generous with their time and thoughts.

Full disclosure: Uncommon kindly charged a reduced fee for my attendance.

Further Reading

From me:
A review of Practice Perfect
 and a discussion of my attempts to use it in teacher-training
Trying to use 100% in my classroom
What Uncommon Schools’ classrooms are like
How Uncommon Schools leadership and culture shapes those classrooms

From others:
The Teach Like a Champion ‘Field Notes’ blog
Laura McInerney has written a fascinating post on seeing Teach Like a Champion training in action and overcoming her British reservations about it.
Joe Kirby has reviewed how Teach Like a Champion, Practice Perfect, and Leverage Leadership.

And finally – why does this post get a ‘towns with excellent cycling facilities’ tag?  Look at Albany’s buses!

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