Small Moments Define Good Teaching


Much has been written about Elizabeth Green’s new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), most of it about why Americans stink at math. (Spoiler: it’s because we also stink at teaching math). Green’s book is worth a read, and not just because she provides some great suggestions for ways we could improve the way we teach math and train the next generation of math teachers in America.

While I really enjoyed the math instruction aspect of Green’s book, there is so much more to her book than that. The parts that called out to me as a teacher were her examples of simple, reproducible classroom practices that separate the average teacher from the truly gifted educators.  These were the pages I tagged with my color-coded sticky tabs and have referred back to many times since first reading the book.

Building a Better Teacher is a manual for those teachers interested in changing the way they think about attention, behavior modification, classroom management, and emotional connection with students.

One example is so small, so obvious, I'm reluctant to even mention it because I'm embarrassed that after ten years of teaching, this had never occurred to me before. This scene happens in classrooms every day, around the world. It’s time to hand out a test, or an assignment, or some other document that must end up on every students’ desk. In order to make the most of every classroom moment, the teacher walks around the room, handing out the pieces of paper. While she does so, she runs down the instructions for the assignment.

I can't begin to count the number of times I've done this. Inevitably, hands shoot up once the students begin to complete the very clear instructions I've just outlined. “Where do you want us to put our name?” “Which question are we supposed to cross out?” “Wait—what are we doing today?”

Makes me want to tear my hair out. I just gave the instructions, how could they have forgotten already? Weren’t they LISTENING????

Well, no. I was setting myself up to not be heard. By handing the papers out while I was giving directions, I signaled to them that my instructions were not that important. How could they be, if I could hand papers out at the same time? Add the inherent distractibility of many students to the mix, and I'm surprised any of my students ever know what the heck to do with the paper once it’s on their desk.

So I stopped handing things out and giving directions at the same time. And you know what? I don't have to repeat my directions anymore. Well, hardly ever.

Green knows that small moments define good teaching, and that the daily struggles over attention, control, and autonomy are make-or-break opportunities to either heap on another layer of alienation to a student-teacher relationship, or to begin to break through transient discord and forge deeper bonds.

Yes, Green’s book is a fantastic discussion about consistency, depth, and breadth in teacher training. Yes, she has a gift for deconstructing the ways in which math instruction becomes unintelligible and how good teachers can help kids understand the signal in the noise. Yes, Green is an astute writer and a talented observer of human behavior.


This is not why my copy of Building a Better Teacher is stuffed full of sticky notes, however. I will keep this book on my shelf of go-to teacher inspiration sources because Green’s discussion of policy and curriculum and education politics are grounded in lessons I can use, today, to improve my teaching and reach that one kid who did not hear me the first time around.