NQTs are gradually developing confidence in the classroom and mastering the basics. However, this is merely the beginning of the teacher journey. To develop truly effectively, consider how to work on these nine key strengths.
Awareness of effective ideas/approaches
The expert teacher has a big toolkit available, with techniques, interventions, tips and tricks for every occasion. To develop your toolkit you need to read, follow, watch and listen. Read as many books and blogs about teaching as you can, follow top practitioners on Twitter, observe as many other colleagues as possible, and listen to peers discussing lessons. However, it is vital that you critically appraise each idea you come across and consider whether it sounds like it is based on the science of learning and thinking, or whether it is merely a gimmick.
Fluency: instinctive recall/use of techniques
It is not enough to simply be aware of thousands of techniques; you don’t have time to pause and reflect in the classroom. You need to practice and refine each technique so that you’re able to put it into action without so much as blinking. This takes time: you need to observe others using it, get them to observe you (and/or perhaps use video to reflect), look for impact on pupils’ learning and keep honing it until you are getting the maximum impact on as many young people as possible.
Ability to adapt, vary, combine and refine
Expert teachers aren’t robots, they don’t blindly follow instructions, but use their professional judgement to subtly vary teaching approaches as the classroom requires. Consider the needs of your pupils between each lesson – how could you tweak or combine different teaching approaches for maximum long-term impact on learning? When planning lessons, use information from assessment and discussion with pupils to carefully select the most effective and efficient combinations and variations of approaches to deliver the best lesson for the largest number of pupils.
Understanding of underlying theory
The expert teacher isn’t just a craftsperson, he or she will know the theoretical reason why each approach is being used. More than that, the expert teacher is constantly seeking to understand more about how children and young people think, develop and learn. Experts challenge their ideas, seek out opposing views, debate with open minds, and constantly reconsider every aspect of their “toolkit” to see if is optimally effective. Consider, do you know why certain approaches seem to work? If you do, perhaps you can make them even more effective?
Recognition of learning behaviours
The expert teacher has watched hundreds of pupils carefully and can spot subtle changes in body language and tone of voice as well as use verbal and written cues to quickly identify issues and strengths. These teachers will be able to gauge the “temperature” of any class within a split second or zoom in on a single learner and understand their needs. To develop this strength, spend more time observing students and discuss with more experienced teachers. Use approaches such as video coaching and Lesson Study to develop your “teacher eye” and gain deeper understanding of likely patterns of “what happens next” for each behaviour so that you can anticipate and head off difficulties.
Systematic/consistent use of techniques
The expert teacher can get great results with even the toughest classes as the pupils understand exactly what they are going to get. These teachers are very systematic, responding to each behaviour or need in a predictable and consistent way. This not only establishes routines and expectations, it also ensures they hone these techniques until they are truly virtuosos. This doesn’t mean they are boring, new ideas are introduced within a solid framework of well-established teacher techniques, with plenty of dependable fall-backs if anything goes wrong.
The expert teacher is unflappable, calm in the face of emotional storms. This takes confidence but also a high level of self-awareness. Expert teachers are highly attuned to their own moods and bodies so that they can self-calm. They are highly adept at re-framing emotional challenges to see them as temporary, transient, and not all-consuming. They sense and recognise pupils’ moods and don’t take outbursts personally – not because they lack empathy but because they understand why these storms appear and what to do about them.
You don’t get to be an expert teacher without spending a lot of time thinking carefully about how each lesson has gone, and about the techniques and approaches you used. The most effective teachers not only think about their own practice but they reflect on how each student experiences their lessons in a unique way, considering how to make adjustments to their teaching to help everyone succeed. Reflective practitioners know when to seek out new ideas, when to look for challenge to prevent stagnation or complacency, and when to seek support and sympathy. They are keen professional learners, constantly reflecting on each detail of their practice, not letting any part of their lesson happen due to unthinking habit, but deliberately refining everything down to the smallest detail.
Organisation and balance
Top teachers have a huge array of ways to keep themselves organised, remaining on top of all of their planning and marking. They consider each activity: planning, marking, behaviour follow-ups, reporting, etc, and find the most efficient way to do each one, ruthlessly prioritising. However, as they are keenly self-aware they also firmly believe in the power of balance, realising that there is no point burning themselves out or else everyone will suffer. The expert teacher knows when to stop, when to take a break, and when to ask for help. They may be heroes, but they are not martyrs.
Working on these skills requires constant dedication. It is very easy to get caught up in the daily frenzy of school and never find time to work on yourself. The most effective teachers know that 100 per cent focus on the day-to-day of the job is not the right way to improve.
They know that a proportion of every day, every week and every term should be used to reflect upon and improve your own practice and understanding, ensuring that you meet your current and future pupils’ needs in the best way possible. When some of these teachers become great school leaders they understand that one of the most effective aspects of leadership is encouraging their teams and colleagues to be reflective, constantly learning, autonomous professionals, always striving to be better so that they can help their pupils thrive.
Why not start planning in your own time for professional learning, reflection and improvement? The only difference between the expert teacher and everyone else is that they started a process of self-improvement – and never stopped!
David Weston is a former teacher and the chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust (TDT), a national charity for effective professional development in schools and colleges.