Training Teachers: Obstacles and Opportunities in 2017

As we rush headlong into 2017, with the excesses of Christmas slowly receding into memory, we all enter that period of committing to best-laid plans and hope-fuelled resolutions. Crucially, however, our resolutions are quickly hidden under shouty to-do lists and piles of marking. For most teachers, we want to get better and make improvements on the year before, but the necessary support and school structures can too often prove lacking.

As we admit our obstacles, we can angrily bemoan our workload (hey, it is the God-given right of every teacher) and complain about excess accountability and wrongheaded testing, but we should also recognise that many of the solutions to improving workload and to enhancing the quality of teacher training are within our grasp too.

Schools across the country are creating a regular rhythm of professional training that finds meaningful time and tools for teachers to reflect on their practice. In many schools, there are weekly or fortnightly training slots that allow teachers the time and tools to collaborate and plan together. It may require schools finishing early on a given day (with an inevitable wrangle over school buses), or schools being creative with collapsed timetable days etc., but it is doable and there are examples across the country.

Regular, high-quality CPD and planning time allows teachers time to get their head around the new curriculum and assessment model that has seemingly crashed into our working lives with force. Teacher training should not be an added burden to workload, ticking off boxes for performance management purposes, but instead a meaningful way to share our resources and lower the burden of all recreating our own resources and approaches to the new curriculum.

Many schools are harnessing the greater capacity of local collaboration, be it Multi-Academy Trusts or TSA partnerships, so that they can afford to budget for external expertise and challenge one another with their respective teacher expertise. Though our school system may be more fractured that in other countries, there is an appetite for better training and a fast increasing awareness of evidence in education and the useful science of learning.

With emergent organisations, like Research Schools (run by the ‘Education Endowment Foundation’ and the ‘Institute for Effective Education’), The College of Teaching, The Institute for Teaching and others, supporting established organisations like Teaching Schools, the Teaching School Council, The Teacher Development Trust, the National College, and the National Educational Trust, we have a great deal of deep expertise in our school system to help guide professional development.

What we must do is reject the deficit model of teachers and teaching that sees CPD as a compliance exercise, with teachers punching in yet more data to feed the tracking monster. We need training that allows the requisite time and space for subject specific knowledge and learning (along with any equivalent school phase). This should be supported by robust evidence about how children learn and the most impactful ways to teach.

With the new Chief Inspector for schools, Amanda Spielman, taking over the reins at OFSTED, there is the promise of accountability reform to help us further. As an entirely new curriculum and assessment model has been initiated, we can rightly consider that we have a few years to teach, train and develop upon our expertise. Hey, we can hope – 2016 is over; 2017 promises us better, surely!

With our newly coined resolutions pristine and fragile in our hands, we can, as teachers and school leaders, resolve to initiate the developments to our continuous professional development that best support our teachers who are working to manage their workload and grasp a new curriculum.

The DfE Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537031/160712_-_PD_Expert_Group_Guidance.pdf) is a helpful place to start to evaluate your existing CPD provision so that you can ensure that 2017 is the year that best supports teachers with great training.

 

Alex Quigley is Director of Huntington Research School – find out more about their work here: https://huntington.researchschool.org.uk.

His recent book, “The Confident Teacher”, can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Confident-Teacher-Developing-successful-pedagogy/dp/1138832340/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

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THE COLLEGE OF TEACHING: a defining moment for the teaching profession? By Derek Bell

On the afternoon of the 25th May I watched as HRH Prince Philip took the original 1846 Royal Charter setting up the College of Preceptors (with its 1998 supplement) from The President of The College of Teachers and handed it to the first Chair of the Chartered College of Teaching.

You may consider this to be a trivial piece of ceremony of relatively little consequence. Yet in its own way it could be a defining moment in the history of the teaching profession in England and, perhaps, beyond. Four years ago the Education Select Committee recommended establishing “a new, member-driven College of Teaching, along the lines of the Royal Colleges and Chartered Institutions in other professions.”

Since then several groups of people, including many classroom teachers and heads, have worked extremely hard in order to lay the foundations for such a body – the completion of which was formally and publically acknowledged in that moment. Although there are still some technicalities to be completed, this was the point at which the new Chartered College of Teaching emerged as a body in its own right.

