So what makes a great teacher?

With just a week to go until the end of term I should probably defer this post. (And as it turns out I have, we are now into the start of the new term.)   My colleagues and I are all just about crawling through the days, as are most of our pupils.  If you think that teaching is all about long holidays I would encourage you to try to spend at least a day working with a teacher.  Unfortunately you are most unlikely to have that chance as child protection issues are now so much at the front of everyones mind that the positive vetting you need to get into a school rivals that carried out by MI6.  A recent mature teacher training student put it like this as she left the school, “I think you do an amazing job and I know that I can’t do it.”  A sad moment but in the long term a far better outcome for her and for the generations of pupils whose education she would be a part of than battling to work in a job to which she was just not suited.  At one school I worked in we invited some of our business and industry partners to come and spend a day with a teacher.   The feedback was fascinating.  In almost all cases these were people who held senior posts and carried a lot of responsibility yet by the end of the day all were exhausted and all had re evaluated their perception of teaching.

All well and good but what mixture of abilities, qualities and knowledge does the job require?  That is such a big question, many, many books have been written on the subject.  In the UK over the last few years considerable expertise has gone into analysing and promoting effective classroom practice.  Our understanding of the physical functioning of the human brain has progressed in leaps and bounds, as has our grasp of the ways in which people learn.  In spite of all this I still come across teachers who are doing all the right things but somehow don’t manage to inspire their pupils so what does it take?

Well it helps if you love working with children. If you don’t already know it check out Taylor Mali for an inspirational view of what it is to be a teacher, .   A popular mistake is to assume that someone who has achieved a degree of subject expertise, represented by say a 2:1 degree, will inevitably become a great classroom teacher.  Lets consider this for a moment.   The skills and abilities required to succeed at degree level might be expected to include a good standard of English and other core skills, the ability to learn by listening to lectures and to regurgitate that learning in an acceptably structured essay, a certain familiarity with information seeking and handling techniques, the capacity to apply oneself to a task and hopefully an enthusiasm for the subject.  On the face of it none of these things is anything other than positive, the question is, are they enough?    At this point I should say that I am very proud of my degrees, the process I went through to gain them shaped me as a person and still shapes me, my world view and how I teach.  I also know that as a newly qualified graduate I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of what it is to be a teacher.

I have been fortunate to work with some truly  great professionals in my career and I have learnt from each of them, most of them would say that they never taught me anything, but I was watching them and watching how they were with children.  Dave, with one phrase and no fuss reached a child who was incandescent with rage and calmed him down.  Vicky told a child exactly how they were behaving in terms I would never have dared to use and they accepted it, going on to change.  Richard used a story to teach young children about electronics and I found the story worked so well that they could retell it five years later.  None of these things came from a degree course, they all came from a deep desire to reach children and help them grow, they all depended on interpersonal skills.  If you work with children it will come as no surprise to learn that adolescents are significantly less able to read body language than anyone else, great teachers know this at some level and act accordingly whether it is spelling out with great clarity to a child what they have done and what the message that they have been sending through their body language is or whether it is the way in which they use body language clearly and unambiguously.

Great teachers teach learning to their children.  Just for the sake of argument cast your mind back over your school days.  How many lessons do you remember?  Which of those are to do with the content that you learned rather than the outrageous incident when Dwayne got into so much trouble?  What was it about the lesson that made it stick for you?  Do you remember being so engrossed in your learning that you didn’t even think it was work?  And now the killer, how much do those memories match your day to day classroom experience?  Yes, I know that at some time learning is something that you have to do to achieve a given end and that it is not always fun but children respond to success and if they can see that they are making progress they leave feeling successful and they are likely to come into your next lesson expecting to enjoy it and ready to learn.

Well I haven’t really answered the question so I suppose this post is a failure but perhaps it has given you something to think about, something to ponder.

3 Responses to “So what makes a great teacher?”
  1. Kevin Jones says:

    Really like what you’re doing here, love the articles, particularly the one on the worth of design and technology.
    I know it isn’t easy doing these things, finding both the time and the will!
    great stuff, keep it up. anything I can do, just ask.

    • Kevin, thank you for the encouragement and glad you like the blog. You are right, it is a bit of a labour of love to keep it going but at least I get to formulate my ideas. Keep up the good work.

  2. pradlfan says:

    I agree with your statement that great teachers teach learning to their children. As a high school English teacher in the U.S. I recognize the experience of that view – thank you!

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