Teach Like It’s 1895

Teach Like a Champion’s pedagogical model is disturbingly similar to one that was established almost a century ago for the express purpose of maintaining racial hierarchy…

By Layla Treuhaft-Ali
As an aspiring teacher and a history major, I’ve become fascinated by teacher education, past and present. Which is why I decided to embark on a close reading of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A ChampionThe book, and its teaching techniques, looms large for any teacher who works in an urban school. Not only has the TLC model of teaching become a fixture of most *high-performing* charter school networks, but it is increasingly making its way into urban school districts as well. And that’s just the start. Teach Like a Champion’s approach also underlies broad efforts to transform the way teachers are educated, forming the *backbone of instruction* at an expanding number of charter-school-owned teacher education centers like Relay Graduate School of Education and Match’s Sposato School of Education.

As I was reading Teach Like A Champion, I observed something that shocked me. The pedagogical model espoused by Lemov is disturbingly similar to one that was established almost a century ago for the express purpose of maintaining racial hierarchy.

Teach Like A Champion advertises 49 discrete techniques that teachers can master to raise student achievement and help increase their students’ college readiness, with a strong emphasis on classroom culture and shaping student behavior, down to the most minute actions. As I was reading Teach Like A Champion, I observed something that shocked me. The pedagogical model espoused by Lemov is disturbingly similar to one that was established almost a century ago for the express purpose of maintaining racial hierarchy. Like Teach Like a Championthis initiative was implemented largely through teacher education and funded and directed entirely by wealthy white businessmen and industrial philanthropists.

Preparing students for social, economic and political subservience

At the turn of the century, state legislatures established public Normal Colleges for white teachers that gave them four-year liberal-arts training, along with white-collar work skills like typing and telegraphy. 1 By contrast, the guiding Southern ideology concerning Black education was based on Samuel Armstrong’s *Hampton Idea*: freedpeople had developed far too great expectations about their role in society by holding office and attending liberal-arts colleges. Public schools should therefore teach children in such a way as to acclimate them to *the lowest forms of labor in the southern economy,* preparing them for social, economic and political subservience. Moreover, this work of adjusting children to such low expectations was to be carried out by Black principals and teachers (Anderson, p. 36). Wealthy Northern businessmen like Robert Ogden, John Rockefeller and George Peabody poured funding into Armstrong’s Hampton Institute and Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute (modeled on Hampton), where Black teachers spent the majority of their time performing manual labor (Anderson, p. 86).

Although the schools claimed to offer industrial training, teachers did not learn skilled labor that might earn them or their students higher-paying jobs. Instead teachers were supposed to learn behavioral norms like self-discipline, obedience and diligence from their arduous manual labor routines, which they would then pass on to their students (Anderson, p. 55). When they did do academic work, every student took Armstrong’s *Political Economy* class, where they learned that racial inequalities were *not oppression of a weaker by the stronger* but rather *natural difficulties* (Anderson p. 52).

Placed in their proper racial context, the Teach Like A Champion techniques can read like a modern-day version of the *Hampton Idea,* where children of color are taught not to challenge authority under the supervision of a wealthy, white elite.

Comparing this training with that of white teachers, it is clear that white corporate and political leaders designed Black education hoping to inculcate a set of behaviors and values that would tether students to a certain economic status. In the new capitalist social fabric, white teachers were educated to bring sophisticated writing and speaking skills and rigorous academic content to their students in order to train them to be business managers and civic leaders. Meanwhile, Black teachers and students were taught that menial labor was their natural birthright. The result was a severe lack of academic training available to Black teachers—and, consequently, their students—which devastated Black secondary schools well into the 1950s and 1960s.

Back to the future
Today, largely white philanthropists pour money into charter schools that place a high value on order, efficiency and discipline, serving children who are almost entirely Black and Latino/a. These wealthy elites are increasingly invested in teacher-training and pedagogy as a means of enacting their vision for minority children. Most disturbingly, this vision heavily emphasizes behavioral norms that are eerily similar to those used a century ago to preserve social hierarchy and prevent students from challenging injustices done to them by the powerful. Every detail of students’ behavior is scrutinized and corrected, even that which would seem to have little to do with children’s academic performance.

For example, in the following video (narrated by Doug Lemov), a new teacher rehearses how she will teach her kindergartners to stand up, telling them exactly how they should move and insisting that they smile at the same time.