Whilst no one, least of all the new board of Trustees, underestimates the challenges ahead, that moment of transfer also acted as a reminder of how deep rooted the foundations of the new Chartered College of Teaching actually are. Not only does the Royal Charter recognise 170 years of history it also embodies values and aspirations of, and for, the teaching profession which are still relevant today.

Although the language of the document may seem strange, key phrases refer to; promoting sound learning”, “advancing the interests of education” and “affording facilities to the Teacher for the acquiring of a sound knowledge of his [/her] Profession”. I would suggest that these fundamental ideas remain at the heart of the teaching profession today. Bearing in mind that in 1846 there was little or no provision for training teachers, the vision of those individuals who came together to found the College was crucial and in many ways underpinned the setting up of teacher education (both initial training and continuing professional development) which exists today.

There is much to thank the original College for but unfortunately over the years it has become overwhelmed by wider developments, not least the increasingly onerous involvement of Government in the day to day activities of teachers and their schools.

Thus that moment on 25th May 2016, is also a challenge and opportunity for teachers everywhere to reshape their profession so that it is fit for the 21st Century. The new Chartered College of Teaching, under its revised Royal Charter, has the potential to lead this development towards increasing and genuine professional autonomy for teaching and teachers.

It can’t be emphasised too strongly that this will take time but progress is being made. Visit http://www.claimyourcollege.org/the-colleges-history/ for a full account of developments so far.

Confirmation of seed-funding of £5 million, staged over 5 years, in the government white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, meant that it was possible for the Trustees to push ahead with a range of key activities including the appointment of the first Chief Executive which has just been advertised. They have also been working on details of membership and the activities the college will undertake over the next few years. Underpinning all college activities is the key principle that developments should be based on evidence and reflect the views of teachers.

Initiatives such as The Big Staff Meeting, held at the beginning of 2016 will continue to be used to inform the work of the college both nationally and regionally. In the autumn, the new Chartered College of Teaching website will replace the current http://www.claimyourcollege.org/ and events will be held including The Big Summit designed to provide a forum for mobilising knowledge and sharing evidence-based practice.

Perhaps more importantly this autumn will see the publication of a manifesto setting out plans for the new College in more detail. Currently (June 2016) details are under discussion but there are three major themes, among others, I would hope to see included in some form.

  • An emphasis on the real strengths of existing teachers and their practice, highlighting not just examples of excellent practice but the quality and commitment of the everyday practice demonstrated by the majority of teachers, headteachers and teaching assistants across the country. Gaining wider recognition for existing good practice would provide a sound basis on which to raise the status of the teaching profession.
  • The importance of building a genuine professional community which, over time, establishes its autonomy and independence becoming a leading body on matters of teaching and learning. In particular, it is important that this community is fully inclusive not only with regard to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or background, but also to the many individuals who may have left the classroom in order to make valuable contributions to teaching, learning and education in different capacities. Clearly the majority of members of the college will and should be classroom teachers but the new College needs to retain the support, goodwill and contributions of this wider group of individuals – it cannot have too many advocates.
  • The need for high quality professional education, both initial training and career long CPD. The mark of a profession is that it is self-improving both as a body and as individuals within that body. The new College must have things to say and do with regard to training and development, influencing (and ultimately controlling) aspects such as standards, content, duration and expectations. Initial training must be a requirement and there should be an entitlement to ongoing CPD.

 

To this needs to be added the responsibility of ensuring appropriate opportunities are available and that they are taken up. If used effectively the introduction of an integrated Chartered Teacher scheme will provide the necessary recognition for all teachers who are well trained, keep up to date and, as a true professional, continue to improve and share their practice throughout their career.

Setting up the new College will not of itself bring about a transformation of the teaching profession or education more widely. However, it can provide a vehicle which can over time bring about change. Ultimately in order to meet aspirations it requires the contributions and support of teachers where ever they work.

Change will not happen overnight but a start has been made.

