I never meant to become a teacher. In fact, it was my intention to be somewhere in the IT world ever since I was a sophomore in high school. But there have been three outcomes in my life–guidance by a sort of invisible hand–that shoved me down a career path that I could never have anticipated. The first was my freshman year of college. My declared major was Computer Science, I was hired to work on campus as an IT department receptionist and help desk attendant, and I was taking my first Comp Sci class – Java. Meanwhile, I was also taking expository writing, a required class for all freshmen and not liking it a bit. But that didn’t stop me from succeeding at it. In fact, as my grade in my Java class plummeted, my grade in writing had skyrocketed. By the end of the semester, assessing where the chips had fallen, I had re-declared myself an English major and ceased further pursuits in Comp Sci (though I kept my job and was even promoted within the IT department). The second outcome came during my last semester as a senior, applying for the Peace Corps. I had wanted to go to Sub Saharan Africa, specifically Namibia, where I had studied abroad as an IT volunteer. Peace Corps thought otherwise and offered me a position in the Philippines in Southeast Asia…to teach English. By the time I was on my way home from that, I was sitting on a plane waiting for takeoff in Tokyo, lost in a daydream of an IT job, an apartment and a girlfriend. Over the course of the flight, however, I started talking to the guy from L.A. next to me, who was on his way home from teaching English in South Korea. Well, that put a bug in my ear, which finally got the better of me about two weeks after I arrived at home. And that’s how I wound up teaching these last six years, two in the Philippines and four in Korea–and Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that put Students on the Path to College by Doug Lemov should have been the first book I read before I ever even got on that plane back in 2008, and maybe again for a refresher in 2010.
Four years and a marriage later, my wife and I moved to Memphis, TN in September of 2014. I spent my days looking for IT jobs. Months went by but it seemed as though nobody was hiring during those last couple months of the financial quarter. Two weeks into December and I decided that I would just wait out 2014 and start again in January – new year, new start. But as these things seem to happen to me, I received a call from my dad a week before Christmas, “Sean, can you be at this address in 30 minutes? A colleague of mine says her aunt is the superintendent at a charter school here in Memphis and she wants to talk to you.” The office was 25 minutes away and I was still in my PJ’s, unshaven and half-finished with a cup of coffee. I don’t know how I did it but I arrived just 10 minutes late. As it turned out, they were in need of an English and World History teacher. In TN, all that is required for a teaching license is 24 credit hours in the subject. Indeed, I was a double major in English and History with enough credit hours in both subjects. Within five days I was offered the job and I started on January 5th.
I went in to school to meet with the principal the week before I started and she asked if I could read Teach Like a Champion by my first day the following week. Two days later I received the book from Amazon expecting the read to be a bit of a chore. But that wasn’t the case. I blasted through it and I’m not even kidding, I couldn’t get enough. The book contains 49 techniques that could improve my abilities to teach while reinforcing study habits and classroom behavior that could put my students on the road to college. Some of the techniques I had learned in the Philippines and Korea but had no idea that they had names or were concepts used to teach every day; I had just kind of discovered them. As for the rest, I could remember moments in the classroom where I could have seriously used the concepts in this book: a time to use Exit Tickets to check for mastery as students leave the classroom, types of verbal and physical redirection for students, ways to spice up the engagement aspects of my lesson planning with something Lemov calls “Vegas: The Sparkle in the Lesson”. This was not a dry book. It was a book that had brought back memories of successes and failures, ways that I was already doing something well or ways I could improve my classroom management.
I should have read this book six years ago. I should have been reading it every year until I could recite it in my sleep. Being a better teacher doesn’t mean having all your students get A’s. Being a better teacher doesn’t mean coming to class prepared everyday. Being a better teacher is being part educator, part entertainer, a master of improv and as flexible as a sapling. And those are the kinds of methods so often glossed over when skilled and experienced teachers impart their wisdom onto those just starting down their own path.
It’s easy to recommend this book to anyone new to teaching, but I firmly believe that this book gets better with each year of experience of the reader. Those new to teaching could benefit but those who can take real life experiences and keep them in a kind of mental rolodex as they read this book will exponentially gain from it.
Teach Like a Champion is a book that is a milestone in my life as a teacher, a marker on a path of happenstance teaching opportunities, and a kind of rite of passage for me to come back to the United States and teach in my own country for the first time. I’m still coming to terms with it all, but as I read the book it all seemed just a little easier to process, a little easier to work through it all and to appreciate the path I have been on all these years.