Racialized pedagogy
In the 2010 edition of Teach Like A Champion, Lemov positioned himself as an objective, non-ideological observer above the fray of political debate, merely describing teaching techniques that best increase the objective measure of *student achievement.* At the same time, however, he likened his approach’s strict attention to behavioral norms to the broken windows theory of policing. In the 2015 edition, after this theory of policing had been condemned as the cause of police brutality toward African-Americans, any mention of broken windows policing is conspicuously absent.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of Lemov’s claim that he is non-ideological is that it obscures the racialized nature of the pedagogy and the videos—something that should be a topic of public discussion and debate. It’s shocking that mainstream journalists and academics have paid so little critical attention to a work that is quickly shaping so many students’ and teachers’ realities. As far as I know, my essay, which you can read in its entirety here, is the only extended close reading of Teach Like a Champion that’s been done. (If you know of one, please contact me at the address below, but I looked pretty hard!)

Today, largely white philanthropists pour money into charter schools that place a high value on order, efficiency and discipline, serving children who are almost entirely Black and Latino/a.

Placed in their proper racial context, the Teach Like A Champion techniques can read like a modern-day version of the *Hampton Idea,* where children of color are taught not to challenge authority under the supervision of a wealthy, white elite. (It is worth noting that every member of Relay’s Board of Trustees is white.) Students are beginning to challenge such treatment. At Amistad High School in New Haven—an Achievement First school where teachers are trained using Teach Like A Champion—students organized mass protests this spring against the racially-hostile climate they feel their teachers and administrators have created.

One hundred years ago, Rockefeller, Ogden and Peabody understood that teacher training is an essential site for the formation of racial power dynamics. Teach Like A Champion could have a similarly profound impact today.

1 In the following passages, I rely heavily on Schooling the New South by James Leloudis and The Education of Blacks in the South, 1865-1935 by James Anderson, two books I highly recommend.

Layla Headshot (1)Layla Treuhaft-Ali is a rising senior studying history at Yale College, with a focus on the history of American education. After graduation, she intends to pursue a career teaching in an urban public school. You can read the full version of *The Power of Pedagogy* here. Contact her at layla.treuhaft-ali@yale.edu.


  1. Great insight here with echoes of Michael Katz’ book, The Irony of Nineteenth Century Education Reform. Training a generation of Walmart workers.

    1. I clearly have a lot of reading to catch up on! Thanks for the recommendation. Emdin’s For White Folks makes a similar argument (as Paul Thomas just informed me!) But in a good way 🙂

  2. Very interesting. I am white and have taught for two decades. My black principal literally pushed this book on me to become a better teacher but also as a form of punishment. After retiring this summer and finding two copies in my possession I took them both to Goodwill. Sounds like a good place for them.

  3. I recall one teacher wrote a piece (posted here on this blog) expressing her revulsion with the Teach Like a Champion techniques, as well as with the KIPP school where she worked:


    There’s no mention of the white-black-race thing, but just a disgust with the just about everything at the school:
    “By year three it had become very, very difficult for me to hide my disdain for the way the school was managed. In the previous two years, I’d fought hard for the adoption of a play-based early childhood curriculum, only to see it systematically dismantled by our 25-year old assistant principal.

    “When this administrator told us that our student test scores would be higher if we used direct instruction, worksheets and exit tickets to check for their understanding, I lost my shit. I’m sorry, but five-year-olds don’t learn that way.

    “I was fired a week later. Well, to be fair, I was told that I *wasn’t a good fit*—most likely because I talked about things like poverty and trauma and brain development, and also because at that point I knew significantly more about early childhood education and what young children actually needed to grow and develop than the administrators who ran the school.

    “And that made me a threat.

    ” … ”
    “Somewhere along the line I developed this radical idea that children are humans who should be treated with dignity, and that the classroom should, ideally, be a place they’d want to be even if schooling weren’t compulsory.

    “This idea that my students are human beings with thoughts and feelings, and that these thoughts and feelings should be at the center of what I do in the classroom, comes from my mentors here in New Orleans and is a radical shift from the silence and test prep that rule at KIPP.”

  4. It’s interesting that these trainees – all presumably highly engaged and focused on what they are learning-
    are not sitting upright , pretending to hold a bubble in their mouths.. They are slouched, one has her arms folded, leaning over the desk, another is sitting back in her chair.
    You know- like normal people . Too bad 5 year olds don’t get the same option.

  5. I had never considered the racial implications, though I now absolutely recognize them. I just know that I gave up on “TLC” strategies when one of the DVD clips we watched in a staff meeting featured a teacher demonstrating the strategy of “100% Compliance” with what seemed like a lengthy “I’m waiting for the back row…I’m waiting for Tasha…I’m still waiting to see Fred’s pencil in the right place…I need Jim’s eyes on me…” list before instruction could begin…and the calendar on the wall of the classroom said February. If you are STILL spending that much time on a management strategy like that in February (repeated how-many-times-a-day), your strategy isn’t working!!!

