Behind the Schoolhouse Door: Eight Skills Every Teacher Should Have

Posted on November 11, 2010

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The story is told of a boy who was seen searching frantically for a coin he had lost. It was dark. The boy was down on his hands and knees beneath the corner street light looking for his coin. He was very intent. A man happened by and asked the boy what he was looking for. It went like this:

Boy: “I dropped a coin and I’m trying to find it.”

Man: “Where did you drop the coin?”

Boy: “Oh, I dropped it over there,” as he pointed to a spot well beyond the area illuminated by the street light.

Man: “If you dropped the coin over there, why are you looking for it over here?”

Boy: “Because it’s lighter over here.”

Like that little boy, the education decision makers of America, over the centuries, have spent their time and energies—wasted their time and energies—looking in all the wrong places for the answers to education’s most compelling and perplexing problems. Rather than looking for answers where the problems are, that is, in the classroom where education takes place, they have been looking elsewhere. In fact, they have been looking almost everywhere else. With what effect? Nothing of substance has changed. That is, the process of teaching children has not changed nor improved systemically in any measurable way. This is a centuries-old dilemma with which education has just never come to grips. In 1632, John Amos Comenius, the father of modern day group instruction, in his book The Great Didactic noted, “For more than a hundred years much complaint has been made of the unmethodological way in which schools are conducted but it is only within the last 30 that any serious attempt has been made to find a remedy for this state of things. And with what results? Schools remain exactly as they were.”

In 1993, Dr. David Brite, President of the Children’s Television Network, noted, “Schools today are one of the few places in our society that our grandparents would easily recognize” (Brite, 1993). Modern day educational researchers have come to the same conclusion noting that, “Teaching patterns [have remained] unchanged over the past century” (Needels and Gage, 1991, p.7).

Having experienced what works, and knowing what the data say about effective instruction, I began in 1980 to visit schools and classrooms across the United States and throughout the world to observe what actually happens in classrooms between teachers and learners, and to ask educators what can be done to improve teachers’ ability to function successfully in the classroom. The study took me into 252 schools in all 50 states, all American Territories and Protectorates, and 14 foreign countries. Interviews were conducted with 769 teachers, 253 administrators, and 23 “other” school personnel, primarily school counselors and psychologists. Observational data were taken in 303 classrooms, of which 134 were in elementary schools, 69 were in middle/jr. high schools,  51 were in high schools, and 49 were “others,” including alternative schools, private schools, special schools, and residential schools. Geographically, 97 schools were located in rural and remote areas, 128 were urban/suburban schools, and 27 were inner city schools. Eighty-eight percent of the schools were selected at random. Visits to schools in foreign countries were typically not randomly selected since there were often governmental regulations prohibiting spontaneous visits to schools. Also language barriers made it necessary that arrangements be made in advance.

These visits were conducted over a 16-year period (1980-1996), with results ranging from delightful to distressing.

The findings which produced the greatest delight were that, universally, teachers are remarkable people who are extremely concerned for the education and general well-being of their students, and who want to do a good job serving their students. From these interviews and visits came touching accounts of teachers who labored under immense personal, economic, political, and organizational/administrative constraints to serve the children in their classes.

Among the most distressing findings were the frustrations and even anger teachers expressed for how poorly they were trained at the university college of education level to teach and to manage student behavior. When I asked teachers to rate the adequacy of their college of education teacher training programs in preparing them for their work in the classroom, the average rating of all responses (on a five point scale, 1 being inadequate to 5 being adequate) was 2.41. When asked to rate the adequacy of their training in preparing them to manage student behavior, using the same scale, the average of all responses was 1.71. When asked to rate the quality of the support services available to them through school psychology and counseling programs in working with teachers serving behavior-problem students (again, using the same 5-point scale), the average response was 1.27. It is no surprise to any knowledgeable person in education that college of education teacher training programs are simply not—as a rule—doing an adequate job preparing teachers for the work that lies ahead of them in the classroom (Rigden, 1996, p. 64).

