What makes a great teacher?

This blog post is directly inspired by reading a blog post by @headguruteacher on ‘creating the conditions for great teachers to thrive’, which links back to the post which has given rise to my attempt: http://headguruteacher.com/2012/08/21/what-makes-a-great-teacher/

In a weekend where many teachers have risen to the Daily Mail sound-bite bait about lazy teachers going home at three o’ clock, we would be mindful to not be distracted by the inanities of tabloid spin. We must ‘keep the main thing the main thing’ – if we have an army of teachers doing the job brilliantly and collectively then no machiavellian Education Secretary, or OFSTED attack dog, can sway us from our task; they may fiddle with our exams, they may cheat the statistics, cut budgets and worse, but many of us teachers will support our leaders in this fight whilst we pursue the main thing – becoming great teachers.

Here is my list of what I see as the key qualities and attributes of great teachers (without the wealth of experience of many of my blogging betters I may add):

1) Great teachers are ‘reflective practitioners’: Being a ‘reflective practitioner’ was a buzzword on my PGCE course nine years ago. It became quickly scorned and parodied as empty ‘teacher speak’ jargon. ‘Of course we do that’ we mocked – someone is yet again being paid to state the bloomin’ obvious! Yet, in my first few weeks of teaching I quickly realised a few things: being reflective was essential…and I wasn’t very good at teaching! Now, this was a shock to the system, as I had been very proud of being successful at University. I soon realised my capacity to accept failure had greatly diminished, and I was near ‘get your coat and find the sanctuary of a further degree’ state, or even a ‘disappear into a vacuous career in human resources’ position. It was only a dogged determination to not give up and ‘lose’ that saw me persevere. I had to accept, with humility, that I would have to grind away through a succession of failures before I could be half the teacher I wanted to be. I observed great teachers, tried some quick fixes, but received very few quick victories. What I resolved to do was to reflect upon what I had failed at – not label students unteachable, or go along with the tags of ‘awful groups’ and such – but to reflect upon my practice and to get better – one lesson at a time. About three years later, I realised that resistance from students had largely fell away, that I was planning and teaching good lessons, marking good work and seeing mostly good results. Now, I wouldn’t label myself a great teacher, nor am I displaying false modesty, when I say that most great teachers don’t think they are great (sometimes they are neurotic about being a failure!) – but they are wholly focused on getting better. Great teachers have a ‘growth mindset’ that they can get better – and they also project this onto their students – creating the conditions for great learning.

2) Great teachers are always learning: Now, I am aware that this may sound trite and downright cheesy, but it is unequivocably true and therefore needs stating. In ‘Glenngary, Glenn Ross’, by David Mamet, a play scathing about the injustices of consumer capitalism, the predatory boss states that salesman should follow the basics of salesmanship: “ABC – Always Be Closing”. The basics for teachers who want to be great are not too dissimilar in their simplicity: ‘ABL: Always Be Learning’. Luckily for us, school leaders now undertake better CPD within schools, whereat teachers learn in communities, learning from colleagues, and basing that learning rooted in their pedagogy. We also have the awesome CPD tool that is Twitter, connecting us with fellow teachers, sharing resources and ideas. In the last year I have sourced a wealth of great research through Twitter. In my English and Media Faculty I have looked to harness the collective knowledge of this wider research. I have a simple notion that the best students undertake great wider research, reading around the subject to enrich their understanding – therefore teachers should be no different. After reading ‘Visible Learning for Teachers’, by John Hattie, in the last year, I have reconsidered many of the prejudices of what I thought I knew about teaching and I have been determined to root my pedagogy in the evidence of the best of educational research and practice. This new learning is helping me on the path towards aiming to be a great teacher.

3) Great teachers are passionate: Again, some people may dismiss the idea of ‘passion’ as a simplistic and often misdirected notion, but I mean a very specific concept of passion which I wrote about in a previous blog- defined best by John Hattie (see, point 2 is important!) and worthy of quoting in full:

“As I noted in Visible Learning, we rarely talk about passion in education, as if doing so makes the work of teachers seem less serious, more emotional than cognitive, somewhat biased or of lesser import. When we do consider passion, we typically constrain such expressions of joy and involvement to secluded settings not in the public space of being a teacher (Neuman, 2006). The key components of passion for the teacher and for the learner appear to be the sheer thrill of being a learner or a teacher, the absorption that accompanies the process of teaching and learning, the sensations of being involved in the activity of teaching and learning, and the willingness to be involved in deliberate practice to attain understanding. Passion reflects the thrill, as well as the frustrations, of learning; it can be infectious, it can be taught, it can be modelled, and it can be learnt. It is among the most prized outcomes of schooling and, while rarely covered in any of the studies reviewed in this book, it infuses many of the influences that make the difference to the outcomes. It requires more than content knowledge, acts of skilled teaching, or engaged students to make the difference (although these help). It requires a love of the content, an ethical, caring stance deriving from the desire to instil in others a liking, or even love, of the discipline being taught, and a demonstration that the teacher is not only teaching, but also learning (typically about the students’ processes and outcomes of learning). In the current economic climate of many countries, property values have plummeted, leading to fewer resources available for the education budget. As Doug Reeves pointed out to me, passion may be the only natural renewable resource that we have.”

