This School Year, Don't Teach Like a Champion

This School Year, Don't Teach Like a Champion

Our expectations increase each school year.  This week, CPS students and teachers on the regular school calendar return to the classroom.  For all teachers, arguably, the question is, “How will I manage this year’s classes?”

For each teacher, the concerns are different.  At the high-school level, my priorities are instilling respect, increasing engagement, and fostering dedication.  This is my 17th year as an educator.   I know how to teach.  I know the Southwest Side.  But I’m at a new school.  Each group of students is different.

I learned classroom management techniques from elementary school teachers that we deem inappropriate for young adults: routines, bulletin-board acknowledgements, yellow warning tickets.  This year, I’ll be trying out a token economy.  Students receive a ticket they can cash in for rewards if they show respect, have integrity, or demonstrate responsibility in impressive ways.

The underlying belief of all these strategies is that our young people can make good choices, that they want to be productive, that they are capable of learning, and that they need to lead, not just follow.  They also need to know that a bad decision can result in detention.  Even after 16 years, I still surf the Web for classroom-management techniques.  Someone always has a better idea.

But there’s one resource that obstructs our students’ potential.  Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov is gaining popularity—especially in low-income schools—as the vaccine for bad classrom behavior.  Chicago’s Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) adopted it as a core text for its teaching-training academies.   In 310 pages, 49 techniques, and 1 DVD, teachers learn how to control their students in meticulous ways.

Despite the the author’s view that these techniques put students on the path to college, this book perpetuates the culture of low expectations among low-income youth.  The book glorifies teachers who do the minimum.  In truth, these techniques are rudimentary classroom-management approaches—not championship teaching.

Technique 27, for example, is called Vegas: “The sparkle, the moment during class when you might observe some production.”  Here’s what it looks like on page 142 when students “discuss” the sentence “Mom put the baby in the crib.”

Teacher: Here is our verb, put, and at the end comes a phrase, in the crib.  What kind of phrase is it, Charles?

Charles: It’s a prepositional phrase.

Teacher: And between the two, Shayna?  What’s that?

Shayna: It’s a direct object.

Class: Oooh.  Aaaah.

Impressed by the magic of learning? The “Vegas” of it?  I’m not.

These strategies should not earn any teacher a championship belt.  Classroom management is a basic part of teaching–so is call-and-response.

Good teaching begins with effective classroom managment.  Champion teachers transcend this with lessons that go beyond recall and identification.  Champion teachers help students analyze, synthesize, and thoughtfully evaluate.  If Lemov’s techniques truly helped students think critically, kids would soon realize how ordinary these approaches are.

In DVD clip 5, we see a teacher using the technique “Format Matters” to correct a student from saying “it gots” to “it has.”  He just makes the student repeat it correctly.  Teaching students standard grammatical format is essential, not championship teaching.

In clip 14, the teacher stares down at her students, moving her eyes side to side, like she’s ready to play Whack a Mole, preparing to slam down anyone who does not comply.  At her signal, students grab one sheet from their packet in one hand and the rest of the packet in the other.  They lift these over their heads.  On the count of two, the students systematically snap away their homework and slide the single sheet in their folder.  The teacher’s efficient.  The students have their homework.  But the teacher doesn’t deserve a championship belt.  Is the homework worth completing?

Another troubling part about Lemov’s book is that he wants teachers to make the distinction between acknowledgement and praise by “acknowledging when expectations have been met and praising when the exceptional has been achieved” (211).  In other words, if students are on time for class—acknowledge it.  If they write a great paragraph—praise it.

Lemov’s book, however, is praising when it should be acknowledging.

At my new high school last week, I listened to a researcher who talked about helping students write their own counter-narratives.  Instead of fulfilling the expectations of meek, passive, and low-achieving stereotypes, we need to teach so our low-income black, brown, and even white students create realities that contradict the history of oppression.

