Skip to Content

Your Classroom

Four Characteristics of ‘Champion’ Teachers

By Doug Lemov

There are solutions to our many educational challenges. They’re being used in some classroom somewhere—across the country, across the state or across the hall—right now. And if we want to succeed, our first task should be to identify the people who have found the greatest success in their classrooms and study them. The country’s best teachers already have found most of the answers.

Part of my work in the past eight years has been finding some of those outstanding and successful teachers, studying them, and codifying what they do so that I can share their techniques with others. The result of that work was a book called Teach Like a Champion.

It’s abundantly clear to me that there are “champions” everywhere who can teach us the solutions. The reason we don’t always have the results we want is not because the teachers we have aren’t good enough but because we fail to learn from them sufficiently.

So what are some of the common themes that set teachers in high-achieving classrooms apart? Here are four:

Champion teachers often do surprising, unconventional things. For example, most education schools tell teachers not to call on students who don’t want to be called on, for fear it may embarrass them or hurt their self-esteem if they don’t know the answer. The country’s best teachers actually do a lot of what I’ve termed “cold calling” and “no opt out” to engage every student, even those that don’t appear to want to learn—in fact, especially those kids. Those teachers don’t do it punitively, they make the interactions as positive as they can be, but they are unapologetic and relentless. They respect students enough to insist that they try. And they trust but verify—relating to students, too, is one of their strengths, but not so much that they don’t test for personal responsibility and accountability.

Champion teachers master the mundane. It’s always struck me as ironic that the teachers whose students get to the deepest levels of mastery of higher order and abstract skills—a deep reading of the symbolism in Lord of the Flies, say—are the most likely to have a healthy obsession with the mundane. They put a priority on things that some other teachers might think of as trivial: how students enter the classroom; how papers are passed out so no time is wasted; expectations for how you raise your hand. A friend of mine told me that his favorite music instructor says that gaining insight into playing music starts with how you pick up your instrument. If you reach with hands that express understanding of the level of meditation required for mastery in each aspect of playing, your journey has begun. Champion teachers get to the higher levels not by ignoring the mundane but by engineering it.  

Champion teachers are humble. One of the most interesting practices I’ve noticed about great teachers is what they do outside of their classroom: They seek to copy other teachers and are unabashed about it. They are the most eager to learn and most desirous of borrowing ideas from other teachers. One of the fastest ways to generate new, effective ideas in your classroom is to copy them from someone else. Great teachers don’t think twice about doing so and great schools should make that a daily part of their mission.

Champion teachers practice. Teaching is often a performance profession, much like sports, music or surgery. And performance professionals prepare by practicing. In general, we don’t do that in the teaching profession. We do something called professional development which, by and large, involves talking and reflecting and listening, none of which prepare you to perform live and under pressure. The best teachers spend some time rehearsing, practicing. As I describe in my most recent book Practice Perfect, they write the questions for their book discussion in advance. Before the lesson starts, they speak them aloud to themselves or to a peer to see if they sound right. They ask a partner to try to answer their questions to see if they are clear enough. They even—as two colleagues of mine do—meet for 10 minutes in the morning to ask their colleague to try to answer the questions from their lesson incorrectly as a student might do. This helps them prepare for responding to unexpected answers. In other performance professions this kind of practice is relished. It is a sign of excellence and pride in workmanship. In teaching we must make better use of practice and recognize that to practice is not to say, “I am not good enough” but rather, I want to be better.”

Lemov is the author of Teach Like a Champion (Jossey-Bass, 2010) and a managing director at Uncommon Schools. He provides professional development for teachers and administrators and is a former English and history teacher at the university, high school and middle school levels. Learn more at

Weekly E-Mail
Offers SOL Tips

Educators can now receive a weekly e-mail featuring resources and information about Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL), published by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). Called “TeacherDirect,” the updates will each contain about 10 SOL-related items of interest to teachers that may also be new and/or have approaching deadlines.

Among the feature of the TeacherDirect e-mail are professional development opportunities; new resources; a searchable list of conferences, webinars and institutes; and the SOL Library, which contains catalogs of all SOL-related resources available through VDOE.

 To sign up, visit the Teacher Direct section of the VDOE website at

National Certification
Process Now Features
Reduced Paperwork

If you’ve been shying away from the process of becoming a National Board Certified Teacher because of the amount of paperwork involved, check this out: The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is revamping its process for candidates submitting portfolio materials.

Beginning with the current (2012-2013) candidate cycle, those seeking certification will use a new "ePortfolio" system. No more volumes of paper documents for scoring. The current submission window for certification candidates is April 1-May 31, 2013.

To learn more, go to the NBPTS website at or call the organization’s staff at 1-800-22-TEACH, 9-5 on weekdays.

Make a Difference:
Make Less Trash

The life cycles of a cell phone, soccer ball and DVD are part of what students can learn with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Make a Difference Middle School Kit,” which is available free to teachers. The kit focuses on ways people can reduce the amount of landfill and other waste they produce and includes four posters, a CD-ROM and other materials. Some individual items from the kit may be ordered in quantities up to 30.
To get a kit, visit

Smart, Free Stuff
From the NEA

There are plenty of quality, free lesson plans and activities available on the NEA website, materials you might be able to put to use in your classroom now. Here’s a sampling:

     • BAM! Body and Mind provides teachers with interactive, educational and fun activities that are linked to the national education standards for science and health.

     • Exploring Time is an interactive website that lets middle and high school teachers explore change over time.

     • ArtThink offers students in-depth investigation of 20th-  and 21st-century art and artists by using San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s interactive programs.

     • Encyclopedia of Life houses information and pictures of all known species of animals, plants, fungi, protists and bacteria.

     • The Center on Congress offers “The Impact of Congress” series that examines key legislation in our nation’s history that impacts our lives today.


For Better Communication
With Parents…

1. Contact them early—before there’s bad news.

2. Focus on a child’s strengths. Parents see themselves in their children and may become defensive.

3. Respect parents’ schedules. Many work long hours and can’t meet or communicate with teachers during regular hours.

4. Stress collaboration instead of criticism. Say “How can we work together to improve Mary’s study habits?” instead of “We need to talk about Mary’s poor study habits.”

5. Be sure to ask parents if there’s anything you need to know about their child that may have an impact on his or her schoolwork.

6. Send a monthly or twice-a-month newsletter or e-mail to parents.

7. Post grades online.

8. Create a parent e-mail list for updates and assignments.

9. Emphasize that you and the parents are partners working together on behalf of their child.

Stories From the
Big Yellow Bus

School bus drivers have a whole different, yet somehow the same, set of adventures with their students that staff members who work in school buildings do. Now you can hear about many of them firsthand. “Tales from the School Bus” is a blog written by a driver who describes “the insanity that goes on before and after the bell rings.”

From tips on successful field trips to “Ten Things Your School Bus Driver Wants to Tell You But Doesn’t,” just about everything gets discussed from a behind-the-wheel perspective. In one entry, the driver remembers what it was like to have children on board during a tornado warning.

To check it out, go to

Helping Military Kids

Lots of Virginia educators work with children from military families—children who may be dealing with an unusual and difficult set of circumstances. A resource that may help is a website called Military Kids Connect, which offers a set of resources to help young people cope with the unique pressures of military life.

In addition to dealing with lengthy separations from parents and caregivers, these kids are also affected by frequent moves and the changes in schools and friends that come with those moves. The site has been created by the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2), a Department of Defense agency, and creates an online community for military children ages 6-17.

You can find the site at

Embed This Page (x)

Select and copy this code to your clipboard