Perhaps, at this early stage of the new College’s development, as teachers and others involved in education, we should (with apologies to John F Kennedy) be asking not what our College can do for me but asking what can I do for our College – and through it the quality of teaching and learning for all our young people.

Professor Derek Bell, having worked in schools and universities as a teacher and researcher, was formerly Head of Education at the Wellcome Trust, and was Chief Executive of the Association for Science Education for seven years. He has carried out a wide range of consultancies in the UK and overseas and been a member of advisory/expert panels. He is Director of Learnus, a research associate at UCL Institute of Education and a NET Leading Thinker.

Affordable leadership for a small secondary school by Melanie Saunders

Does size matter?

Having spent some time looking at how a small secondary school can afford to deliver a curriculum which is both compliant and engaging in the current trying financial conditions, the thing that becomes most apparent isn’t the cost of staffing the curriculum. It’s the cost of leading it.

There is a reluctance to break away from the usual pattern of subject leaders and pastoral structures which has been deployed in secondary schools of all sizes for a generation, and despite the pressure this places on the budget of a small school.

Does a 600 place secondary school really need to retain the lines of accountability and leadership structures of a 1,500 place secondary school, or might it learn from the far slimmer structure of similar sized primary schools? Secondary schools typically spend around a third of their staffing budget on leadership at all levels. Primary schools about half of that.

To take one example: the lowest funded four-form entry secondary school in Hampshire receives an annual budget of £2,895,000. On the basis that 75% of this is spent on staffing, the staffing budget would amount to £2,171.250. Zero based budgeting suggests that a compliant curriculum with limited options for 600 pupils can be delivered for little more than half this amount. This draws into question the proportion of staff spend that is devoted to activities other than teaching.

The leadership model for a secondary school has remained largely unchanged since the establishment of comprehensive schools in the 1960s, although even this model was fundamentally taken from the way in which public schools were run. This design requires a headmaster/headmistress who appoints deputies to whom responsibilities can be devolved. Schools then establish their preferred pastoral system led by house or year heads, and a series of academic subject leaders.

Even if this remained the most sensible model for a school today of 1,500 students, is it sustainable, or desirable, for a school a third of that size? Since the core responsibility of a school is to ensure the highest quality learning and teaching, this raises four questions for a headteacher to consider:

  • How much leadership do my teachers need?
  • What sort of leadership will improve pupil outcomes?
  • What, exactly, are middle leaders leading?
  • What leadership structure represents best value for money?

 

How is headteacher time spent?

The National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers describe the role of headship in 144 words:

Headteachers occupy an influential position in society and shape the teaching profession. They are the lead professionals and significant role models within the communities they serve. The values and ambitions of headteachers determine the achievements of schools. They are accountable for the education of current and future generations of children. Their leadership has a decisive impact on the quality of teaching and pupils’ achievements in the nation’s classrooms. Headteachers lead by example the professional conduct and practice of teachers in a way that minimises unnecessary workload and leaves room for high quality continuous professional development for staff. They secure a climate for the exemplary behaviour of pupils. They set standards and expectations for high academic standards within and beyond their own schools, recognising differences and respecting cultural diversity within contemporary Britain. Headteachers, together with those responsible for governance, are the guardians of the nation’s schools. (January 2015)

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-standards-of-excellence-for-headteachers

The leadership of headteachers is demonstrably the defining factor in school success, notably because he/she determines the priorities and the focus for all the teaching and non-teaching staff in the school, and ensures that the outcomes achieved by pupils is the thing of paramount importance. Clearly, based upon the description above, the headteacher is going to need help in translating that vision into reality and ensuring that practice is consistent. Does this, however, require a team of heads of department and a team of pastoral heads?

In December 2012 the National College for School Leadership published ‘Review of the School Leadership Landscape’ which concluded that the three top concerns for school leaders were:

  • Finance
  • Ofsted
  • Pupil outcomes

However, the same review concluded that the three top skills school leaders said they needed were:

  • Strategies for closing attainment gaps
  • Leading curriculum change
  • Modelling excellence in leading teaching and learning

https://www.ioe.ac.uk/Review_of_School_Leadership_landscape_2012_Dec.pdf

There is a mismatch here which suggests that school leaders need to spend more of their time doing the things they know make the biggest difference, and less time on the things they worry most about.