The question this researcher wants us to ask when we see perfectionist discipline is, “What are students being socialized to do?”  In Teach Like a Champion, students are being socialized to be passive, mob followers.  They are being taught that recall of information is all they can, should, or be expected to do. The researcher also questioned why schools must institute militaristic, penal-system practices before they believe our students can learn.  My response is that the priority in these schools is control–not learning.

At last summer’s workshop where I was supposed to train for my championship belt, out of all the DVD clips we watched, only two had black teachers in front of black students.  I raised my hand and said, “It’s interesting that these are the only clips where the teacher looks comfortable and happy.”  The white presenters’ faces looked at me expressionless, paranoid.  They searched the crowd for a neutralizing comment.  My Latina colleague at the table smiled and whispered, “Oh, no you didn’t.” She was glad I did.

And I did choose to leave that AUSL high school at the end of the first semester.  I could not commit to their misguided teacher-training philosophy or the deficit-based view they had of me and our students. AUSL, however, will continue teacher training in fourteen more schools with the mayor’s blessing.

I believe in discipline.  I promote orderly hallways.  I am strict.  But I’m not oppressive.  Lemov’s strategies highlight the paranoia that many white teachers, and some teachers of color, feel when they enter our schools.  They fear.

I know not all white educators fear.  I know not all black and brown teachers are good.  I know a college-prep education encourages students; it does not dominate them.

Champion teachers maintain order because it leads to meaningful learning.  But Lemov rarely or ever discusses what is being taught.  He assumes the worksheets are valuable.  That’s a risky assumption in teacher training.

To the author’s credit, Lemov tries to give teachers some critical-thinking techniques in the last chapter.  But he fails. The example he uses in “Stock Questions,” for instance, is still recall:

“Is that a run-on sentence?”

“I think so.”

Well, how would you know?”

“There would be two subjects and two predicates.”

“If I wanted to prove it, which of those would I start looking for first?”

“The predicate.”

Question.  Recall.  Question.  Identify. Over and over.

True championship teaching rests on the idea that low skill level does not mean low intellectual ability.  And it moves beyond the idea that low-income students must start with the lowest level skills.  There are many high-achieving readers and writers on Chicago’s Southwest Side.  These techniques will do little for them.

Finally, dishearteningly, Lemov’s book contributes to the de-professionalization of teaching.  He sends the message that anyone can do it–if they read the right manual.

Filed under: Uncategorized


Leave a comment
  • fb_avatar

    Your last line regarding the book was exactly my feeling when I read the book. I felt that Lemov was putting out a manual and saying read this and anyone can be a Champion teacher.

  • Thank you for taking the time to comment, Leticia.

  • I am glad to know that I am not the only educator who believes that technique alone does not make a great teacher! The book fails to mention the two most important ingredients in a good teacher: social purpose and genuine passion! I agree with Ray that this book perpetuates a false and racist set of high expectations and like Ray I too am a strict teacher and am reminded of that every time I bump into an ex student of mine.
    My teaching is not reduced to technique! My goal is not to silence my students and condition them to be passive. On the contrary, I strive to facilitate criticial consciousness and awareness among my students so that it can lead to action. I don't teach to the test. I teach my students to learn how to read "between the lines" as Dulce Padilla states in Ray's other article, How Does a CPS Student Survive a Sibling’s Violent Death—Twice? I teach my students to question, analyze, and encourage them to become active participants of positive social change in their future and of their community. I have high expectations that stem from genuine love and interest for their future that is not based on my own self success. I also reflect on my teaching and ideology to improve my cultural competence.

    Teachers, before you count on 100 or 1000 teaching techniques to guide your teaching, look in the mirror, find out who you are and what you should do to become a good teacher! That is step one. That good teacher is NOT racist (which can be so deeply rooted that we think it does not exist). That teacher is NOT self-righteous or hateful! That good teacher is also NOT selfish! That good teacher does NOT have a false sense of high expectations! That good teacher finally does NOT rely on 100 techniques alone!