  6. As someone who is Latina, and has been a public school teacher for 10 years in different environments [including North Philadelphia, East Harlem (NYC), and Humboldt Park (Chicago)] I couldn’t disagree more with this article.

    Here’s why?
    1. It sounds like you (and a lot of the people commenting on this) have never taught in an urban environment. Lemov is right in that the people writing a lot of theory about teaching and education have not been teachers. When he says, “stoop” to teach kids, I think it’s more about how teaching as a profession isn’t respected (but “research” is) as well as urban education isn’t respected. I think interpreting as stooping to teach black and latino kids is a stretch.

    2. These strategies work! I taught in East Harlem, middle school for 3 years. It was incredibly difficult. Many teachers I started with, would start crying after the left the school, and I personally, refused to even talk about it. Then, I moved to Chicago and did one of the teacher residencies which included an intense training using Teach Like a Champion. It was amazing! Three years and I had, on my own, only developed one of these strategies (“Positive Framing”). There was clearly more to learn.
    I didn’t see it as oppression. I saw it as helping me manage my classroom! Lemov observed successful teachers in urban environments to develop these. He didn’t go back and say, “hey, let’s be racist and keep children of color down” in some back room. These work!

    3. In my classroom, I see it work. In other classrooms, where the teachers forget to implement it consistently, I hear a lot of yelling, rhetorical questions, sarcasm, or just plain, “put your heads down” because the children aren’t behaving. A lot of educational time is being lost on managing instead of learning.
    In my classroom is peaceful, students are working and students feel free to express their opinions even if they don’t agree with me. But I think this is because I’ve been using these for a few years now. My students basically run my classroom and they get a lot of choice in terms of what and when we do things. They are empowered, they are thinkers, but that can only come after they feel safe and there’s order in a class. No one can learn in chaos. You can’t learn when you don’t feel safe. Consistency and teacher effectiveness is key.

    4. Lemov provides some very clear strategies to help new teachers be more effective in their first year or two in an urban school. After that, they can branch out and have student led classroom. But let’s face it, what teacher has a student led classroom in the first few years….no one…well, maybe in surburbia…I don’t know.

    5. I’ve seen it work on my own (1/2 white 1/2 Latino) son. For 3 1/2 years he (one of them Near North Montessori, which is the best one in all of Chicago, and then another one, once we moved into another part of the city) and all that lack of structure didn’t help him at all. Instead, he had problems. Lots and lots of them. He needed structure and teacher follow-thru.

    If you interpret lack of structure with freedom then I got news for you…the reality is kids need structure. Any parent will tell you. He needed clear rules, clear expectations, and structure with guidance.

    I moved him to my Lemovian school, and guess what. 99% of the problems gone. Instead of seeing himself as a bad kid because of what he was experiencing at these liberal (and white) schools, he felt better about himself. He was happy, well-behaved, and productive.

    In conclusion, while theoretically this article may contain some strands of truth, it omits real life experience. As do many of the sources cited within it. Which basically supports Lemov’s comment once again about academics dictating education without having actually taught.

  7. People who admire Lemov tend to see one of two possibilities for a classroom: 1. The teacher runs things calmly and effectively, and there is order; 2. The students run things, and there is chaos. But those aren’t the only possibilities. It is also possible to go into classrooms and observe 3. The teacher runs things in a way that is reactive or inconsistent, and there is hostility; 4. The teacher shares power with the students effectively and appropriately, and there is harmony.

    I understand that it is useful to new and preservice teachers to have a guide as they begin the challenging work of teaching, but Lemov’s book is not the only attempt to provide such a guide, nor is his the only ideology — and he certainly has one — that could possibly underpin a positive and productive classroom. As a new teacher myself (currently between my first and second year), I have found John Shindler’s book “Transformative Classroom Management” useful, inspiriting, and inspiring. I recommend it.

    1. I hope you’ll write something about this, Gloria – perhaps for this very blog! I hear from new teachers all the time who are hungry for an alternative to whatever Lemov-ish approach they’re being schooled in.

      1. Which is better than the classroom management taught at traditional ed schools (hint: none). Which then leads to 50% of new teachers in urban schools not making it past a year of teaching. And no, I’m not referring to TFA teachers, but the traditionally prepared ones.

        Not saying that Lemov is the be-all, end-all. However, his techniques are used by lots of teacher across the spectrum. What is different, I think, it that Lemov brought together a bunch of practices that got results in a wide array of classrooms, and packaged them as a set. I think before he did, few teachers would use all of his techniques – but might have used 5 or 10 – along with other practices.