If headteachers dealt with their number one worry by employing the expertise they need to manage financial planning in the form of a Business Manager, either of their own or across their MAT, they would be able to focus on their number one priority: closing attainment gaps. This might prompt a different approach to leadership and one which has the potential to address their second biggest worry: Ofsted success.

Although some approaches to pedagogy are demonstrably better suited for some types of learning, leadership of learning and modelling the best teaching is not, on the whole, subject specific – as is demonstrated by the approach to learning taken in large, successful primary schools. Good teachers respond flexibly to the needs of their learners and apply a variety of approaches and methodologies. Schools might want to review the role and impact of subject heads and consider whether the administrative aspects of this role could be carried out more comprehensively and less expensively than by paying a leadership premium.

The aspects of the role concerned with teacher performance and pupil progress are the stuff of leadership, but many subject areas in small schools have only one team member, and some are only managing themselves. Should the powerhouse of middle leadership reside in a large number of small fiefdoms, or in two or three senior teaching and learning leads informed by subject specific knowledge from leading teachers in classrooms?

Pastoral leadership often focusses on the management of behaviour and school leaders recognise that poor behaviour is frequently generated by poor teaching and inadequate learning. Less variation and inconsistency between subject expectations and the quality of teaching has the potential to improve behaviour and make intervention less frequent, thus reducing the need for several pastoral leads.

****

Is it possible, therefore, to consider that the approach to leadership, particularly in a small school, might move:

From a model which provides a clear hierarchy but ties up significant resource in middle leadership, where middle leaders in singleton departments with no staff responsibilities have little influence on the quality of teaching and learning across the school and limited access to subject debate or the sharing of pedagogical practice. A model where tackling inconsistency and mission creep is an on-going struggle.

To a model where the headteacher and his/her deputies focus all staff on the quality of pedagogy through the work of two or three highly skilled teaching and learning leads, thereby ensuring that teaching, learning and assessment inform good behaviour and progress for all students and groups of students. A model where leading teachers advise on and promulgate subject specific pedagogy but the whole school is responsible for consistent and pupil-focussed practice.

What sort of leadership can your school afford?

Melanie Saunders was recently Head of Education Strategy for Hampshire County Council and is now an independent consultant.

Time to think by Simon Knight

I started my teacher training in 1997, fresh from a year working as a teaching assistant. I was ready to explore how I could develop myself professionally and to be challenged intellectually. To some extent I found that through being introduced to writers and thinkers on education I hadn’t heard of, let alone read.

However the one thing that sticks with me most is my experience of being taught how to deliver the National Literacy Strategy. I was disappointed to see my future career mapped out for me ad infinitum. It seemed that the thinking was being removed from the process of being a teacher. A sense of no longer being required to engage intellectually with teaching in the way that I thought the role needed. Instead it felt like I was being redefined as a technician delivering a curriculum fit for a narrow band of pupils. The worst of procrustean systems.

It was one of the single most important factors in my decision to work in a special school. I wanted to be somewhere that I felt required an intellectual relationship with the job in the way that the mainstream I was being presented with would not.

Looking back on it now it also reflects the limited intellectual relationship I had with my training – a relationship further weakened by my point of reference being a rather singular empiricism that I enthusiastically used to make simplistic comparisons.

However, despite what was then a rather caricatured view, it does seem to me that over the years the space available within the profession for thinking has been squeezed. Time for the development of self appears to be sacrificed in order to meet the ever increasing operational requirements of working in the modern school. The expectation that those entering the profession should build an intellectual relationship with teaching risks being compromised. We want them to be good and we know what good looks like.

And yet the desire for intellectualism continues to exist. I find the debates taking place online and the strength of feeling that they generate heartening. The willingness of teachers to give up their weekends attending grass roots professional development is extraordinary, as is the commitment shown by those who organise them.

Yet this is still a relative minority, albeit a vocal one, and it concerns me that teachers feel compelled to give up their time in this way in order to access the development opportunities that they seek. Bettering yourself in order to do better by your pupils should not be relegated to weekends and holidays – it should be integral to the role.

