To most readers of the blogs on the Teach for Us website, Gary Rubinstein is best known for his critiques of Teach for America’s training model and ed reformers’ miracle school claims. It was his posts on education reform that originally inspired me to start my own blog here. As an author on education, however, Rubinstein has an equally important role as a guide for new teachers on what to do and what not to do for classroom survival and success. I, and most of my colleagues spent a great deal of time in teacher education courses and professional development seminars learning a broad set of principles about successful teaching and classroom management: be consistent, hold high expectations for students, target students’ zones of proximal development, phrase rules positively, and dozens of others. The problem was that very few of us had a clear understanding of how to translate these principles into classroom success, or of what the potential pitfalls of some of these principles could be. To all new teachers who find themselves in the same situation, I recommend Gary Rubinstein’s two excellent books on effective classroom teaching: “Reluctant Disciplinarian” and “Beyond Survival.”
In these two books, Rubinstein moves away from the general and towards the specific in explaining what these principals look like in practice and where they overlook important details. Whereas “Reluctant Disciplinarian” focuses primarily on the realm of classroom management and behavior, “Beyond Survival” is a broader look at the many facets of good teaching at the middle and high school level. (Although it is geared towards middle and high school, many of the ideas presented in “Beyond Survival” can also apply to elementary teaching). Neither book sets itself up as the definitive guide to every facet of good teaching, but I like to think of both as “users manuals.” Each book contains useful and actionable advice that a new teacher can follow to avoid the kids of disastrous first years that Rubinstein and myself faced.
The Rubinstein System:
The key principle of Gary Rubinstein’s system of best practices is this: that every student wants to learn and that they are looking for a professional and competent teacher who can help them do that. Teachers must present themselves as “real teachers” from the beginning. Ensuring that the students perceive their teacher as a real teacher is the single most important thing that a teacher can do in their first week. “Discipline problems occur when students who really want to learn act out their frustrations after they decide that their teacher is incapable of helping them learn,” says Rubinstein in “Beyond Survival.” As a teacher, you have a very short window of time in which to prove to them that you are indeed capable of helping students learn. Most of “Reluctant Disciplinarian” is focused on how this should be done: “real” teachers dress professionally, emphasize their rules, give decisive replies to questions in under two seconds (“May I use the bathrrom?” “No.”), and are direct. Furthermore, and contrary to what many new teachers think in their first months, “real” teachers should use their textbooks, begin with traditional methods, and avoid group work early in the year. In my own experience, new teachers generally lack the skill to consistently create great lessons without the aid of the textbook, and students appreciate learning what they see as the canonical knowledge that the textbooks offer. Similarly, group work in the hands of nearly every novice teacher leads to situations where some students coast while others dominate, and at worst leads to situations where students have the opportunity to misbehave. Teaching students to work as a team is important, but it is an advanced play and not advisable for new teachers in their first months.
When it comes to classroom management and discipline, both “Reluctant Disciplinarian” and “Beyond Survival” focus on the same basic theories of what makes “real” teachers effective. But while “Reluctant Disciplinarian” focuses primarily on the most critical element of classroom survival, “Beyond Survival” expands on the ideas in the first book and explores such important elements of teaching as lesson planning and managing paperwork. Although drier than “Reluctant Disciplinarian,” which draws much of its appeal from the humorous stories of how and why things can go wrong for a first year teacher, “Beyond Survival” does a truly excellent job of distilling a ton of advice for effective teaching into a slim 154 page volume. The real strength of this book is how it covers things that experienced teachers know are critical but which first-year teachers often never learn. First year teachers may have learned how to make a five-step lesson plan, but learned nothing about the value of keeping their mouths closed and their opinions to themselves. The last thing that a new teacher needs is to get caught in the middle of workplace politics. Even more important than details like this, are the misconceptions about teaching that Rubinstein dispels, the most critical of these being the idea that “high expectations” are the key to student success. The idea of “holding high expectations” is very easy for new teachers to misinterpret, and can lead them to make unreasonable demands of students who are not ready or able to do certain work. This in turn will lead those students to conclude that the teacher is not able to help them learn and to shut down. The critique of the “high expectations” theory of student success also permeates many of Rubinstein’s blog posts, because it is the key theory promoted by Teach for America, where he began his teaching career. It is this same theory that leads many new teachers to give an inspirational college speech on their first day long before they have shown that they are able to even teach. This gulf between expectation and reality is bound to create trouble for new teachers when their students learn that they are not even fully competent at explaining content. If I had to summarize the spirit of the whole book in it’s advice for new teachers I would say it is this: keep things simple.
Neither of Rubinstein’s books should be seen as the final word on great teaching, and as if to emphasize that point, he includes guest excerpts from other teachers in both works. I don’t think that there is ever a moment when a teacher stops learning how to make their practice better, no matter how long they have been working. For a new teacher struggling to find more specific answers on how to improve their practices, however, these books are an excellent place to begin.