    Interested in learning more about the heart of a teacher, check out Parker Palmer's article, The Heart of a Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching, which does a much better job at describing a good teacher, is free, and is a few pages long.
    Below is the direct link:

  • I really enjoyed this review. As a black woman who is not afraid of her students but is trying to figure out how to keep things on track, I stumbled across Teach Like a Champion in my search for classroom management resources. I am currently rewriting my syllabus to try to "tighten up", but I carry a lot of angst about it, as I do not wish to see my classroom turn into what you've described in your review. It's a difficult dance--I wrote about it in a recent post: New Year, New Teacher-my classroom resolutions for 2012 Can you suggest any resources that are written with practical suggestions without the focus on dominance and strictly regimented routines? Thanks again for a really insightful review.

  • In reply to tblanchet:

    Thank you for posting a comment. I'm also doing some thinking about tightening up a few aspects of my classroom for the new year. Here are a few resources you might want to check out: This has some behavior intervention charts that can be used by teachers and parents. If parents can set up the same expectations at home as teachers have at school, wow--can this make a difference.

    Why Didn't I Learn This in College by Just ASK Publications has some easy-to-use management techniques in the first couple of chapters and then some great instructional strategies. This is a good place to understand what certain behaviors reveal about students. This can help address some of the underlying causes of bad behavior.

    Finally, I continue to focus more and more on rewarding good behavior in class instead of spending lots and lots of time on the negative stuff. Sometimes I use credit tickets. If students are working productively when I give them time in class to write, they get a credit ticket. This gives them some participation points. Last year, my colleagues and I chipped in and bought breakfast (juice, fruit, cookies) for the students who were regularly respectful and responsible. When the weather got warmer, we had ice cream sundaes. It was invitation only and it made an impact.

    One strategy I got from my wife is to regularly state good things students are doing, "Jose has lots of sentences written. Cristina is ready to write. This group is sharing ideas productively." I try to say one good thing every 10 minutes and it really makes a difference.

    I'll check out your blog. Please let me know if you find other resources that would be useful to teachers. Feel free to post them here.

    There are many, many other ways to manage students without dominating them into submission like Lemov's strategies do.

  • I just came across an Education Week resource that might help with re-establishing classroom expectations. Ed Week has a Spotlight newsletter series that focuses on hot topics. There's one that covers these and other topics:

    •Establishing student behavior guidelines
    •Organizing the learning environment
    •Creating classroom rules
    •Building supportive relationships
    •Keeping a positive outlook

    Here's the link:

  • I am a senior in a secondary-ed program, and just want to thank you for so succinctly putting into words many of the misgivings I have toward this book, which not only is required reading, but is also the basis of a core education course at my school. I am so glad to see that someone which as much experience as you can articulate what any feeling student of education should be able to at least sense is wrong with this text.

  • fb_avatar

    I just watched the DVD and felt uncomfortable with a lot of what I saw. I felt the teachers were treating the students like trained dogs. I didn't like the clip where the kids had to tap their own heads--that's not respectful to the students. (Although I liked the teacher in that clip more than others.) Another thing that stood out to me was that the teacher repeated their directions at least twice, sometimes more. I do think control of a classroom is very important but reducing students to robots who repeat information given to them by the teacher isn't education. I want to see more critical thinking, student discussion in groups on key ideas, students working through difficult problems and being challenged. None of this method would mesh well with the new Common Core where students are supposed to help construct knowledge themselves, at least from what we saw in the clips. I also felt the behavior of the teachers felt too formulaic. I could have been watching a presenter at Disney world or Sea World or something. You sound like a wonderful teacher. Thank you for your post and for the resources you listed.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Hannah Rivkah:

    I have to disagree with the posts here. I have started using "some" of the techniques and it has greatly enhanced my classroom. I do agree that I do not want my students to be robots or nor do I want to be a robot myself. But, there are so many techniques that can help keep kids on task and keep things running orderly. I use what works for me, leave the rest. My kids (elementary) look at it as a sort of game and I often reward the class when everyone one is 100%.

Leave a comment