        1. You skip right past the big issue here, which is how is it that broken windows policing is the subject of national outrage but broken windows schooling is justifiable? I think this is an irreconcilable contradiction, and that students are very aware of this…

          1. I want to share with you an email I received recently from a new teacher who is going through a TLC-inspired training in Boston as I think it gets at what’s so complicated here. The teacher likes the fact that she’s getting coaching and training in classroom management but, at the same time, there’s something about the program’s emphasis that strikes her as “off.” If traditional education programs don’t deal with classroom management at all, as you argue, the alternative that she’s going through has swung to the opposite extreme: classroom management is the most important part of teaching. And the racialized aspect that Layla identified in Teach Like It’s 1895 is present here in the program’s failure to ever mention race, even though virtually all of the students these teachers-in-training will be teaching are students of color.

            “In general, the training assumed a banking method of education. Culturally responsive practices were never addressed, neither were inclusive practices that considered the needs of students on IEPs. The training was more concerned with teachers feeling like they are in control, rather than students feeling safe. I thought the role playing and coaching was valuable and I wish there were other programs out there that provided these opportunities for teachers to practice, get feedback, reflect, and grow. If role playing and coaching were paired with sound pedagogy it could be be a recipe for a good program. But this program did not have sound pedagogy. Race was never discussed. The fact that the vast majority of our coaches were white was not brought up. In most of the videos they showed us of model teaching, the teachers were white and all of the students were black or Latino. Issues of race and power were never discussed.”

          2. I think (although it’s been a while since I’ve read his book) Lemov is very explicit that a tightly managed classroom is not an end in and of itself, but a means for student engagement and critical thinking. For example, there’s a lot more going on in this clip he highlights (http://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/rue-ratray-senstivity-analysis/) than just strong classroom management. At the same time, if the teacher hadn’t created a culture where all of the students were engaged all of the time, they wouldn’t be able to drive towards those higher order skills. I think often Lemov’s techniques and those of charter schools have sometimes been misunderstood (sometimes by administrators and teachers of charter schools, themselves) as being about control, and that’s not the goal.

            I think Lemov would probably push back that although his book isn’t intended to address issues of race, this isn’t to say that those issues shouldn’t be addressed at all levels of urban schools; I’m not sure how compelling that is. But I’m curious, what would you like him to say about race that he isn’t? What do you think are the messages about the dynamic of power that aren’t being internalized by white teachers in majority-minority schools, and should be in order to help those teachers be more effective and sensitive in their craft?

          3. “I think often Lemov’s techniques and those of charter schools have sometimes been misunderstood (sometimes by administrators and teachers of charter schools, themselves) as being about control, and that’s not the goal.”

            When the “misunderstanding” seems to be occurring on such a scale (including by schools that are part of the network that Lemov himself is affiliated), perhaps there’s something more fundamentally wrong with the model. As for Lemov’s book not being intended to address issues of race, when formulate an approach to teaching that’s specifically intended for urban schools and their virtually all minority student bodies, the book is fundamentally about race, whether you like it or not. I’m particularly interested in student critiques of the model as they’re acutely aware of its contradictions – and have even begun to push back, as you saw at the Achievement First high school in New Haven this spring. One of the big issues they raised was the arbitrariness of the discipline system – and the fact that objecting when they felt that they were being punished unfairly, only brought more punishment. (You hear this same complaint echoed here and here by students at schools that base their teaching and classroom management practices on TLC.) The big question is whether “effective and sensitive” teachers have the freedom to adjust their practices in response to legitimate critiques from students.

  8. Thank you all for the comments and feedback! I want to clarify a few things about this article. I certainly do not oppose all structure or discipline in the classroom, nor do I claim that there is nothing about the 49 techniques that can be useful to teachers and helpful to students. In my full piece, I focus on Lemov’s “Five Principles of Classroom Culture” and his explicit celebration of broken-windows policing, which are fundamental tenets of the philosophy underlying Teach Like A Champion. The emphasis on compliance to a minute degree, quashing any student’s small deviance from the teacher’s will, and having the students internalize the same set of beliefs is striking. That, plus the fact that these principles are designed and promoted largely by wealthy white people with backgrounds in business, not teaching (Lemov himself taught in a private school for 2 years before moving into the business world), suggest that these principles are not neutral even though they claim to be. And plenty of urban public school teachers oppose TLAC (one example is this piece by Ray Salazaar: http://www.chicagonow.com/white-rhino/2011/09/this-school-year-dont-teach-like-a-champion), while plenty of the most influential advocates/donors for TLAC have never taught a day in their lives because they come from the corporate world.

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