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Skills Under Study : Teachers at the Head of Their Class

Times Education Writer

Flossie Lewis, a 63-year-old teacher at Lowell High School in San Francisco, staggered to the center of the classroom, flung her arms into the air and, in a gravelly voice oozing pathos, cried out, “I don’t want to die!"--a line that James Cagney, playing public enemy No. 1, spoke in a movie.

Her students fell apart laughing at this intentionally maudlin but enthralling performance, used to illustrate a point about the Shakespeare play they were studying, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“You have to be a little bit crazy to be a good teacher,” Lewis said of her theatrics.

Enlivens Classes

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The woman who recently was named Teacher of the Year by the California Assn. for the Gifted regularly enlivens her lessons in the most unexpected ways, a talent that students say the best teachers have.

“If you’re entertained (by a teacher), you remember more,” said Weyland Dear, a Lowell junior.

Lowell Principal Alan Fibish agrees, saying instructors such as Lewis understand that all teachers are actors to a degree, but that “the best teachers are the best actors.”

Nowhere is that more clear than in the classroom of Jaime Escalante, the charismatic Garfield High School calculus instructor, acknowledged by peers as a virtuoso among teachers, who inspired the critically acclaimed movie “Stand and Deliver.”

The long-awaited hero for a profession that had grown more accustomed to receiving slings and arrows from the public than admiration, Escalante found dramatic success teaching calculus to a group of academically lackluster inner-city students--and he suffered a heart attack in part because of the heavy demands he placed on himself. His story has raised public consciousness--and expectations--of what it takes to be not merely a good teacher but a great one.

Ultimate Performer

The Bolivian-born math instructor is the ultimate performer in class, telling jokes, rendering impressions, using all sorts of props--from funny hats to meat cleavers to basketballs--to make learning math fun. Judging from test scores and student testimonials, his unique approach works.

“A good teacher has to attract kids, make their life easy, not complicated,” the master teacher said recently. "(So) I entertain them. At the same time, I get 100% out of them.”

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Is that what it takes to be an outstanding teacher? Do teachers have to be entertaining to be outstanding? Are great teachers born with a talent for motivating students to learn, or can they learn to create that magical chemistry the best teachers have with their pupils?

Some educators fear that Escalante’s story may create unrealistic expectations. Teaching and learning are complex acts, they say, and a teacher might do everything right but, because of poor administrators, problems associated with students’ socioeconomic background or rigid school policies, may fail to reach some students or may never produce dramatic results.

Many educators also would take exception to the idea that hamming it up in class is a hallmark of exemplary teaching. In fact, say principals, teachers and other education experts, instructors who are “quiet, gray types” can and do excel at sparking the desire of youngsters to learn. Personal styles, such as being flashy and funny, might seem important but are not the only factor behind a great teacher’s success.

Surprisingly, however, exactly what separates the virtuoso from the average teacher is not well understood. Experts on teaching are adamant that teachers can learn how to be great--that one does not have to be born with a genius for teaching. But how that occurs is a question they have only begun to probe.

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Study of ‘Experts’

“Up until this point, most of the focus of research in teaching has been on the generic characteristics or generic skills which could be found in the majority of teachers,” said Grace Grant, director of teacher training at Stanford University. “Studying ‘expert’ teachers is relatively new.”

It is certain to be a major focus for the next several years, however, because identifying and rewarding the best teachers has become one of the main missions of educators fighting for radical changes in America’s public schools.

In 1986, for instance, the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy made a strong case for increasing teachers’ authority and accountability as a way to attract better candidates to the profession. It advocated creating a category of “lead teachers” who would redesign and run schools and earn as much as $72,000 a year.

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Other blue-ribbon panels studying school quality over the last five years have echoed this call to upgrade the status of teachers, most recently in a report by the California Business Roundtable, a group representing nearly 100 major corporations.

Teacher ‘Insecurity’

This new thrust in the movement to improve public education threatens many in the rank and file who oppose efforts to create different classes of teachers based on merit.

“It’s part of the insecurity of teachers,” said Gerald Richer, a mentor teacher in biology for the Los Angeles Unified School District, who has helped train many new instructors during his 25-year career. “There is a lot of intimidation and jealousy.”

