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Getting to Know: Dr. Harry K. Wong

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by Christina Asquith

Getting to Know: Dr. Harry K. Wong
Managing the Effective Classroom 101

*Teachers call him the “rock star of education,” and judging by the crowds who flock to see him speak — then rush the stage for photos — one might expect long hair, leather pants and a guitar. Instead, Dr. Harry Wong is all about Powerpoint presentations and useful advice on a topic that shakes teachers to their core: how to manage a class full of students. The book he wrote with his wife, Rosemary, The First Days of School, has sold three million copies.

He shares with Diverse why improving teachers colleges is essential to improving minority student achievement.

DI: High teacher turnover wreaks havoc on schools, and yet some low-income school districts lose as many as 30 percent of their staff every three years. Why do teachers leave?

HW: A Miami teacher once told me that when he started teaching he was given a “classroom management plan” that was really a behavior plan. So he spent three years fighting student behavior, until he heard me talk and learned that it is all about how you run and structure a classroom. For instance, you manage a store, you don’t discipline a store. If you learn how to manage a classroom, you can be proactive and prevent 80 percent to 90 percent of the behavior problems before they occur. A lot of problems in urban schools are caused by teachers who have not been taught how to structure a classroom and deliver the instruction.

DI: Only 6 percent of teachers in the United States are Black males, according to the National Education Association. How important is diversity among teaching staff?

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HW: There’s much research that says that the race of a teacher has nothing to do with student achievement; it is the effectiveness of the teacher. Nothing says you must have an African-American teacher teaching African-American students. Or that male or female teachers are better for specific students. The bottom line is the teacher has to be an effective teacher. Good instruction is 15 to 20 times more powerful than family background, income, race, gender and other school variables.

DI: Why has there been criticism of teacher colleges lately?

HW: The problem is you have college educators who don’t believe in training teachers to be effective. They preach the ideology that teachers should inquire and be creative — whoopee! They also do not believe in standards, yet you can only be creative to a set of standards. When you build a house, you have to submit plans to the city. After the plans are checked to see if the standards are met, you can then be creative.

DI: How can teachers be more effective?

HW: After you learn how to manage a classroom, you must learn how to effectively instruct or deliver the academic subject matter. Just as a good sales person must know how to sell, a good teacher must know how to teach. Learning to be an effective teacher sounds like a no-brainer, but you have to understand that many new teachers come into the profession having been taught that they are not teachers, but facilitators of what the students want to study. So, they come in with their platitudes: “All I have to do is be their friends, make this class come alive, and learning should be fun, fun, fun.” Where do they pick this up? In many of their college classes.

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We must have continued training for teacher effectiveness, beginning the first day they are in education and not stopping until they retire, just as they do in the business world.

— By Christina Asquith

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