Building a Better Teacher: Elizabeth Green writes a book about teaching

by Harini Salgado '15

Elizabeth Green '02 is the author of the recently published book, "Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach it to Everyone)." She is also the editor-in-chief, co-founder, and CEO of Chalkbeat, a non-profit news organization covering education in New York, Colorado, Indiana and Tennessee. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in Journalism, she covered education for the New York Sun and the US News & World Report, before co-founding GothamSchools (now Chalkbeat New York). She was a Spencer Fellow at Columbia University from 2009 to 2010 which lead to a New York Times Magazine cover story with the same title as her book and an Abe Journalism Fellowship, which allowed her to study education in Japan. At Blair, Green was the editor-in-chief of Silver Chips Print, worked on SilverQuill and SilverQuest and participated in the One Act plays. Senior Harini Salgado interviewed Green in September for an article in Silver Chips Online.

Well, first of all, we thought it was tremendously uncool not to be at the Old Blair because Old Blair had a lot more street cred than new Blair and had a lot of, you know, culture that was developed and graffiti on the walls and we had no graffiti on the walls. So we were very uncool. And then there were rumors that when the building opened, it was going to have a McDonalds in it, so there was that. And I remember we knew that they picked the colors from some kind of science thing about what kind of colors are supposed to make you more thoughtful, so that's why they have the salmon color everywhere. That's what we were told. I can't verify that.

How did you time at Blair affect you?

The school absolutely shaped me and it's totally part of who I am today and I'm in touch with so many of my friends that I went to high school with. The school shaped our values. It had a diverse community, which is really important to forming who we are and how we interact with people, so I think it was an amazing place.

You started at Blair the year the new campus opened. What was that like?

What was your Magnet experience like and were there any classes you remember being really fun? My Magnet experience was great. I really glad that I was in the Magnet. I loved calculus; I loved all my math classes. I really liked physics with Mr. Bunday and I liked quantum physics with Mr. Bunday. That was a great class.

The old advisor to Silver Chips was Mr. Mathwin and it was in his class, while working in Silver Chips, that I realized that I wanted to be a journalist. Covering Blair [drew me to education reporting]. I don't know if this is still a saying at Silver Chips but Mr. Mathwin would always tell us to cover 'Big Blair'. And one of the issues that was affecting our whole school was this racial and class achievement gap that our principal [Phillip Gainous] at the time even got on the loud speaker and made a public announcement where he said 'You Black and Latino students have to get your test scores up'" and I was really startled by that and I think everyone was really startled by that. That got me really interested in that issue and so covering high school reform as a high school student got me interested in covering education and I haven't really done anything else. I actually recently ran into, the other day, someone who was one of the first people I interviewed for a Silver Chips story, who is at a think tank in Washington and who wrote a review of my book.

How did you come up with the idea for Chalkbeat and its predecessor GothamSchools?

So basically the values that Mr. Mathwin and Silver Chips gave me about what journalism could be were not supported by the business models of newspapers and magazines I initially worked for after college. So for example the newspaper that I worked for in New York City, its business model depended on advertising and the idea of its advertising was to prove that the readers of the newspaper were very affluent, that way they could sell more expensive ads. As a result, they needed to write content that those affluent readers would want to read. As their education reporter, I was required to write regular stories about the New York City private schools. But what I really wanted to do was write about the public schools, and not just the public schools, but the public schools that served the poorest students because I saw that there was a disincentive for anyone else to cover those communities and yet those communities had the greatest need. So that was one of the main origins of starting a non-profit news organization from scratch. The idea was what if we created a business model that was dedicated to supporting this kind of journalism. Then we could make a bigger difference and we could write the stories we know are the most important.

When did you realize you wanted to be a journalist and what drew you to education reporting?

I stay in touch with a lot of my friends from high school, and as I was writing my book, I reflected a lot on my own education, so I would talk to my friends about teachers that we had in common and I would say, "I'm just learning a lot about these techniques and do you remember this teacher that I loved and remember how great she was?" And a friend will say, "I hated that teacher. I didn't learn anything in that class". And I thought it was very interesting to reflect in that way because one of the requirements of being an effective teacher is that you don't just teach a few kids in a class, you teach them all.

Were there any teachers that you thought could have done better?

The teachers that I really loved at Blair, who maybe are still there, are Ms. [Nannette] Dyas – she was wonderful – Ms. [Sandra] Ivey – she was a great teacher – Ms. [Margarita] Escatell, Mr. [John] Mathwin, Mr. Bunday – I thought he was awesome.

You wrote a book about teaching what teachers really inspired you in school?

What are some of your favorite memories of Blair?

I have a lot of favorite memories on the newspaper. We did this thing called race to the top, where we raced up the stairs. The late nights were also really great and the competitions and putting the paper together was a very great experience.

Articles, Interviews, and Reviews

Elizabeth Green wrote two cover stories for the New York Times Magazine related to her new book, Building a Better Teacher:

She was interviewed by many media outlets following the publication of her book:

Reviews of Building a Better Teacher:

I was really scared to travel to Japan as a reporter. I thought I wouldn't be able to get around. I thought that I would get lost all the time; that I would confuse the streets and wouldn't be able to read the signs. It was a wonderful experience. I didn't have any reason to be scared but it was definitely different than being a reporter in the US. For example, in the US, I could just show up anywhere in any city and figure out how to move forward without too much of a game plan. In Japan, I really needed to have personal introductions at every school I visited and I carefully made an itinerary in advance, so fortunately the [Abe] fellowship helped me do that. It was a really amazing experience. I'm dying to go back.

What was it like researching in Japan [for your book]?

How long have you been thinking about writing a book on teaching and what convinced you to write it?

The first thing I did was a story for the New York Times Magazine by the same name as the book and after writing that story I was contacted by literary agents interested in exploring whether publishers would want to buy a book about this and when they asked me that I said absolutely I would like to write a book about this topic because I was just beginning to understand it myself and I had a lot more that I wanted to learn, for one thing. And also, I thought that the gap in public understanding about the topic was really great and that it would be worth trying to make a bigger dent in that misunderstanding and a book seemed like a good way to do that.

What is the biggest thing you hope people take away from your book?

I think that the most important thing is that it reshapes the way people understand what it takes to teach well because if you understand that you can then think differently about kind of policies and system level changes that will be required to support every teacher being effective. If you don't understand the nature of the job, you might think the current policies are enough but they're not.

Read the feature on Elizabeth's book at Silver Chips Online: Blair alum publishes a book on teaching (September 15, 2014)