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It also marks a sharp departure from what had long been the conventional wisdom about teachers--that they were either “weak links in the educational process to be circumvented or . . . technicians to be programmed,” wrote Andrew C. Porter and Jere Brophy, co-directors of the Institute for Research on Teaching at Michigan State University, in the May issue of the journal Educational Leadership.

Particularly in the 1960s, a student’s culture and socioeconomic background were thought to be more powerful influences on his or her capacity to learn than teachers or schools. But now, according to Porter and Brophy, researchers operate on the “revolutionary” theory that teachers are a critical link in the learning process and should possess specific expertise.

“It would be a terrible mistake to begin with the notion that (great) teachers are born that way. Nothing that the best teachers do strikes me as being unlearnable,” said Lee Shulman, a Stanford University education professor.

Testing Tools

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Shulman heads an ambitious research project on teachers sponsored by the Carnegie Corp. that may provide the testing tools to be used in the nation’s first system of national teacher certification. Carnegie, hopes that once such a system is established, school districts will seek out teachers who attain national certification and pay them a substantially higher-than-average salary. (The average teacher earned $28,000 in 1987-88, according to the National Education Assn.)

Shulman has found that expert teachers share three basic traits: a mastery of their subject, highly refined classroom management and organizational skills, and a mental agility that enables them to think of a variety of ways--analogies, demonstrations and simulations--to illustrate a single concept or topic.

Multiple Methods

The best teachers in any subject area possess the ability, Shulman said, to present multiple ways of understanding an idea. It is one of the skills that Escalante, the calculus teacher at Garfield High, seems to perform exceptionally well.

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Escalante’s success stems from more than his having “a bundle of wonderful personal characteristics,” the Stanford professor said, although any casual observer of his teaching style would recognize that he emits a special charge in the classroom.

“You know what? I forgot to say good morning,” the short, balding instructor said one day recently as he bounded into his East Los Angeles classroom blowing a horn, one of countless items from his arsenal of attention-grabbing techniques.

Not a stationary teacher, Escalante stalks the classroom, shooting questions at unsuspecting students and alternately cajoling, scolding and cracking jokes. If a pupil gives a wrong answer, he might quip that the student should be sent to “quarantine.” Or, if the problem is a poor test, he will sentence a student to “intensive care"--special study sessions.

Artistry in the Classroom

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His antics, however, don’t overshadow his artistry in the classroom.

“What I see in Escalante is someone who has a wonderful capacity for coming up with (examples to illustrate) . . . very difficult concepts in mathematics,” said Shulman. “He can translate mathematical concepts that are so abstract into something kids can relate to their own experience.”

Escalante, who eschews most textbooks for his own work sheets, leans heavily on analogies to make his point. In one real-life example shown in “Stand and Deliver,” for instance, Escalante, as portrayed by actor Edward James Olmos, asked a student to solve the problem, “What is negative two plus two?” Seeing that the student was stumped, he suggested thinking about a negative number as a hole in the sand, and the way to find the answer--zero--was to “fill in the hole.”

One reason why the best teachers can help students look at a concept in a multitude of ways is because they have “a tremendous amount of subject matter knowledge (and) they . . . learn it deeply ,” said Gaea Leinhardt, a University of Pittsburgh education professor who is studying expertise in mathematics teaching.

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Experts say more teachers could develop a richer storehouse of examples if only they had a way to study them. But because teachers spend most of the school day isolated from one another in their own classrooms, they have “very little opportunity to observe and learn from peers,” Shulman said. The Stanford professor would like to see the teaching profession develop case studies as a way to share information on failures and successes, just as the medical and legal professions have done for years.

Unexpected Connections

Lewis, the Lowell High School teacher who gave the Cagney impression during a discussion of Shakespeare, said she believes in making unexpected connections for her students--and if a colorful demonstration suggests itself, so much the better.

“I want (my students) to become aware of themselves as learning, so that education is not something that just falls on their heads. Other teachers lecture well. I do (this) well--I stop in the middle and make them aware . . . that the stuff we are teaching them means something.”

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Lewis, who has been a teacher for 41 years, has not forgotten what it means to be a student. At 63, she is studying for her doctorate at UC Berkeley. This exemplifies another common trait of the best teachers, experts say: They never stop learning themselves.