The demands of the day-to-day create barriers to thinking about how better to do the job. The time isn’t uniformly available for teachers to invest in thinking about what they do and how it can be improved. We have allowed a system to evolve that risks restricting teacher development rather than seeing it as central to broader school improvement.

We have acknowledged that we need to understand what works in the classroom but we are not always giving ourselves the time to explore this further, to contextualise it effectively. We risk outsourcing our intellect to those paid to think on our behalf, and we then apply their wisdom in the hope of some universal transferability. Have we indeed lost sight of the value of the intellectual process in the singular pursuit of the operational outcome?

Maybe it is time that we started planning for the ‘intellectualisation’ of teaching. We need to challenge those leading the profession, both at an institutional level and a political level, to recognise the value of providing time to think. To provide the opportunity to be perplexed. To celebrate innovation and the intellect of those within the classroom. To recognise that becoming a truly great teacher takes time and the desire to succeed needs to be supported, not stifled by a simplistic interpretation of accountability.

Today we have accountability which doesn’t appear to foster innovation, but instead encourages the aversion of risk. We need to rediscover ourselves as a profession in which everyone is encouraged to wrestle with the great questions of pedagogy and educational philosophy, and is given the time to do so. We must become a profession no longer fearful of whether we should have used the red pen rather than the green.

Simon Knight is Deputy of Frank Wise School, Oxfordshire and an Associate Director of the National Education Trust, currently seconded part-time to NET.

Moral imperatives for our schooling system by Brian Lightman

Some 36 years ago I was advised against going into teaching by just about everyone. ‘Go into business’, ‘become an accountant’ etc. etc. Thank goodness my rebellious streak and anger that this fantastic vocation should be seen as inferior to other careers led to my decision to ignore that advice. I have never regretted it.

All these years later I have been reflecting about how our system has moved on. Are we, as the Secretary of State recently said in a speech to ASCL conference, in a ‘Golden Age’ for education? Or, as other commentators are saying, are we in the depths of a really significant crisis around recruitment, retention, funding, school places and a frenetic agenda for change? Have the many different initiatives and government led policies I have experienced made a difference? And is the dream of governments stepping back from constant intervention in support of a largely school led, self-improving system on the cusp of becoming a reality?

Today there are three deep seated issues which need to be addressed by everyone who shares the belief that a civilised society must aspire towards the highest quality education system for all young people.

  1. There needs to be public recognition that we have an education system to be proud of which has changed for the better beyond recognition. Too many commentators and policymakers who have little or no experience of the state system perpetuate images of chaotic institutions, riotous behaviour, rife bullying and many other ills. Too rarely do we see images of the orderly and well led institutions staffed by highly committed professionals. We need to break the myths that pervade our education system.
  1. Our profession needs to rebuild its confidence. It needs to be able to recruit the best people, nurture and support their continuous professional learning, and of course it needs to be properly resourced. That is not just about funding but about access to high-quality support services for the many vulnerable children whose problems go beyond anything schools can address alone.
  1. Sustainability must be built into our education system. Countless initiatives often focused on structural change and high stakes accountability have not been given time to embed. Many of these initiatives had great potential but the five-year electoral cycle meant that they sank into oblivion upon the change of a government or ministerial team. If policymakers continue to eschew the need for stability, courageous school leaders need to capture those things that work and confidently build on that success.

We all know that the key to further improvement is situated in our schools. Here therefore are 10 questions for schools to consider as they continue their improvement journey.

