‘I’m Afraid of Americans’: a milky tea with Whatonomy and a review of Teach Like a Champion

"Driver, please take me somewhere I can be ironic."
“Driver, please take me somewhere I can be ironic.”

In the mid-nineties, David Bowie had something of a musical mid-life crisis. Of course, it could be argued that his career is a succession of crises as he latches on to one style then swings frantically to another: from New Romantic Piero to Cut-and-Paste Burroughs wannabe, to the current avuncular, elder statesman of angular, art-rock. But, in the album ‘Earthling’, he surprised even his most flexible fans with a headlong dive into hardcore drum’n’bass.

One of the standout songs on the album is an urgent, grating track called ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’. Essentially, Bowie endlessly repeats the fact that he is ‘afraid of Americans’, and that he ‘can’t help it’. A sentiment that resonates with me from time to time. I picture Bowie sat at the window in an expat tea-house in New York’s East Village, shakily supping Lapsang from a porcelain cup as his eyes flick from one ‘American’ to another as they pass by.

As an Englishman who has worked for American companies, has absorbed (like most of us) the best and worst of American popular culture, and had the good fortune to enjoy the company of American friends and work colleagues, I understand why our response to Americanism is sometimes, at best, aloof and patronising and, at worst, disdainful and snobbish.

It is through this filter of misplaced, cultural superiority that I first judged Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (TLaC).

TLaC is a compendium of masterful teaching techniques, encompassing classroom management, behaviour and (interestingly) the teaching of reading. It stemmed from an analysis of standardised test results by Doug Lemov. He identified teachers whose results were significantly above the national average, and he went to observe them. From these observations, he generalised a set of techniques he found these masterful teachers to have in common.

What’s not to like? Well, for a toffee-nosed prude like myself: the title, the cover, some of the anecdotes about the dedication and self-sacrifice of these champion teachers, and the micro-managerial tone of some of the techniques. [pause for breath]

In one section, Lemov describes how a teacher times the handing out of resources and their return. The times are presented in a league table to create a sense of urgency and competition in the class or between classes. Urrgh, how crass! I would never dream of reducing my class to such practices – save that kind of thing for their P.E. classes (and Maths – with a ‘s’).

The idea that I would want to teach ‘like a champion’; like some bronzed, chest-beating barbarian – nothing would be more anathema to my pale, porcelain personage. Indeed, should I stoop to such base practices as ‘cold-calling’ my students (the very terminology of the worst excesses of globalised commerce), I’m sure my class and I would soon all be in floods of tears.

So, I read roughly half of the book, nabbed a few of the less hard-edged techniques to use in my classes, and went my merry, Anglo-saxon way.

That is, until I got into ‘an exchange of tweets’ on Twitter with Mr Lemov.

I had been chatting with an acquaintance who had tweeted some quotes from the book, and I rather blithely stated that I would never use a stopwatch to time my students (the very idea!). Now, at this time, I wasn’t a particularly adept user of Twitter and did not fully understand the difference between ‘@’ and ‘#’. The upshot being that I sent this haughty comment to both my acquaintance and Doug Lemov [still cringes and bites knuckle at the memory].

He responded, with restrained disdain, (no doubt already familiar with my kind of criticism) that each teacher is free to choose whichever techniques suites their style best, but that these techniques are hallmarks of good practice in his exhaustive analyses.

I ummed and arred, puffed my chest up and beat my tiny fists against the keyboard as most people do who are inexperienced in meeting direct disagreement and, more pertinently, being put back into their little box by someone who knows and has accomplished more.

So, what did I do next?

Well, firstly I started timing my students with a stopwatch. We timed handing out copybooks and collecting them; I created a little league table; and, lo and behold, not only did they love it, but so did I. More importantly, timing this part of the lesson tightened up what had previously been a loose transition and saved me a lot of lost learning time.

Newly enthused, I picked up TLaC again, and read it to the end.

Below, I’ve summarised the sections of the book, with some examples of techniques in each section. As you’ll see, they are a combination of techniques that good teachers will naturally gravitate towards after a few years, and some that are more counter-intuitive and genuinely innovative.