Says Sharon Feiman-Nemser, associate director of the National Center for Research on Teacher Education at Michigan State University: “What do students know and how do they understand it--these are the questions that the best teachers ask themselves. To be a good teacher, you have to be really curious about how other people think about things. Just knowing it well yourself isn’t enough.”

‘Kids’ Point of View’

Art Peterson, 54, a colleague of Lewis’ at Lowell High, whom many Bay Area educators regard as an expert teacher of writing, embodies curiosity in his approach.

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“I am always trying to see from the kids’ point of view, without talking down or pandering,” he said. “I always try to remember that kids aren’t adults. You have to be aware of who your audience is.”

This veteran teacher does not tell many jokes in class, yet is funny in his own way. His classroom tingles with creative tension, a byproduct of his own darting mind and nervous temperament. Although not a showman in the way some teachers are, he nonetheless “is never boring,” said one of his students, Cate Corcoran, 18, who took Advanced Placement English from him this year.

He is the type of teacher, experts say, who can captivate students through the ingenuity of a well-designed lesson.

On a recent morning just before final exams, for instance, Peterson planned to hold a review for his advanced composition class. But instead of giving a quiz or engaging in a standard routine of defining terms and giving examples, he distributed a list of 100 key words--such as syntax, simile, analogy and mockery--and gave the class 20 minutes to define two of them by writing a creative essay.

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Challenging Exercise

In another exercise, he asked students to write “the worst possible sentence"--long, unclear, anti-climactic, trite or full of irrelevant detail--in order to understand how to do the opposite. His final exam for the advanced writing class was an assignment called “The Dart,” so named because students had to throw a dart at a map of San Francisco, go to the location and write a “clear, detailed, focused piece with a point of view” about the things or people found there.

“The day I can sit back and hear my students read their own work is the day I’m happiest,” Peterson said.

Trial and Error

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According to Leinhardt, exemplary teaching does not happen by accident but results from much trial and error and hard work. The best teachers are constantly “revising what they do,” she said.

Escalante, for instance, acknowledges that his success in teaching did not come easily.

“The first year I taught math, I thought I did really well,” he recalled. “But when I looked at the tests at the end of the year and looked at the grades, (I found the students) were not really satisfying my expectations. I thought, what am I doing wrong? Either the kids are an empty set, or the teacher is a bonehead. So I went over my curriculum. I found most of the mistakes (students made) were in specific content areas. That’s when I started developing my own questions . . . and using different techniques.”

Roland Ganges, 37, a chemistry teacher at Jefferson High School in South-Central Los Angeles, seems to relish trying out different methods of teaching to see what gets the best response. Thus, he used an interdisciplinary approach in two classes this year--blending philosophy, history and literature into the study of atoms, microbes and ionic equations--while teaching more traditionally in another.

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Next year, he will teach the school’s first chemistry course for Advanced Placement credit, which enables high school students to earn college credits by passing a test. Ganges said he plans to conduct the class “like a football coach conducts a team,” providing team T-shirts and holding team conferences over hamburgers and malts at McDonald’s to prepare for the rigorous test.

Other Training

His enthusiasm is due in part to being a new teacher--he just completed his second year on the job. But it also may show the influence of his scientific training. He was a medical researcher in university and hospital laboratories for 17 years before switching to teaching.

“I try to be graphic,” said Ganges, attired in his usual jeans, open-necked shirt, cowboy boots and suit vest. His students, who use words such as “intense,” “eerie” and “eccentric” to describe him, say he has a talent for holding their attention. Said junior Norma Ramos, “He makes you want to listen.”

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Ganges has snared his students’ attention by using dramatic techniques. For instance, with no advance warning, he might smash a glass on the floor or ignite a wad of paper to start a discussion about the difference between chemical and physical changes. He will kick a desk to demonstrate kinetic energy or stand atop one to recite the “Ten Commandments of Chemistry"--basic tenets such as “All systems tend toward maximum entropy and lowest energy.”

“Any student can do anything if they have the proper assistance, orientation and frame of mind,” Ganges said. “The most important thing is to create an atmosphere in which students want to participate. A good teacher needs to be able to do that.”


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