What Makes a Good Teacher?

Like any teacher who cares about their classroom craft, you would have asked yourself this question at some point. I’d even go as far as to say that most teachers ask this of themselves quite often, irrespective of the number of years in service to the profession. It’s a fundamental one which, at its core, reveals a deep seated desire to get better. To want to be more than what one is currently. After all, why pose a question one is not even willing to wrestle with? Because if we can know the answer, we can be it, right? If not, at least aim for it and perhaps land somewhere close to the mark.

A good teacher or good teaching?

A friend of mine recently recommend a video on YouTube of an interview with Thomas Moore, Professor of Education at UCL. Moore was asked the question ‘what makes a good teacher?’ His response was brilliant and demonstrated insight. He essentially explained that this is a static question for an ever evolving and developing set of traits and behaviours, consequently rendering the question somewhat inadequate. Instead, he suggested, we could better answer the question, ‘what makes good teaching?’ I’m sure your own responses to that question would include the typical things such as: good planning, effective behaviour management, strong questioning etc. However, the answer to the question of what makes a good teacher is more complex. He explained that the traits aren’t about being, as if one magically arrives at a particular destination after setting out on a particular course. It’s more of a question of becoming. What I find apt about this description is that the path is almost never ending. It’s a journey. And the most exciting thing is that we all get to tread the perpetual path to mastery over a lifetime.

This path towards master craftsmanship involves continuous self-reflection and disciplined self-observation, something I’ve written about here. There is something quite meta about this process, which should culminate in a course of action. After all, it’s no good reflecting and then staying the same. We have to set a goal in order to get better. But this process doesn’t take a rocket scientist to acheive. Just a genuine commitment. But perhaps the commitment part is hard because it involves some ardour and a willingness to look inward.

As I reflect on how one becomes a good teacher I’d like to share some practical tools and ways of thinking (dispositions) to assist with this. First the tools:

  1. Iris Connect, a video recording tool where you can see yourself teaching and conduct self-critique. If you’re bold enough, you can invite other colleagues to watch you and get their feedback. This is an incredibly humbling experience as you soon realise you are not as good as you think you are. So, well done if you manage to do this!
  2. Peer observation by inviting a trusted colleague to watch you. This is similar to the first option, just without the technology. Choose someone credible and whom you can trust to be honest with you. The last thing you want from this exercise is your ego stroked. I’d advise on setting an agenda before the observation. (I have a checklist if you would like me to send one).
  3. Post lesson written reflections done by yourself. A very powerful, introspective method for self-examination. Just grab a journal or exercise book to write your thoughts down.
  4. Student surveys. Err on the side of caution in terms of the types of questions you ask students. You don’t want to come across as pandering, or risk gathering data which isn’t useful to your purpose.

Secondly, I think there are a number of traits, or dispositions, say, which are conducive to becoming a good teacher. Here are my thoughts:

  1. Conscientiousness- a desire to do a good job with due care and attention.
  2. Humility- knowing that there’s far more you can learn.
  3. Resilience- an ability to carry on after failure, or in spite of any hardship.
  4. A good work ethic.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the subject of good teaching and becoming a good teacher. Feel free to email me or comment on this blog. You can also find me on LinkedIn where I make an effort to respond to most comments.

Here’s a link to the interview with Professor. Thomas Moore.

Don’t be that Chronically Tired Teacher

Former UK Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, said: “A tired teacher is not an effective teacher. Nor is that teacher allowed to focus on what is most important – teaching.”

When you say this out loud, it sounds really bizarre. The fact that a teacher is expected to do so many extraneous things outside of their primary role- teaching! The sad thing is that these ‘extra’ duties detract from the primary purpose of educating young people. Teachers suffer, and in turn the students suffer.

Your wellbeing is paramount. If you aren’t healthy and strong, neither will your teaching be. Your ability to teach is predicated on your own sense of wellness. Stressed out and overwhelmed teachers only make stressed out and overwhelmed classrooms.

As educators wind-down for the summer break, I ask you to consider how you will manage your wellbeing when you return to work.

