What makes a great teacher? (Part Two)

In part one, I said that great teachers tend to be relentless in their pursuit of excellence and, as such, their language is infused with a sense of urgency and drive.

Great teachers also have the ability to explain complex concepts in ways that make sense. Great teachers ask good questions and give really good feedback. And great teachers, however it is done, make their students believe that they’re learning and progressing.

Professor Graham Nuthall in The Hidden Lives of Learners says that “teaching is about sensitivity and adaptation”.

He continued: “It is about adjusting to the here-and-now circumstances of particular students. It is about making moment-by moment decisions as a lesson or activity progresses. Things that interest some students do not interest others. Things that work one day may not work the next day. What can be done quickly with one group has to be taken very slowly with another group. What one student finds easy to understand may confuse another student.

“In order to navigate the complexity of the circumstances in which a teacher works, it is not possible to follow a recipe. As a teacher, you make adaptations. You must. The important question is: what adaptations do you make. You can do it by a kind of blind trial and error, but it would be much better if you knew what kinds of adaptations were needed, and why.”

Teach like a pro

In Professional Capital by Professors Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan, the authors assert that to become master teachers – or, in their terminology, “to teach like a pro” – teachers have to do three things:

  • Continuously inquire into and improve one’s own teaching. All teachers need to become not just good but excellent at teaching. Driving up standards, narrowing achievement gaps, engaging young minds amid all the distractions that now surround them, and preparing young people to live successfully and cohesively in the 21st century are all higher order requirements that call for the highest quality of teaching. Mere proficiency or passing will no longer serve as the yardstick for success. Teachers and teaching needs to keep on improving for everyone all the time. Constant inquiry and continuous individual and collective development are essential to professional success.
  • Plan teaching, improve teaching, and often do teaching not as an isolated individual but as part of a high-performing team. All successful organisations in all walks of life, including business, sports, and schools, build effective teams as a core part of performance. Professionals understand the power of the team, promote the development of the team, and become integral parts of the team themselves. Teaching like a pro, so say Hargreaves and Fullan, is not about yet more individual accountability, but about powerful collective responsibility.
  • Be part and parcel of the wider teaching profession and contribute to its development. This means rethinking how teachers work with, support, and also challenge their colleagues. It means schools becoming less isolated from each other and not restricting or micromanaging the professional learning and assistance that teachers can access from outside their own school or local authority.

Hargreaves and Fullan also share 10 specific actions that individual teachers can perform in order to become master teachers:

1, Become a true pro

Great teaching means putting in years of study and practice. Teaching like a pro means teachers connecting with the latest research evidence and inquiring into their own practice. It is an investment of attention to study, practice and learning from colleagues.

2, Start with yourself

Examine your own experience: great teachers name three concrete actions they might take to become more effective – at least one they can do on their own and one that involves one or more colleagues.

3, Be a mindful teacher

Great teachers possess the core principles of Mindful Teaching as developed by Liz MacDonald and Professor Dennis Shirley. These are:

  • Checking that what they did in their classroom was authentically aligned with their beliefs and values, more than just technically aligned with their school’s plans and requirements.
  • Practising stopping by meditating, listening to music, or taking long walks to retain a sense of perspective.
  • Being open-minded so they do not stereotype and stigmatise their superiors or opponents who sometimes seem responsible for their frustrations.
  • Investing in developing their own professional expertise within and beyond the school day.
  • Taking time to sit down with colleagues so they can take collective responsibility for all the students they have in common.

4, Build your human capital through social capital

Great teachers take an inventory of their strengths and weaknesses then commit to working with colleagues in multiple and overlapping ways, for example by: planning a unit with a peer; engaging in peer-observation and inquiry, starting an innovative unit of work with three or four colleagues; going as a team on an external professional development opportunity and, still as a team, trying to apply some of what they learned; discussing examples of students’ work and comparing how they would assess them; developing a closer in-class relationship with the teaching assistant; at staff social events, sitting beside and talking to a colleague who may be older or younger or who may have a different approach to his or her teaching; becoming involved as a mentor or a peer coach for other teachers; joining a school improvement team; connecting online and sharing lesson plans with teachers in their own school or with a school elsewhere.

