Teaching with Clenched Teeth

  • 11 May, 2009

First posted May 11, 2009.

Blast from the past July 20, 2017

Here we are at the height of summer... I just got back from the International Literacy Association conference and I was hearing about teachers already preparing to start back to school this month! Summers used to mean baseball--not the school year. This blog might remind everyone of a key characteristic of effective of reading teachers.

Teaching should follow research, and teachers ought to use the kinds of tools and routines that have been found to be effective in the past. In the Chicago schools, I imposed time standards to make sure kids got enough teaching of the essential parts of the curriculum. Unfortunately, this emphasis on effective practice and amount of instruction is sometimes misunderstood. It may be interpreted as a kind of mindless recipe-following in which teachers ignore the kids, hurrying to get through a too-full curriculum.

      But, to draw a sports analogy, teaching is not a game that can be played well with clenched teeth.

    Think of this contrast: pro-football teams play once a week for an hour (and they only do this 18 times a year). And each player plays less than that, as they aren’t always on the field. In contrast, baseball players play 162 games a season, and each game can go on for several hours. A star baseballer plays for nearly 500 hours a season, while a pro football player plays only about 9 hours.

      Because of the episodic nature of football, there is a lot of emphasis on intense motivation. Football it seems is best played with clenched teeth. But baseball requires a more quiet and controlled kind of intensity: the players have to play within themselves and not get too excited. Football is played in a hurried and emotional way; baseball is more cunning and careful. There is a serenity to it.

      Teaching is much more like baseball than football. Teachers have to be more planful. They can’t get too excited, getting depressed and angry when things don’t go well or exuberant when they do. It is a long season, and the game has to be played on an even keel if success is to be accomplished. Teachers definitely should not hurry and they cannot afford to feel pressure like they could if they only taught 9 hours a year.

      Reading and writing instruction should be delivered for two to three hours a day (almost as much time as a major league baseball game). During that time, teachers have to switch gears frequently: sometimes teaching decoding (if she is a primary grade teacher) and vocabulary and reading comprehension and reading fluency and writing. Each of these parts of the game have their own tenor; some require speed, others reflection.

    Teachers have to switch gears in other ways too: sometimes telling kids what to do, other times showing them, and still others, assigning practice and sitting back to watch, providing guidance and support as needed.

    Of course, things don’t always go right: you thought an explanation would be enough, but the kids weren’t getting it, so you stopped to show them how. Or you thought three examples would be enough, but it wasn’t and you had to slow down to provide even more practice. Or, the text being read turned out to be a richer experience than you had guessed, so now you want to finish only half of the article today, so that it can be covered in greater, and more profitable, depth. (And, yes, there are those times, when everything seems to go right and you complete a lesson in half the time expected and need to stay on your game, getting a head start on the next lesson since you can’t afford to waste a valuable minute).

    Teaching literacy effectively requires a kind of serenity… a big picture understanding of what is going on, and of what has to happen, and an ability to speed up, slow down, push, stop, and stand back and watch. Teaching reading cannot be done with clenched teeth.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Drinda Jul 02, 2017 01:25 AM


Thank you for this. I appreciate both the baseball analogy and the sentiment. I often think of developing literacy as kind of a fluid process, with gentle ebbs and flows, swirls and eddies. on Teaching with Clenched Teeth

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Teaching with Clenched Teeth


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.