Here are some things to focus on to get you started:

  • Maintain a routine of physical activity
  • Schedule your time, both in and out of work
  • Learn to say no

Have a restful summer break.

Reflective Teachers

The picture of these notebooks are just some of the medium I use to reflect: not just on teaching, but on life and spirituality.

“A teacher who has reflective thinking skills is able to identify problems that may occur in the teaching/learning process and to produce solutions for overcoming such problems.” (Shoffner, 2006).

During my PGCE year, I can recall having to maintain what seemed like endless sheets of reflection pages. After each lesson I would routinely jot down my thoughts on my teaching, resurrecting the experience, some of which I would have consigned to perpetual amnesia if possible! However, this discipline proved very fruitful. It was empowering as it allowed me to identify patterns and anomalies. These patterns and anomalies allow us to forge a road map we can use to better navigate our experiences and manage the day to day goings on.

This led me to consider the question: what if entire teaching teams in our schools reflected more deeply and habitually? Would this improve the quality of instruction? Would we create a better educational experience for our students?

So, how do you reflect on your own practice as an educator?
-dialogue with others?


The Importance of Teacher Collaboration.

Collaboration between colleagues isn’t just some feel good moment where we get to have a casual chat about teaching over some biscuits and coffee. It’s where the real work of school improvement begins; the deep evidence driven dialogue that is tightly focused on delivering better outcomes for students. In the field of education research, this practice is called collective teacher efficacy (CTE). Educational researchers John Hattie, Jennie Donnohoo and Rachel Eells assert that CTE occurs “When a team of individuals share the belief that through their unified efforts they can overcome challenges and produce intended results” (Educational Leadership, March 2018). What’s more compelling is that this form of school practice is a high impact mechanism with robust data to prove so. See the below image (high ranking effect size circled in red).

The average effect size is d=0.40. CTE (Collective Teacher Efficacy) is purported to have an Effect Size of 1.57. This is a whopping three times more effective than the average school practice used to influence student achievement. So if this is such a high impact mechanism, how can we as school leaders go about building this into the culture and practice of our schools. I can think of three broad questions leaders can ask to begin to think about developing CTE in their schools.

  1. What can we do differently to drive student outcomes?
  2. What will these changes look like in practice? I.e. what changes do we need to make to our behaviour to live out this new way of doing things?
  3. How will we measure the impact of what we are doing to see if we are achieving our intended results?

These questions are broad but critically important. They offer a strategic starting point to then pose more detailed sub-questions. The approach requires high fidelity- a real long term commitment to school improvement. If you are a quick-fix, off-the-peg ready meal kind of leader, this isn’t for you.

Championing the  Educational Achievement of Black Boys

Recent protests against racial injustice has once again shone a spotlight upon disparities between different ethnic groups. Naturally, as an educator I found myself thinking about how issues of race play out in schools and what teachers and leaders can do to narrow such disparaties. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but as someone who has educated black boys for over ten years, these are just a few of the things that are effective in helping them to achieve academic success.

  1. Create a classroom culture where it’s okay to be intellectual. Some, but not all black boys will mock each other for appearing smart and bright. You must challenge this, everytime.
  2. Ensure that some of the curriculum is culturally responsive to the culture of your black students. Find out about their backgrounds and create opportunities for them to see their own cultures in the world’s narrative. Never use lazy arguments to practise the contrary, such as “the curriculum doesn’t allow me to” or “it’s not on the exam specification
  3. Keep your expectations high and don’t compromise your demands for excellence. This applies to both behaviour and academic standards. Don’t be overbearing, but send a clear message that you expect their best on all occasions.
  4. Forge a connection with their families but do this before any problems that might occur. By doing so you are showing that you are invested in their whole being. It will benefit you also as you’ll find that their families will often support you all the way to ensure the best outcomes for their children.
  5. Make it an expectation that they’ll go on to further study. Speak about college, university and post-graduate education as if you expect this is the natural path for them. Normalise black achievement so that it becomes the rule and not the exception.

The beauty of taking these approaches is that they’re beneficial to all students. You are not a magician. You are not God. You are a teacher. Just teach as well as you possibly can with the resources you have.