How to Really Teach Like a Champion

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

What does it mean to “teach like a champion”? Can great teachers be reduced to, and developed by, a discrete set of tools and techniques? Or is teaching ultimately an art form so individualized, so magical and elusive, that it can never be codified?

If I had to sum up the problem with our current efforts to improve teaching and learning in this country, it would be the illusion of this false choice, and the tendency of too many of us to feel we must pick one path. So before we get any deeper into 2011, I’d like to recommend we all read two books that, taken together, just might have the power to light a middle path between the extremes.

The first is Doug Lemov’s 2010 debut, Teach Like a Champion, a groundbreaking, controversial cataloguing of 49 techniques “that put students on the path to college.” Based primarily on thousands of hours of video and in-person observations of teachers who have helped their students dramatically raise scores on standardized tests (a metric Lemov calls “necessary but not sufficient”), the book is the most concrete, specific, and immediately actionable set of recommendations I’ve ever encountered as an educator. Those recommendations are also, often, shockingly simple and unglamorous – from standing still while giving students directions (Technique 28: “Entry Routine”) to ensuring that all students begin each class period with their materials out, ready to learn (Technique 33: “On Your Mark”).

As Lemov explains, the un-sexiness of his techniques is partly the point. “When I was a young teacher,” he writes, “people gave me lots of advice. I’d go to trainings and leave with lofty words ringing in my ears. They touched on everything that made me want to teach. ‘Have high expectations for your students.’ ‘Expect the most from your students every day.’ ‘Teach kids, not content.’ I’d be inspired, ready to improve – until I got to school the next day. I’d find myself asking, ‘Well, how do I do that? What’s the action I should take at 8:25am to demonstrate those raised expectations?’”

Teach Like a Champion is a major contribution to the field, and a window into the central motivations of today’s younger education “reformers” – precisely because it is so concerned with providing clear, simple, and practical advice for a profession that is so opaque, complex, and unpredictable. This sort of effort at making the overwhelming challenge of teaching more accessible and scalable needs to become more commonplace; I know a number of these techniques would have been extremely useful to me when I was still in the classroom. Lemov is right – lofty words are not enough, and there is great value in trying to chart some of education’s most uncharted terrain. And yet, his book also left me with an uneasy feeling, and not because some of the techniques rubbed me the wrong way (although they did). It was because once I put the book down, I was left with a sense that, in addition to some useful tools, the picture of my profession that had just been painted was still left significantly, even dangerously, incomplete.

Then I (finally) read Parker Palmer’s 1998 book The Courage to Teach, and I understood what was missing. In fact, although Lemov and Palmer wrote their books a decade apart, The Courage to Teach explicitly tackles what Teach Like a Champion implicitly fails to address – that although good techniques are useful, good teaching cannot be reduced to technique, because good teaching springs primarily from the identity and integrity of the teacher.

Palmer explains: “In every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood – and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of teaching. My evidence for this claim comes, in part, from years of asking students to tell me about their good teachers. Listening to those stories, it becomes impossible to claim that all good teachers use similar techniques: some lecture nonstop and others speak very little; some stay close to their material and others loose the imagination; some teach with the carrot and others with the stick. But in every story I have heard, good teachers share one trait: a strong sense of personal identity infuses their work.”

Palmer’s willingness to “enter, not evade, the tangles of teaching” is a reminder to all of us that the unavoidable first step toward creating better learning conditions for kids is ensuring that the adults in charge of them have a healthy sense of themselves – intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. “Reduce teaching to intellect,” writes Palmer, “and it becomes a cold abstraction; reduce it to emotions, and it becomes narcissistic; reduce it to the spiritual, and it loses its anchor to the world. Intellect, emotion and spirit depend on one another for wholeness. They are interwoven in the human self and in education at its best.”

That’s why Lemov’s disproportionate focus on the “diligent mastery of the tools of the craft” is so dangerous; it misleads future teachers into overvaluing the power of technique, and undervaluing the need to better understand themselves and the highly relational, nonlinear components of what they have signed up to do.  I would argue this is the missing ingredient in much of today’s education reform programs and strategies, too many of which are built upon the highly seductive, highly misleading appeal of solving the unsolvable. It’s the culture of the technocratic answer.

Don’t get me wrong – education needs more actionable ideas, and more practical resources like the kind Doug Lemov has given us, and he’s right when he says “great art relies on the mastery and application of functional skills, learned individually through diligent study.” But Parker Palmer is right, too, when he reminds us of something else: that “technique is what teachers use until the real teacher arrives.”

Categories: Teacher Quality

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  1. Anita Peters
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    What a great review. I could not agree more nor have articulated it any better. Is anybody listening? However I would also add that good teachers are not born- they evolve from their desire to connect with their students and their courage to try whatever it takes to help them learn. Authenticity is key.