It seems doubly tragic that even though we know what works for both instruction and the management of student behavior, what is known is not being universally taught in our college of education teacher training programs. Occasionally, when I came upon classes where splendid things were happening and teachers were being remarkably effective, by the teachers’ own admission, the skills they possessed which accounted for their remarkable success were rarely if ever linked to anything they had learned in their college of education teacher training programs. They noted to me time and time and time again, had it not been for their practicum experiences and student teaching opportunities (which were rarely long enough), their preservice training programs would have been “a total waste.”

One particular instance, by way of example, comes to mind. Through random selection, I found myself in the class of a teacher who a short time before had been honored as the outstanding teacher of the year for her state. As I sat in the back of her classroom taking data, I began to realize that it was no wonder why this woman had been selected as the outstanding teacher of the year. She was doing everything right.

After the class period ended, we went to the faculty room where we sat at a round table to discuss my observations. I said to her, “Well, it is no wonder to me why you have been chosen as this state’s teacher of the year. You did everything right.” She answered with some surprise, “Oh, what did I do that was so right?” I then spread the data on the table before her and pointed out what she had done that was so noteworthy, and which accounted for her success. With each data point, her eyes got larger and larger until at last she exclaimed with excitement, “Did I do all of that?” I assured her she had and asked where she had learned to do those things. She answered, “I don’t know. I guess I just learned through trial and error.” She was fascinated at the data, and asked me if I would send her some materials that related to our discussion—which I did. A few weeks later, I received a lovely letter in which she said, “I have learned more during the two hours of our visit and from the material you sent me about how to create an effective learning environment than I learned in college all the way through to a masters degree.” Though I was delighted that she had learned so much from our brief visit and what I had sent, I thought how tragic it was that through seven years of college she had been taught so little about teaching and classroom management.

Unlike medicine and dentistry, in which the transition from school to practice is relatively smooth and seamless, the transition from the college class to the school classroom is abrupt, traumatic, and confusing. What is covered in teachers’ preservice training programs typically bears such little resemblance to what actually happens in classrooms that new teachers are left almost entirely to their own devices in knowing what to do next, “…totally unprepared for the impact of teaching itself” (Rigden, 1996). Left to their own devices, they quickly turn to other teachers for help, learn through trial and error, and muddle their way through doing the best they can until they learn what works and how to survive.

This struggle to survive prompted me to look at how members of other professions approach the solving of problems common to their professions. I randomly selected 20 engineers, 20 physicians, 20 lawyers, and 20 educators and asked them to describe for me a problem commonly experienced in their work. I then asked them how they set about solving that problem, including what it was that formed the basis for their solution. I also asked them if other members of their profession would approach a similar problem in a similar way. Table 1 summarizes the responses to those interviews. You will notice that engineers referred to laws, principles, formulas related to force, stress, motion, pressure etc. Physicians referred to their knowledge of physiology, anatomy, microbiology, chemistry, the central nervous system, the flow and circulation of body fluids, etc. Lawyers referred to constitutional law, statutes, precedent, logic, courtroom procedures, and their knowledge of the judicial system, etc. Teachers’ responses made absolutely no references to any kind of science, any body of professional literature, any principles or laws to explain what they did. Rather, they said things like, “It seemed at the moment a be good way to handle the situation,” “I’ve used it before and it’s worked well,” “It was suggested to me by a fellow teacher,” “That is the way the teachers manual said to do it,” “I was taught to do it that way at the university,” “I don’t really know. I never thought much about it.” The most frequently given response was, “I just fly by the seat of my pants.” Surely, as a profession, we can do better than this. Surely, we can do a better job, a more professional job, in preparing teachers to assume the heavy responsibilities they face in the classroom at any level.

From a practitioner point of view, teaching is an art form. When I asked principals and teachers “Is teaching an art or a science,” the overwhelming response—nearly 100%—regarded teaching as an art; aided, at best, by science. Only two teachers and one principal responded that effective teaching was dependent on a sound knowledge of the science of instruction and human behavior. This is astounding!

In this regard, while questioning principals about their roles as instructional leaders (a role very few principals related to!), I asked, “When you visit a classroom what do you see that tells you whether you have an effective or an ineffective teacher?” One elementary school principal answered (and she was serious), “I know I have a good teacher who, when she screams at the kids, can be heard for a mile and a half!” Though this is an extreme example, it nevertheless points to a serious problem in education; that is, teacher effectiveness is measured in terms of personal characteristics not professional skills. An analysis of principals’ responses to the above question, reveals that 81% of those responses related to personal characteristics (e.g., dress, grooming, demeanor), 13% were related to experience (e.g., years teaching, degrees held, variety of teaching assignments), and only 6% were related to skills.