Category Example activity
Setting high academic expectations ‘No opt out’ – use questioning tenaciously to ensure that particular students are required to correctly formulate replies with support from peers.
Planning that ensures academic achievement ‘Double plan’ – make sure you plan for both student and teacher activity in lessons.
Structuring and delivering your lessons ‘Board = paper’ – model note-taking by getting students to copy your notes from the whiteboard as you work together.
Engaging students in your lessons ‘Cold call’ – maximise engagement by calling on students without requesting hands-up.
Creating a strong classroom culture ‘SLANT’ – drill students in participative learning: Sit up; Listen; Ask & answer questions; Nod your head; Track the speaker.
Setting and maintaining high behavioural expectations ‘What to do’ – give direct, positive instructions that don’t require inference on the part of the student.
Building character and trust ‘Precise praise’ – differentiate between praise and acknowledge. Give praise where it is most valued and pertinent to your high expectations.
Improving your pacing ‘Work the clock’ – use time to create a sense of purpose and, sometimes, competition.
Challenging students to think critically ‘Verbatim’ – ensure that your questioning is consistent throughout. Don’t ‘bait and switch’ – that is, ask a question then subtly reformulate it. This confuses students.

In Part Two of TLaC, Lemov provides a range of techniques for actively teaching reading across the subjects. His argument echoes that of David Didau, in The Secret of Literacy, that literacy is a foundational skill that needs to be taught across all subjects in order to improve our students’ quality of ‘speaking into writing’.

Lemov divides the act of reading into the following categories:

  • Decoding
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

He goes on to detail common sense strategies for improving quality of engagement, action and reflection in relation to each category. Simple and eminently actionable approaches like getting kids to read aloud around the classroom, but without predictable transitions (which create a monotonous routine and let many kids off the hook), create an atmosphere of expectation and engagement without major investment in resources on the part of the teacher.

What you get with TLaC is a life’s work. A range of techniques that you can perfect over time and see really positive results very quickly across classroom management, planning and beyond. Part Two on reading is a real bonus, especially for an English teacher.

Lemov has a knack for debunking myth and breaking false dichotomies that make many parts of the book ring refreshingly true. For example, he very eloquently states that being strict and being warm are not mutually exclusive of one another. Many teachers will naturally have come to this conclusion over time; but many will not, and sometimes the obvious needs to be stated so that we can improve as quickly as possible.

He debunks the notion that we should always share learning objectives at the beginning of a learning episode. He argues persuasively against using synonym as a technique for teaching new vocabulary. He warns us against using the preservation of self-esteem as an argument to justify avoidance of all acts that might put students into the spotlight.

Like David Bowie, I still find myself regarding Americans with suspicion. Their teeth are so much better than mine; they take everything I say at face value (I’m not at all comfortable with being taken seriously); and they celebrate success unequivocally.

I have been chastened and humbled by my experience both reading and commenting upon TLaC; learning a lot about teaching, and exposing my prejudices. It is a masterpiece: nothing less than the successful codification of excellent classroom management.

My only recommendations to broaden its appeal to little islanders like myself?

Call it something bland like Better Teaching or 49 Top Tips for Teachers; remove all photos of any teacher with perfect teeth (or replace them with photos of Shane MacGowan); and gently, towards the end of the book, introduce our tweed-clad English reader to the notion that they might (you know) want to (if it isn’t too much trouble) use a stopwatch (nothing too extravagant, you know) to time their students handing out books.

And maybe slap a free teabag on the front cover, while you’re about it.

6 thoughts on “‘I’m Afraid of Americans’: a milky tea with Whatonomy and a review of Teach Like a Champion

    1. I’d strongly recommend it. It’s a far more serious study than its title suggests. Part 2 (on reading) is particularly interesting. Doug Lemov is very much part of an emerging consensus on the centrality of literacy – and how it should be taught across all subjects.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Damnit I thought I was the only one who used a stopwatch in various class activities. I won’t be reading the book though: partly because you have already summed it up (I do like a good summation), but mostly because I fear this will take root in the UK and then become the next cult-like fad that we will all have to do CPD on. Cue lots of special hats, posters, scarves, sign-language or whatever item needs to be purchased. I’ve already got a day of Growth Mindset CPD first thing this new term and I’m dreading it.


  2. I did laugh – sorry – at your Twitter cringe-moment (we’ve all had them) but I think you’ve made up for it with this review. I probably would have run away from a title like this before, but now I’ll look into it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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