For good teachers, the fundamentals matter

Posted Thursday, Apr. 24, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Chatter is the first thing you notice in Josh Newton’s class at Townview High School’s Science and Engineering Magnet. Constant and lively chatter. His 10th-grade calculus students aren’t hamming it up. Rather, they banter back and forth about the work in front of them.

They don’t get easy problems, either. On one of the days I visited Newton’s class, the teens were assigned this objective: Students will find total distance traveled by a particle using an absolute value integral.

I had no idea what that meant, and still don’t. But the 20 students were burrowing deep into the issue. At one point, a girl asked classmates whether one part of the problem mattered. Another shot back “yes,” and the 30-year-old Newton explained why. Soon, he asked for someone to explain the answer for the larger question.

As the discussion evolved, Newton constantly asked questions. He told me that he did so because homework showed some of the students had used the wrong method. At the beginning of each class, Newton tests students on their homework assignments so he knows which areas to drill into.

Each time I visited Newton’s classes, I saw the fundamentals of effective teaching. It’s no wonder that Newton, a University of Texas at Austin graduate, was selected Dallas Teacher of the Year for 2012-13.

Newton’s assignments are clear. His students are engaged in their learning. He interacts with them as opposed to simply lecturing or sitting behind his desk. He tests his students regularly and uses the results to guide his interventions. And he uses multiple strategies to solicit answers, including getting students to pair up to solve problems.

These key elements lead to a student-centered approach.

He told me he works on creating an open atmosphere so students can work out their thinking. “Sometimes you need to talk through a problem,” he explained. When one student said his answer to a complicated question was “maybe,” Newton chuckled, in his dry-humor way, that that was a reasonable response.

The humor doesn’t mean Newton lacks control. He firmly let a late student know she was tardy again. And he didn’t let the class wander. After a warm-up session when each class began, he gave students an assignment to show what they grasped. He kept a good pace.

Newton also knows his material. His grasp of complex math problems goes back to college.

The soft-spoken Newton can break down issues like trapezoidal rule into basic elements.

I’ve seen the qualities Newton exhibits in other strong teachers in the district. Like Newton, they use humor, frame interesting questions and make content understandable.

What’s more, the journal Education Next recently presented data showing that the academic strengths of teachers are rising.

Yet on school tours with DISD Superintendent Mike Miles, I have seen instructors spending most of their time lecturing from overheads with kids yawning in the back of class, shades drawn and virtually no engagement.

To put it bluntly: Neither Dallas nor the nation has enough good teachers. That’s why Miles is anchoring his strategies in better teaching and why districts across the country are grappling with better ways to evaluate instructors.

Miles acknowledges that only 10 percent of Dallas students are on a track for college. And American students’ 2012 scores on the respected Program for International Student Assessment were flat, while students in numerous other countries passed us by.

Josh Newton is ample proof that top-notch teaching can provide huge boosts to students.

At age 30, Newton also shows teachers don’t necessarily need years of experience. The fundamentals are what matter.

William McKenzie is editorial director of the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas. wmckenzie@bush center.org This column was published previously in The Dallas Morning News.

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