From my observations and interviews in schools over the past 16 years, I have identified eight skills every teacher should have as they relate, particularly though not exclusively, to effectively managing the learning environment. Teachers who possess these skills are better able to create and maintain the kind of learning environment in which children both learn what they need to learn, and enjoy doing it. These skills are:

1. Skill #1 The ability to teach expectations.

2. Skill #2 The ability to get and keep students on task.

3. Skill #3 The ability to maintain a high rate of positive teacher-to-pupil interactions.

4. Skill #4 The ability to respond noncoercively to inappropriate behavior that is consequential.

5. Skill #5 The ability to maintain a high rate of risk-free student response opportunities.

6. Skill #6 The ability to serve problem-behavior students in the primary learning environment (that is, the classroom).

7. Skill #7 The ability to avoid being trapped.

8. Skill #8 The ability to manage behavior “scientifically.”

(For a more detailed description of the above skills, visit: )


Despite the endless stream of education reform rhetoric that has invaded humankind’s senses for centuries, education has not been, and is not being, reformed. It has only been, and is only being, remodeled, redecorated, and embellished.

Recently, while spending the Christmas holiday with our daughter and her family in Detroit, we visited the Henry Ford Museum. As I studied the evolution of forms of transportation, I was struck with the sharp contrast between animal-drawn forms of transportation, and transportation powered by the internal combustion engine. Prior to the paradigm shift from muscle to machine, so-called advances were little more than trimmings and embellishments: a buckboard with shock absorbing springs beneath it and padded, upholstered seats; artistically arrayed features, designs, and dressings; a surrey with a fringe on top; enclosures against the weather and dust, and even wood-burning heaters. But no matter what was done to beautify and make it more functional it, it was still a horse-drawn buggy.

And so it is with education. Today, as it has been for centuries, education remains a matter of telling students what they need to know, assigning them related things to do, testing them on how much they can recall, then attaching a symbol of some sort as a measure of success or failure. In the name of reform, decorations, trimmings, and embellishments have adorned education: individualized instruction (a term without meaning), back-to-basics (education is the only enterprise I know which is heading into the 21st Century with its eye fixed keenly on the rear view mirror!), classrooms without walls (a euphemism for an invitation to chaos), graduation requirements, teacher pay and performance requirements, compliance standards, LRE, and on and on.

No matter what has been, or is being, done in the name of reform, the very essence of education remains static; essentially no more than a matter of telling students what they need to know, assigning them related things to do, testing them on how much they can recall, then attaching a symbol of some sort as a measure of success or failure. The paradigm is paralyzed, and like the horse and buggy, the best we can hope for is something that looks good—referred to in scientific parlance as face validity.

As with transportation’s advance to the internal combustion engine, science offers education a new paradigm, one that is as dramatic as the shift from muscle to machine. It is found in the literature of education, psychology, and behavior under such headings as “fluency,” “free-operant conditioning,” “schedules of reinforcement,” “ precision teaching,” “celeration,” “critical learning outcomes,” “learning channels” (not related to TV), “elimination of procedure-imposed ceilings,” “component-composite relations,” and more—much more (Binder, 1996; Lindsley, 1996; Foxx, 1996).

These terms are as foreign to the education establishment of today as was the language of physics and engineering to the makers of horse-drawn carriages and buggies. But it is the language of education’s future; that is, if education hopes to have a future that is anything more than an embellished extension of its antiquated past.

Author: Glenn Latham, Utah State University (January, 1997)

Editor’s Note: Dr. Glenn Latham passed away on July 10, 2001. Dr. Latham is best known for his parenting workshops and for his books, “The Power of Positive Parenting” and “What’s a parent to do?”  He was also widely known for his work with students with disabilities, including founding the Mountain Plains Regional Resource Center at Utah State University.  At the time of his death he was Professor emeritus of Special Education at USU.  His work is truly one of the bright spots in the field.