5, Push and pull your peers

Great teachers create opportunities to increase purposeful peer interaction, help establish and consolidate new norms of teachers working together, and build respect for each other. Great teachers pull or draw people in with the energy and excitement of their own committed practice and also push and nudge colleagues forwards with their relentless commitment to being better and doing better for all their students. Therefore, great teachers have to trust processes of peer interaction as well as particular people. These processes are ones that maximise their organisation’s collective capabilities and improve its problem-solving capacities.

6, Invest in and accumulate your decisional capital

Decisional capital is about getting feedback on one’s practice and reflecting on it with peers. Great teachers join or initiate anything they can in order to receive feedback that will enable them to improve as they practise over time.

7, Manage up

Help your leaders be the best they can be. Great teachers reach out to school leaders to support collaborative learning wherever they can. They fight and resist corrupt or controlling administrations when their policies are unworkable or indefensible. But even and especially when there is resistance, they know it is vital not simply to oppose an issue, or to insist that everything should remain just as it is, but instead they come up with clear and compelling alternatives.

8, Take the first step

When something in their school is worth starting, great teachers take the lead.

9, Surprise yourself

Great teachers seek out variety and avoid “group-think”.

10, Connect everything back to your students

Great teachers put their students at the heart of everything they do. They know and care about their students.

Challenge and progress

My own view is that the best teachers are those who “ensure all their students are challenged, engaged and make progress every day”.

The two key terms in my statement are “all” and “every day”, because at the heart of great teaching is the ability to make sure every student, no matter their stating points and backgrounds, gets the best possible learning experience, is enabled to make progress, and goes on to fulfil their true potential and get the best possible start in life.

Also key to my statement about great teaching are the terms “challenged”, “engaged”, and “making progress” because, together, they are my definition of what excellent teaching really looks like in practice. Let me explain…

For every student to be challenged, teachers must plan work that is pitched to meet their individual needs, work that is difficult but achievable. To achieve this, great teachers get to know their students. They use data to inform their planning and teaching. They regularly assess students and regard marking as a form of planning. They differentiate and scaffold for lower-performing students and stretch and challenge the higher-performing ones.

For every student to be engaged, teachers must encourage them to be active participants in learning not passive recipients of information. Although great teachers know that there is always a place for didactic teaching, over the course of a learning sequence they provide a variety of teaching and learning approaches. Students are encouraged to take ownership of their own learning and are helped to develop the capacity to work independently.

For every student to make progress, teachers recognise that learning needs to be connected, that students need to see the “big picture”. In other words, students know why they are learning what they’re learning, and they know how that learning will be used and assessed in the future. What students did yesterday is consolidated and built upon today; what they do today will be reinforced and tested tomorrow. Learning gaps are identified and filled. Every lesson ensures that every student knows something that they did not know yesterday and/or develops a skill that they did not have yesterday.

Know your students

I began this two-part article – and so will end it – with Daniel Coyle. He argues that the “greatest teachers aren’t great just because they deliver information, they’re great because they create lasting connections. They’re not about the words they say, they’re about the way they make you feel”.

So, in short, great teachers know and care about their students. In short, great teachers make personal connections with their students. Although pedagogical and content knowledge is important, great teachers know that what matters most is how they apply that knowledge.

Great teaching is a nuanced, complex art form. And we refer to it as “teaching practice” for a reason – we are forever practising, forever striving towards excellence and expertise. And yet we will never master it. But great teachers never tire of trying new things, of taking risks. They experiment and evaluate; they try and reflect. Occasionally, it’s true, they try and fail; yes, great teachers sometimes make mistakes. But, as the saying goes, to err is human and, above all else, that is what makes the great teachers great: they are human.

Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


4 thoughts on “What makes a great teacher? (Part Two)

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