  1. Do all members of the school community share, walk and talk a clearly articulated educational vision of the whole school community?
  2. Do curriculum planning and staff allocations reflect that vision and encompass the totality of experiences to which young people have access, and not just what they learn in the classroom?
  3. Does the school have a culture which embeds the celebration of success into all aspects of its operation, but equally recognises that failure is an important part of learning for everyone and that an ambitious, aspirational culture needs to take risks which will not always lead to successes?
  4. Is the culture of the school reflective, analytical, self-critical and informed by first hand evidence and research as opposed to a reaction to the latest accountability measure or ministerial whim?
  5. Is professional learning embedded in the culture of the school with a clearly defined ‘curriculum’ for all staff at all levels within the organisation?
  6. Has the school set out a clear recruitment, retention and succession planning strategy which demonstrates to potential applicants and serving staff that this is a great place to work which will help them to be better teachers/school leaders?
  7. Does the school’s planning cycle recognise that quick fixes do not lead to sustainable change, and do senior staff robustly challenge those who argue that they do?
  8. What steps are being taken to ensure that teaching staff have high levels of expertise in assessment?
  9. What systems are in place to ensure that the staff are suitably empowered to make effective use of data to impact on standards by understanding the questions this information asks, its power and its limitations?
  10. What steps is the school taking to prepare young people for their future careers by encountering employers, FEIs and HEIs and understanding that university is one of many options?

Brian recently stepped down from his role as General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He is working to help schools rise to this rapidly changing world of opportunities through his consultancy www.lightmanconsulting.co.uk  

Educational research is about more than ‘what works’ by Geoff Whitty

My new book, Research and Policy in Education: Evidence, ideology and impact (UCL IOE Press, 2016), reflects on my struggles to make sense of the relationship between research and policy in education in the fifteen years since I took up my post as Director of the Institute of Education in September 2000.

The opening chapter is a critique of the limitations of the fashionable rhetoric of ‘evidence-based policy’ and of the ‘what works’ and ‘impact’ agendas of recent governments. The next chapter explores the reality of education policy making in the context of the reform of teacher training in England under the Coalition government, where policy seems to have been driven largely by New Right ideology rather than evidence on the effectiveness of provision.

Another chapter shows how the use of evidence in international policy borrowing falls far short of the protocols expected in academic research. It suggests that ‘what works’ too often marginalises questions about what works where and for whom, and can mask a predilection for reforms that are ideologically consistent with a wider political agenda associated with what Pasi Sahlberg has termed GERM – the Global Educational Reform Movement.

But even in areas of considerable political consensus, like closing the social class achievement gap and widening participation in higher education in England, which are discussed in two further chapters, the evidence does not simply speak for itself. Nor does it seem conducive to ‘quick fix’ solutions. We need to understand why ‘magic bullet’ policies, while seductive, so often fail to fulfil their initial promise.

So, while working on the book, I found myself increasingly drawn back to my roots as a sociologist. Even though such work is not necessarily undertaken with a view to policy impact, I found sociological theories of social and cultural reproduction, for example, really helpful in understanding why some of the policies I was discussing didn’t have the impact that their advocates predicted. This reinforced my view that we need to be clearer about what schools and universities can and cannot do – or at least cannot do on their own.

This also means that education policy should not be studied in isolation, and I cite with approval the words of Sir Fred Clarke, one of my most eminent predecessors as Director of the Institute, who said seventy years ago that ‘educational theory and educational policy that take no account of [sociological insights] will be not only blind but positively harmful’. Thirty years later, in 1974, John Nisbet, the first President of the British Educational Research Association, somewhat prematurely claimed that we had moved away from a naive ‘problem-solving’ model of educational research. He advocated nurturing a variety of approaches and perspectives in educational research; his plea for a broader based conception of educational research is even more relevant today when it is sometimes implied that randomised control trials are the only form of research worth doing.

I conclude the book by suggesting that, while there is certainly a place for instrumental research, not all educational research can be about providing solutions to problems in policy and practice in any simple sense. It will often entail elucidating and examining the nature of problems for a wider public constituency and even putting evidence of ‘what doesn’t work’ – and why – into the public domain to provide a form of ‘inoculation’ against ‘policy epidemics’ like GERM.

We need to be challenging simplistic narratives, helping to change the terms of the debate, increasing informed resistance to superficial but seemingly attractive policies – and most of all generating demand for policies that will better serve the needs of all our children.

Geoff Whitty was Director of the Institute of Education, University of London, from 2000 until 2010. He is now Director Emeritus of the UCL Institute of Education, as well as holding a Research Professorship at Bath Spa University and a Global Innovation Chair at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

10,000 hours: what makes a great teacher? By Roy Blatchford

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.

 

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.