4) Great teachers have the highest of standards for all their students: Michael Wilshaw, that machiavellian caricature and rent-a-quote teacher basher, has one thing absolutely right – high standards are essential. Difficult circumstances may contextualise and explain the many difficulties and privations faced by our students, but that should not mean we compromise on standards. Indeed, we must over-compensate for the absence of boundaries and high expectations at home, with the highest of standards in school. Standards of behaviour, manners, effort and quality of work all mould a pattern of excellence which our students learn from. We must be relentless and rigorous with those standards. At my school this year, one of the key strategies is to not accept substandard work – to return it to students unmarked for redrafting. Now, put simply, we would all sign up to that, and many of us already do. But to really stick to this credo takes a lot of effort and work on behalf of the teacher. The great teacher does this because they are passionate about standards, they are passionate about the transformative capacity of their subject – this attitude is infectious. It comes back to Wilshaw’s quickly infamous ‘three o’clock’ criticism. Those teachers in the pursuit of greatness work far beyond school hours, in work and at home, and this commitment to the highest of standards is becoming the norm. There are those who let the side down, as in every profession, but in my experience there are fewer and fewer. Long may these high standards reign – praised or not by our political leaders.

5) Great teachers ask great questions: These principals of great teaching are deceptively simple. Socrates could have told you great questions were essential to great teaching and it will remain an eternal verity. How great practitioners go about it varies, but there are common principals. Great questioning knows the students in front of you: their skills, levels of understanding etc. Questions are targeted with precision. They are not bounced back with tennis balls, but passed around the classroom like basketballs; students build on the answers of others, challenge them where appropriate (ABC questioning – Agree…; Build Upon…; Challenge…), creating learning that is richly shared and developed in nuanced ways. Students have time to digest those questions, but are not allowed to be excused of the responsibility to answer (however limited that answer may in fact be). Great teachers have useful frameworks for questioning, like Bloom’s Taxonomy, but they are not beholden to them. Finally, a great teacher creates an atmosphere that is ‘questioning’, sometimes even of the knowledge of the teacher, but within safe boundaries where debate flourishes but arguments are controlled. Note – my previous blog on questioning fleshes out these ideas: https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/great-questions-are-the-answer/

6) Great teachers use assessment FOR learning: well, most of us have read Dylan William, or John Hattie. AFL works – there is lots of evidence to prove it – inside and outside the ‘black box’! It promotes efficacy and independence in our students; it helps them meet realisable goals; it helps give variety to pedagogy and some semblance of a life for teachers not overwhelmed by marking! Great teachers obviously provide rigorous frameworks and models for self and peer assessment, they don’t simply chuck students a marks scheme and hope for the best. Students need training away from the dependency of summative judgements made by teachers, towards the richer world of AFL techniques – it takes time and careful planning – it doesn’t appear effortlessly – although some great teachers may appear to make it look effortless (they are the swans kicking furiously under water!).

7) Great teachers focus on relationships: I have come across a few bad teachers in my time and the one defining common factor is that they don’t actually care much for children! Great teachers are the exact opposite – they put a huge amount of work in establishing and maintaining relationships. That isn’t some wooly softly, softly approach – experienced teachers know all students love firm boundaries – but it is about warmth and caring. You need to care enough about the students to prepare the resources, make the ingenious plans and master the challenges. When you walk into the classroom of a great teacher the ‘buzz’ of the class is palpable, and it may appear unique and special, but it can be replicated. By speaking to every student in every lesson, where humanly possible, you can better know your student and show you care about your relationship; by marking their work rigorously and in a timely fashion you show them you care about your relationship; by reprimanding them when they are out of line with complete consistency and fairness, you are showing you care about your relationship. This is where Wilshaw’s message may be lost in translation (I am stretching to find common ground!) – he shows he cares for his students by implementing a rigorous regimen – great teachers create that rigour, but with less confrontational approaches.

What has gone unsaid is how school leaders foster and nurture these qualities. Well, I hope those are implicit in the qualities stated above. From school leaders having a core purpose and vision that evokes passion from teachers and promotes positive relationships; to creating a culture of learning for staff that is democratic and dynamic; to finding the time and coaching for reflective practitioners to hone their pedagogy. School leaders can create the conditions, but ultimately teachers do the work to get there.

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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

7 responses to “What makes a great teacher?”

  1. itr1444@hotmail.com says :

    Great Blog! It was quite refreshing to receive notice of this site from our principal.

  2. Ron Tellez says :

    We are the laggard sound bite of this millennium. Whether it is reflecting on why this student or that student didn’t get a concept, or about how we can convey something more meaningfully, teachers think and rethink how to get their subject matter across. As a former private sector employee and an employer I always teach with the mindset that I am trying to impart the skill sets I wanted to see in my colleagues or in my employees. The private sector is driven by assessment data…education is moving in that direction.

    • huntingenglish says :

      I agree about the depressing move toward private sector approaches. Politicians find consumer education easy to sell and explain to the electorate. Put schools in a league table and let them fight it out in a corrosive survival of the fittest. What most politicians don’t realise is that cooperation in infinitely more powerful then competition in education.

  3. Lynda Humphries says :

    What a fantastic list! As I read, I was worried that you were going to leave out the importance of relationships, which I believe to be the key ingredient which holds all of the other elements together. However, I am impressed by how well you summed it up.

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