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When capturing your students’ attention isn’t enough

I’ve gotten a lot of great teacher e-mails in response to my New York Times Magazine story about teaching. One of my favorites, from a retired teacher named Ralph Maltese, responds to Doug Lemov’s taxonomy of effective teaching practices. Lemov’s taxonomy, I wrote, centers on “a belief that students can’t learn unless the teacher succeeds in capturing their attention and getting them to follow instructions.”

Maltese taught for 36 years in the Abington, Penn., public schools just outside of Philadelphia (also the town where I was born!). He argues that the importance of attention works in reverse, too: Just because you have students’ eyes and ears doesn’t mean they’re learning.

Maltese describes a teacher he had in college:

Dr. Green was a medieval history prof at my undergraduate university. We said that Dr. Green had a sport jacket pocket which knew everything about medieval history because he always spoke into it. He mumbled. “The most important point to remember about the shift of power in the 9th century was (and his head would tilt toward the pocket of his jacket) mmmm hhhmmm hhhmmmm.”

“Dr. Green, would you please repeat that?” Dr. Green was a nice person. “Certainly, Mr. Maltese. The most important point to remember about the shift of power in the 9th century was (and the head dropped again), mmmm hhhmmmm hhhmmmmm.”

We would get to class early and fight to be in the first row to hear Dr. Green because all his tests were on his notes. He had our rapt attention…was he a good teacher? I don’t think so.

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