I read a blog yesterday by Matt Bromley entitled “What makes a great teacher” (part 1 here and part 2 here). It was a really interesting read, and got me pondering the question myself. What follows here is my take on the question. Not particularly intellectual, not backed up with any kind of research or evidence, just my experiences, both as a student and a teacher. There are so many qualities which a good teacher possesses, but here are five that I think are really important.
I remember being told as a student at university that a huge amount of teaching is all about acting. To some extent, I agree, but I just don’t think it’s possible to stand in front of a class, lesson after lesson, day after day if it isn’t something you really want to do. Children aren’t daft, they pick up on subtle changes in our mood and they know if we aren’t interested in a lesson. The only way to enthuse and to motivate children is to be enthusiastic ourselves. Keep the lessons fresh; find new and exciting ways to deliver familiar topics; shake your lessons up by teaching yourself a new skill and then sharing it with the children. Yes, it’s easy to churn out the same lessons year on year, and at times, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s hard to be enthusiastic about a lesson that you know inside out and upside down and could teach with your eyes closed. I love teaching, but this year has probably been one that I have been more enthusiastic about than I have been for a long time. It’s because everything’s new: new curriculum, new year group, new technology. It’s exciting, we’ve taken risks, and the children have welcomed the enthusiasm.
There is no way you can be a great teacher without commitment. It’s not a job you can be half-hearted about. Long hours, massive workload, constant negative press attention (the profession, not me personally!), soaring stress levels – why on earth would you do it if you weren’t completely sure it was what you wanted to do? I’ve met students and teachers in my time who were just going through the motions. They weren’t happy and found the job to be incredibly stressful. The only way you can overcome all of the negative elements is through the sheer joy of the job. Commitment and dedication are what keep great teachers in schools.
This is an ambiguous one. I don’t necessarily mean the drive to climb the career ladder (although that’s not necessarily a bad thing), but I mean the drive to succeed. Success for yourself, but also success for your children. In our world, there are constant targets and pressures for the children to do well. Of course, we want our children to leave school with the correct level or having reached Age Related Expectation, but sometimes, we have to say that making them into well rounded human beings is more important. We have to have the drive to pursue what our children need, to push for what they are entitled to and to strive to get the very best for them. We need to have the drive to speak up for what we need to do our jobs well, the drive to find out what’s available to us and to strive to be the best, most informed teacher that we can. In our LEA, we used to have an amazing CPD facility: constant courses, advisory teachers on hand to help, and of course, fantastic lunches! All of that has gone now, and training opportunities from the LEA are few and far between. A great teacher will seek out training opportunities or research new approaches themselves, and then pass them on to others. For me, Twitter has been an amazing way to do this – I’m convinced I’m a better teacher since I joined up.
This is a huge one. I’ve had a good upbringing, I wasn’t spoiled by any stretch of the imagination but I never went without. I lived in a nice area and had a loving and supportive family. The school I went to was full of equally nice children from equally nice families. I did my homework on time, I did well in school and life was generally quite easy. We didn’t really encounter children with “difficulties”. When I started teaching, life was remarkably similar. It wasn’t until a few years into my teaching career that I began to encounter children with difficult home lives. As time has gone on, I have taught more and more children who have day to day experiences that I just can’t comprehend. I don’t know what it must feel like to come to school having had to sleep with several other siblings in a cramped in a small bedroom, having had no breakfast and having to rush into school because they left the house late. I can’t imagine what must be going through that child’s head as they sit down in lessons and I expect them to learn. I can never appreciate what they are going through, but I have to try and understand. I have to try and make school the constant calm in their life, a place where they can feel safe and where they know they will be helped. It’s not just the children who a great teacher shows compassion towards. The families too need to know that we will try to help them, that we will try to understand, and that we won’t judge. Compassion over judgement is perhaps the biggest obstacle: we all have our own experiences and opinions, but having never walked in the shoes of our families, we are not in a position to judge them. A great teacher doesn’t judge.
Resilience is important in so many ways. Resilience to keep on trying when a child doesn’t understand. Perhaps better described as dogged perseverance, but the ability to not get beaten down when things don’t work out as we expected: there’s nothing more disappointing than a lesson which we’ve been really excited about falling flat on its face and the children not getting it. But bouncing back and trying again a different way is hugely important. Resilience when talking to parents: we have to remember that the child we teach is their absolute priority, and they understandably want the best for their child. While a great teacher will of course be doing their best for each and every one of their pupils, some parents will want more. That’s their perogative, of course they want the best, but it’s hard to hear that someone doesn’t think our best is enough. And finally, resilience to deal with the negativity that surrounds our profession. Of course there are some teachers who just aren’t good enough. There are many who are good teachers. But there are so many more who are amazing teachers. I read tweets and blogs from them every day. Butthese people just don’t get the media coverage. It’s easy to get beaten down by it all, but great teachers will stand up for their cause and carry on doing the amazing job that they do, day after day.
There are so many more qualities that great teachers possess. I haven’t even touched on creativity, on having a sense of humour and on being the kind of person that children, parents and staff can relate to. Organised, thorough, forward thinking: more words that can describe a great teacher. We aren’t great a celebrating what we’re good at, so do me a favour. If you know someone who fits the bill and is a great teacher, make their day and tell them.