Q & A

Chalkbeat CEO and author Elizabeth Green on teaching, the Common Core, and more

PHOTO: Daniel Deitch
Chalkbeat CEO and co-founder Elizabeth Green has written a new book called "Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach It to Everyone)."

What makes a great teacher — and how do you make a teacher great?

Those twin questions would seem to get to the heart of improving the nation’s schools and yet, as Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green found as a schools reporter, they rarely are raised in today’s big education debates.

That paradox drove Elizabeth on a six-year reporting quest (while she was also busy co-founding Chalkbeat) that took her from lab schools in Michigan to math classrooms in Japan to the elementary school where she was once taught. The result is her new book, “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach It to Everyone),” which comes out today.

Chalkbeat recently sat down with Elizabeth to ask how the stories she tells in her book connect to ones we cover and what, exactly, made her fifth-grade teacher so great.

Continue the conversation by joining the Chalkbeat Book Club on Facebook, where we’ll be discussing “Building a Better Teacher” for the next month.

Your book makes clear that the new Common Core standards — an ambitious reform enacted with minimal support for teachers — continue a long tradition of similar education overhauls. Is there any reason to think the outcome this time will be different?

One thing I learned in reporting that I found really fascinating were the ideas of David Cohen, the education historian. He essentially studies attempts to change teaching, and that is the equivalent of studying failed attempts to change teaching in this country, unfortunately.

He also started to compare this country to other countries. He found that countries that successfully changed teaching had this one important ingredient in common, which was coherence. In the US, there are 17 different layers, if not more, of people telling teachers what to do and what supports to help teachers do them. It’s no surprise teachers feel confused often and even under assault because they are being asked to do so many different things, none of which are the same.

David Cohen calls this a blizzard, and the response that’s most rational to this blizzard of incoherence, as one educator in my book, Lovely Billups, says, is the motto, “This too shall pass.” The question about the Common Core is: Shall this too pass?

You write about visiting primary schools in Japan. What were the main differences from American schools that you saw?

I think there are two key things that are different: One is that there’s a totally different organization of work for the teachers. Whereas American teachers spend 1,000-plus hours per year teaching, Japanese teachers only spend 600 hours per year teaching. The other 400 hours they can spend learning from each other.

The other difference is that they have that coherent system of one common set of things that they’re all doing. They have common standards, so they can have a common curriculum, common assessments, so they have the tools they need to do something exciting.

There is growing consensus that traditional education schools have not done a great job preparing teachers. Have you seen any promising developments in the way teachers are trained?

One thing I found fascinating in my reporting was that we do have a tradition in this country of teacher education that is focused on teaching as a craft. And that is the history of “normal schools,” where teachers would learn from master teachers. They would go to class in a lecture, then the next minute they would be sitting watching a lesson in progress.

I think where we went wrong was when the university system took over teacher training from normal schools. Some of the early pioneers of education as a field of study had absolutely no interest in teaching.

What I think is promising is that there is a growing group of teacher educators at the university level and at institutions that are disconnected from higher education that are trying to resuscitate that normal-school tradition, sometimes in very parallel ways.

Most of the teachers we cover get evaluated in one way or another. Can teacher-accountability systems actually help teachers improve?

One of the inspirations of this huge focus on teacher evaluation is a set of assumptions we make about why high-performing charter schools have succeeded. We look at [the national charter-school network] KIPP and their test-score results and we assume that the kids are succeeding because the teachers operate outside of a traditional labor structure: There’s no labor union, so KIPP can hire or fire whomever they please.

But they spend proportionately less money, resources, and time, on evaluation than states currently do. They focus a lot more on giving teachers the time to learn, mentors to help them learn, materials from which they can learn, and good curriculums they can use.

We know teachers work in all kinds of schools, including ones where many students are far behind academically. Does good teaching look the same regardless of the school or students?

I think a surprisingly debated question, even among people who have dedicated their careers to working with high-poverty communities, is: Sure, you might be able to have this incredible dialogue about math or literature or science or history in your nice suburban school where you don’t face the challenges we face, but we can’t do that here, that’s not possible.

That is a debate that’s going on right now about what kind of learning level really is possible in each type of environment. Is there a need for more order and less student voice in some environments?

Personally, I don’t want to think it’s not possible for all kids, and I’ve definitely seen it happen for all kids, but I think it is a debate that’s going on.

You’ve covered education for several years now, but you’ve never been a teacher. What qualifies you to write about teaching?

I thought a lot about whether I had the right to write about teaching, given that I’ve never taught myself. I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who’s a teacher that’s probably lasted seven years. Her argument to me was always that somebody’s job needs to be to record what’s happening [inside schools], since teachers don’t have time to do that, and make sense of the big picture.

That’s why I ultimately decided I have the right to do this and all of us at Chalkbeat do. We come from a place of respect for this work, we know what we don’t know, and we’re here to learn.

Your book makes the point that good teachers are not born, they’re made. Considering that, what is one thing your favorite teacher did that other educators could benefit from learning?

I went back and I interviewed a lot of my own teachers for this book. One of them I spent extra time with was Lesley Wagner, my fifth-grade math teacher. She is remembered among my friends from elementary school as one of the greatest, best teachers we ever had.

She uses her Smart Board in the most brilliant way I’ve ever seen. Her smart board is like a Japanese blackboard, but better. The point of the blackboard in Japanese classrooms is that we should be able to have a trajectory for each lesson of the ideas that we’ve gone through, so students can look at not only at the specific thing we’re talking about right now, but they can connect back to where we came from that day.

Ms. Wagner does that with her Smart Board, basically a screen per day. But because it’s a Smart Board, she also has access to every other day, so if somebody references another day in the past, she just uses her Smart Board to go backwards in time and see what they were doing that day. I’m sure other teachers use it for that reason too, but I was just blown away.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Readers: What is one thing your favorite teacher did that other educators could benefit from learning? Share in a comment or tweet with #BABT.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede