Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?
Thomas More: You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.
A Man for all Seasons
What makes anyone accomplished at anything? Influential psychologist Anders Ericsson and polemicist Malcolm Gladwell tell us that 10,000 hours of purposeful practice are necessary to create real proficiency – and maybe the platform for stand-out excellence.
Think The Silver Beatles playing the clubs of Hamburg; Lewis Hamilton, aged six, driving go-karts; the young Venus Williams on Palm Beach tennis courts; Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in their formative ‘garage years’ – each driven by different motives, investing hours and hours to perfect what later became their greatness.
Take a regular classroom teacher, teaching 1,000 lessons a year. That’s 10,000 in a decade. At a careful estimate, over several decades I have taught about 30,000 sessions to learners of all ages. And in various guises, I have been an ‘observer’ in just on 10,000 classrooms during the past fifteen years.
What do I experience when I am in the presence of an accomplished teacher, irrespective of context and location: from Newcastle to New York, Geneva to Pune, Riyadh to Kuala Belait? Reflecting on vivid examples, I identify ten prevalent features in the cocktail, variously distilled.
- Knowledge No teacher can survive without the fount of knowledge which lies at the core of their everyday practice. Good teachers have an innate generosity to want to share what they know. For the skilled early years’ practitioner that knowledge lies in a deep understanding of how young children grow, and how best to intervene or draw back when children are developing their independent learning habits. For the teacher of an IB French class studying Albert Camus, it is the teacher’s facility to cross-reference Sartre, Gide or Heidegger to open up an appreciation of existentialism. The skilled teacher has knowledge effortlessly rising out of them like sap from a tree – and keeps practising.
- Craft In many walks of life a ‘craftsman’ is revered for her or his well-honed skills, whether cooking, sculpting or operating medically. The craft of the classroom involves its own special blend: skilled configuration of the classroom and management of pupils; time creatively orchestrated; ‘less is more’ lesson planning; judicious harnessing of resources; intelligent questioning and thoughtful feedback; that balance of critique and worthy praise; wise promotion of mastery, scholarship and enquiry. The reflective practitioner commands the classroom, physically and intellectually.
- Passion Love of being in a classroom with pupils is a pre-requisite for accomplished teachers, joyfully sharing those personal and professional passions which first drew them to work in schools. To watch an enthusiastic, knowledgeable teacher embed through song and repetition an understanding of key letters and sounds in a Year 1 class is to witness enviable practice. Equally impressive is the Year 9 PE teacher, a skilled sportswoman in her own right, enabling ‘sport for all and excellence for some’ in a lesson on badminton forehand and backhand serves. The passion for excellence, rooted in the teacher’s own achievements, is palpable and often thrilling.
- Values In a teacher’s every utterance and body language, their values about education and schooling shine through. Values reflect our sense of right and wrong and what we believe to be important to us in life. Join a teacher who is reading ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ with their Year 6 class; see how adroitly they field the most challenging of questions and how they support those pupils struggling emotionally with the novel’s content. Or be party to an A level history seminar wrestling with the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists, where the teacher harnesses his considerable knowledge of Gandhi, Mandela and Guevara to present objective evidence upon which students can make a judgement. A teacher’s unambiguous set of values, embodying integrity and clear conscience, underpin memorable classroom practice.
- Fun Teaching is all about communicating to students that great double act: the fun and fundamentals of learning. Watch a gifted teacher of mathematics – with a basket of home-made, practical resources – play around with prime numbers in a Year 5 class; or that same teacher work with his non-specialist colleagues to enable them to plan confidently a session for Year 4 pupils on the Fibonacci Sequence: 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34.. Dealing in fun enables students of any age to feel confident about making mistakes, learning from them, and achieving that ‘aha’ moment of breakthrough comprehension. The fundamentals in any subject demand practice, memorisation, repetition. The fun in learning is about teachers and students sharing humour and wit; fun is equally rooted in risk taking and digression.
- Creativity The imaginative, thinking out-of-the-box spirit lies deep in great teachers’ hearts and minds. They positively embrace digression and those unplanned moments of epiphany for their students. Focus on a group of Year 8 students doing a fair test in science, when the teacher comes along and introduces a rogue substance to create intellectual confusion. Listen carefully to an EAL teacher with a group of Year 10 boys newly arrived from Serbia, harnessing Google Translate to explore the language of mathematical shapes. Creativity is an element equally at home in physics, geography or drama. The creative teacher has a predictable unpredictability about their person.
- Expectations Show me a fine teacher who does not have the highest expectations of those they teach, wherever and whomever they are teaching. When record-breakers in any walk of life achieve a new record, their starting point is an unshakeable belief that they can do it. The skilled teacher knows authoritatively his pupils and can cajole, enthuse, provoke, extend as she judges: we might employ the term ‘differentiation’ here. Observe a passionate teacher of English enable every Year 7 student to grasp the metaphors in Ted Hughes’s ‘The Thought Fox’; see that teacher do the same for every Year 11 student in her class, climbing inside the complex imagery in Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’. What teachers expect is what they get in any classroom, in any subject and in any context.
- Empathy The ability to ‘climb inside the learner’s skin’ is a hallmark of those teachers who live long in their pupils’ memories. Great Biology teachers may well have an encyclopaedic knowledge of how an E. coli bacterium performs differently from a sub-atomic particle when observed in a laboratory. The GSCE students are perplexed, and remain so even after the second explanation – until the teacher thinks differently and tries a third explanation which approaches the problem from the learner’s less experienced viewpoint. Breakthrough in understanding comes. Students of any age testify to the fact that experienced teachers can empathise with the learner’s predicament, can ‘connect’ emotionally with them, can see that grey sometimes has its place alongside black and white. Empathy is that vital capacity in a teacher to imagine and understand that the learner may well have a different frame of reference.
- Resilience Building learners’ resilience in a contemporary world of ‘snow-plough’ learning devices is not to be under-estimated: ‘What’s a cosine?’ asks the teacher. ‘It’s that button on the calculator,’ comes the flawless answer. As vital as leading lessons with fun is the teacher’s commitment to lead with intrigue: taking pupils out of their comfort zones, making learning difficult and perplexing as the moment arises. What doesn’t kill you intellectually certainly makes you stronger – ask any student of Further Maths. The wise and practised teacher also recognises that their own trade is a demanding one: knowing how to pace oneself daily, weekly, termly is an art and a science in itself. Resilience is two track: one for the pupils’ stamina in new learning; and one for the teachers’ self-preservation and ultimate flourishing. Live to teach another day.
- X Factor The cocktail is more or less prepared. Yet its distillation is incomplete without the X factor. No two teachers are the same; they may embody in many ways the nine aspects outlined above. The unashamed joy of the generous teacher is that their own commanding classroom practice is, in the end, a matter of individual taste, tact and style. Each teacher has their own X factor, their unique ingredient of the pedagogical potion. Classroom excellence becomes their habit, and their ‘public’ never forget the magic.
Roy Blatchford is Director of the National Education Trust, and is currently writing a book on the practice of great teachers.
‘Self-Improving Schools: the journey to excellence’ edited by Roy Blatchford & Rebecca Clark is published by John Catt Educational in March 2016.