Reflecting on ‘Building A Better Teacher’

Just finished up ‘Building A Better Teacher‘ by Elizabeth Green. I anticipated a book that would discuss teacher preparation programs in the US and how we can do better.  I was surprised by how much of the book seemed to focus on the history and development of an inquiry-based approach in a math classroom (which being a math teacher, I loved).  I think Green went in that direction since math education seems to be where our teachers are lacking direction the most.  The latter half focused more on the developments in teacher preparation programs (triumphs and failures) as well as the accountability movement.

I don’t plan on summarizing everything she discussed in the book, but mainly share a few takeaways, lingerings questions, and things I pondered over while I read.

A peek into classrooms…

I loved seeing a play-by-play of various classroom situations, especially when the reader was taken into the thoughts of the teacher.  I found myself thinking ‘I’ve had those exact thoughts when I was in a situation like that!’  I think this showed a bit of the complexities of trying to maintain a successful learning environment in your classroom; so many variables at play (student personalities, dynamics, backgrounds, time, etc.).

Autonomy vs. Accountability

Green discussed the tension between accountability and autonomy.  I understand both sides of the argument.  Everyone points to Finland to say ‘look, they all have autonomy over there and they’re successful’ but I think it’s an unfair comparison.  I think they have really earned their autonomy; they don’t just let anyone into classrooms over there. Aspiring Finnish educators must have a masters degree and they go through tons of hours of student teaching with intense and detailed feedback from veteran teachers and their peers, among other things.  They’re professional in the truest sense of the word.  In contrast to that, we have these billboards:

It implies that teaching is something anyone can do and be ready for in just a few weeks.  I don’t think full autonomy is the answer because most teachers still wouldn’t know what to do with that freedom.  Accountability doesn’t really develop better teachers either; saying ‘get better or else’ isn’t a huge motivator.  I think many people are doing the best they can with what they’re given, but they just aren’t getting regular quality feedback.  How can you improve if you don’t know what you’re doing well and what needs to change?  I plan on videotaping a few lessons this coming semester and sharing with colleagues and the online community in hopes of becoming aware of things that I wasn’t aware of before.

Inquiry-Based Math Education

As Green explored the various inquiry-based math classrooms, she explored something a few teachers developed called the ‘Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching (MKT).  It was an inquiry into the kind of knowledge required to teach math.  The following were what I believe some of those most challenge skills to develop:

…knowing how to analyze incorrect or nonstandard solutions, identifying the student thinking that might have produced an incorrect answer, anticipating likely student errors, and understanding what kinds of representations offer the best explanations.

In my teacher evaluation this past year, I shared that I identify more with the title ‘math educator’ than I do ‘mathematician.’  Obviously the two are not mutually exclusive, but I find that I tend to focus a lot of my energies in the above skills.  Doing so ends up deepening my conceptual understanding of that mathematics we’re exploring, but my mathematics education was fairly tradition which resulted in a lot of shallow understanding.  I’m looking to remedy that and you can read more about it in another blog I started called ‘Math In My Own Words‘ where I share my discoveries and inquiries as I re-learn mathematics.

I loved the challenges teachers shared as they sought to become better teachers.  It helped me see that I wasn’t the only one asking these sorts of questions.  In one instance, a teacher was beginning to teach students to have more mathematical conversations, but she was struggling.  “Ruth knew her students needed to talk about math.  She just didn’t know how to turn talking into learning.”  She also struggled with learning how to tell the difference between a productive vs. non-productive tangent in classroom discourse.  I’ve wondered that too.  Would having this conversation help conceptual understanding of what we’re doing?  Is it necessary?  We seem to be getting off task…but it could possibly lead to a meaningful conversation.  What do I do!?


It was pretty discouraging to read about how some of these teachers tried to scale up this sort of education but were met with resistance.  They wanted more teachers to know how to teach well, but unfortunately, they ran into teachers who felt the training was ‘another thing to do,’ districts wondering why there needed to be a change, people who naturally didn’t want others watching their practice and criticizing them, etc.  I feel it’s hard for this kind of growth to be mandated.  It seems to be more effective when it’s approached more organically.  Even in that sense though, many people aren’t sure where to look.  Even if they learn a more effective way of teaching, they will likely have very few people giving them feedback on how it’s going.  There were stories were teachers thought they were implementing new methods but really it was the old methods with a new face.

I guess it just goes back to feedback.  Teachers who want to grow need to seek it out on their own.  See if a colleague can come observe you during their free period.  Video tape yourself as awkward as it may seem.  Read books or blogs about inquiry-based teaching.  Write a written reflection as often as you can, even if it’s once a month.  I’m hoping to do more of the above this year and will share what I learn.

Little Nuggets

Last few takeaways from the book were ideas I got to promote more classroom discussions that I’ll just list here:

  • Asking ‘who agrees’ and tally up whether other students were persuaded by a classmates idea
  • Having students summarize the days learning and then scan them while they’re writing.  Have a few share out loud and allow time for others to add/revise theirs.
  • Having stock responses for students to use (either on a handout or up on the walls)
    • You don’t know the answer? Try saying “I don’t know, but I will try to find out the answer and get back to you.”
    • You didn’t come prepared to talk? “I regret to say that I am not prepared”
    • You didn’t understand the question? Just ask, ‘would you please repeat or restate the question?”
    • You did the homework and understood the question but still couldn’t come up with an answer? How about, ‘please come back to me, I’m still thinking.’
    • To disagree- “I respectfully disagree” then give your opposing idea and justify it
    • To agree and extend– “I want to add to what (persons name) said.”
    • here’s a list I created last year of similar ones for both teachers and students.
  • Have students call on each other; more likely to participate

Have you read ‘Building A Better Teacher?’  What did you think?

By Thom H Gibson

I help middle school STEM teachers create meaningful & memorable experiences for their students. Teacher, podcaster, YouTuber. Two-time teacher of the year

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