  2. Posted January 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Anita! And amen to the need for people to be authentic about who they are if they want to be successful teaching their subject. This is the point Palmer makes so well — and Lemov is silent on. A huge problem — but one that is easily corrected.

  3. Hugh Calkins
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Sounds good to me.

  4. Ben Daley
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Sam, how is it possible that I agree with every single thing you write?
    By the way, I am on a quest to create a website that names and documents “deeper learning” teaching strategies that complement Doug’s work. For example, socratic seminars, well structured group work, etc. This is separate from your point about good teaching not being merely reduced to technique. I think if some of us could be as precise about strategies that lead to critical thinking, etc. as Doug was about the ones he highlights, it would be a real contribution to the field.

  5. Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Brother Ben. I love that idea. Doug has done some vital work, and now it’s up to the rest of us to flesh it out and give it a new layer — one that’s responsive to what Parker Palmer is talking about. Perhaps this could even be something that’s a part of the Faces of Learning work. We must discuss.

  6. Dane
    Posted January 18, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    I see the two books as going hand in hand. Answering different questions, but not in ways that are mutually exclusive. I’ve struggled to find my “authentic voice” as an inner city mjddle school teacher for eight years. It was only after mastering a lot of the techniques in Lemov that I had enough success and control to find it. Mastering techniques doesn’t inhibit one’s individual voice–quite the opposite.

    I think artists in almost any discipline would say the same thing. A painter or a potter, through a lot of discipline and even mimicry, have to master technique. Once they know the brushstrokes by heart they can innovate or make a highly individual contribution. Teaching as a profession needs so much more of this mentality of a “discipline.” If it had it, so many more teachers could feel success in their first years and stick with it. Instead, we think it’s insulting if their not treated like Van Gogh’s right out of the chute. The consequences, at least in inner city schools, naturally follow: a lot of failure, a lot of frustration, a lot of burn out, and a lot of attrition.

  7. Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Permalink


    What I also don’t like about Lemov’s book is the certainty with which it is written… and what I love about Palmer’s book is the humility with which it is written.

    If there is a common flaw that runs as a common theme from Lemov to Rhee to Gates to Broad, it is their hubris… that the problems of our classrooms, the problems our kids face… and, of course, the problems of a nation, can be solved if we just stand up a little straighter and teach a little harder.

  8. Joe Nathan
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Dane writes above that the two books go “hand in hand.” I agree completely. We’ve done a workshop with a number of district & charter teachers, presented by a person who worked with Doug L. The teachers loved the specificity and the positive nature of much of what Lemov suggests. I see his book as enormously helpful. I’ve been in too many class rooms where teachers did not know how to manage and the classrooms were not good places to learn (and the teachers were very frustrated).
    Palmer gives broader ideas about relationships with kids. I do not agree with the last quote that you cited from Palmer. Just caring about students is not enough.
    Good teachers show they care about students in many ways. Some of them are the ways that Lemov suggests. Some come from the philosophical commitment that Palmer describes.

  9. Posted January 19, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks all for the great feedback, and Dane, I love it when you say “Mastering techniques doesn’t inhibit one’s individual voice–quite the opposite.” I think that’s why Lemov’s book is so valuable. And Joe — Palmer is not suggesting that all we need to do is care about students, so I’m sorry if my choice of quote gives that impression. In fact, he makes the clear distinction between student-centered instruction, which, misinterpreted, devolves into empty narcissism, and subject-centered instruction, which he believes is what allows for great teaching, and which occurs when the teachers is able to skillfully place “The Great Thing” before his class — whether the great thing is a poem, the periodic table, or anything else you can imagine. But the great teaching comes in when the teacher is able to facilitate a live-wire discussion about the Great Thing that helps all people understand it more deeply — and that requires both great technique and a deep sense of self.

  10. Posted February 5, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Interesting conversation. I seem to find so much in education as being presented in an either/or, rather than the blend that real intelligence and critical thinking demands. Context, circumstances, and suitability are often after-thoughts. Think you may find my response to the initial buzz of Lemov’s book in line with your argument, with a link below.
    Yes, I use a tennis analogy and will continue with an additional insight: I taught tennis for many years, apprenticed under master teachers, etc. No amount of technique would be of value unless I had a passion for the game,, , and had the sheer enjoyment of being around kids, and seeing their progress.
    I also saw many tennis students who were great at the drills (mechanics) and fell apart in a real match – couldn’t put the “pieces” together or didn’t have the drive, head for the game, etc. Yet, the students who played well in a match got better with learning new techniques, and so on . . .

  11. Posted February 14, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink


    Thanks for sharing your piece — I just tweeted it — and I love your tennis analogy. I think that’s exactly right, and the unfolding we see happening right now in education is the tension between the either/or mindset of the attacking/besieged armies, or the evolution of a more nuanced, both/and army of pacifist educators — old or young, TFA or traditional, union or not — who want to relentlessly focus on how to get better, not on who did them wrong.

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