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Opinion12th October 2015

“Addressing the real challenges that teachers face”: a Q&A with Doug Lemov

Since it was first published in 2010, Doug Lemov’s “Teach Like a Champion” has become one of the ‘must-read’ texts for teachers looking to improve their technique and realise their students’ full potential. Recently, Doug and his colleagues from Uncommon Schools, a network of high-performing schools in the United States, ran intensive workshops at Ark All Saints for teachers, including those in the Ark network. We caught up with Doug to ask for his top tips for new teachers.

What do you think is the most common problem new teachers run into?

The easy answer is that they’re often not prepared for the challenges of building positive classroom culture. Teaching is hugely complex and there are innumerable challenges involved, but these are often predictable challenges and there are solutions. We talk about these being endemic problems, they’re totally predictable – you know you’re going to face in kids who have no interest in learning, or pretend they have no interest in learning, or think they have no interest in learning because no-one’s ever reached them. It’s a disservice to the smart people who come into the profession to make a difference to send them into the classroom with no idea how to solve those problems.

Do you think traditional teacher training programmes are well-suited to prepare teachers for those issues?

I wouldn’t want to generalise, especially on the British system of teaching, because I’m not an expert on it. Generally speaking, teacher training in the US focuses too much on theory and abstraction and not enough on tangible actions in the classroom. I understand why they do that: they want to make teaching feel important but it’s so important to be a craftsperson as a teacher. In some ways, the question of whether teaching preparation prepares teachers isn’t important – what matters is “could it be better?”

Why do you think your writing has had such an impact in the UK?

Because I think teaching is really hard work and a lot of really excellent people do it because they want to make a difference. They don’t just want to go to work and punch the clock, they want to be good at it, but there are all these endemic problems that plague them and there’s kind of a deficit of solutions out there, there’s a deficit of conversations about the solutions. So, I think that the degree to which my work has relevance is because it addresses the real challenges that teachers face.

You’ve previously said that you looked at how teachers were adapting your methods in “Teach Like a Champion” when revising the book for its second edition. Why was that process so important for you[[{“fid”:”70071″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_tags[und]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“style”:”height: 267px; width: 400px; float: right; margin: 7px;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]?

Implicit in the work for me is the idea that teachers should contribute to the intellectual foundation of the teaching field, it shouldn’t just be a field where people who are non-teachers are telling teachers what teaching should be and what teachers should to do. It’s a profession full of brilliant people who have brilliant solutions and I think we should be studying teachers to find solutions to teaching challenges.

What are some of the most common questions new teachers ask you?

It’s hard to generalise, there are so many questions. I think one common question that gets asked is about teacher fallibility, which is essentially: “I’m not able to use these methods all the time, is that OK?” The answer that I give from that comes from being a parent: I wish that I could get it just right all the time when interacting with my kids, but I can’t. It’s nice to remind people that the goal is not to be infallible, that the goal is to do as well you can, as intentionally as you can, with as many interactions as you can in the course of your day. One of the best things that teacher training can do is get people to be very, very good at what they’re already good at, because that’s what makes great teachers.

You’ve worked closely with Ark with its continuing professional development for a number of years. What’s your impression of the Ark Teacher Training programme?

I think it’s wonderful, I think it’s really high-quality. Even just the culture that Ark’s teachers bring to a training workshop like this, where there’s such a respect for the work of teaching, an interest and passion for the craft of teaching. Ark is an organisation that is completely about teaching and what happens inside the classroom. The enthusiasm, the rigour and the intellectual culture of Ark is unmistakable and it makes it a pleasure to work with Ark teachers. Ark is a place where I would recommend working because they are going to be serious about making you better and honouring your work by making you successful at it for the rest of your life.