Outstanding teaching: 31 things that effective teachers do

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: MA Education

There are no golden rules about what makes a teacher effective. However, John Dabell offers us 31 traits that he has seen when watching outstanding teachers in action

What qualities does an effective teacher have? Enter the pedagogical hive and there will be colleagues galore buzzing to tell you what’s hot and what’s not.

But “being effective” is elastic – there isn’t a definitive list of platinum behaviours that we can neatly put in a fancy box, decorate with a ribbon and present as a gift to the teaching profession.

Teaching is a constant work in progress. There isn’t a top, we just keep going and find ways to be better. I do have a list though and this is a small collection of what I see as the characteristics of being an effective teacher. They are based on personal experiences and professional observations of hundreds of teachers. Crucially, they are grounded in what students say too.

They don’t chase ‘outstanding’

Effective teachers aren’t outstanding teachers – they don’t even try to be. Effective teachers realise that outstanding is not a natural state of being and chasing it damages your wellbeing. Effective equates to being consistently good, ambitious and realistic because no one can sustain delivering a production line of outstanding lessons.

They display empathy

Communication is seen as the number one quality of any educator but I think empathy edges it. An empathetic teacher steps into the shoes of others, wears their skin and teaches students how to do the same. They are active listeners, powerful communicators and nurture positive relationships. They mentor, set high expectations, support decision-making, inspire students to be their best selves and teach global citizenship.

They are ‘elephant’ teachers

Being effective means tuning into what brings out the best in students and this invariably means they don’t grunt, growl and shout. Elephant teachers keep calm but are assertive when they need to be. They focus on positives, model “grit”, teach resiliency, show infinite patience and are unconditionally kind and respectful. They are curious not furious.

They inhabit the classroom

Effective teachers are charismatic teachers that have a natural presence in the classroom. They ooze a certain confidence and give off a vibe that lets students know they are in safe hands. A teacher with presence takes ownership of the classroom without controlling it and they have the class eating out of their hand – their persona does all the work without much finger lifting.

They develop expertise

Effective teachers put their heart and soul into developing curriculum expertise and continuous improvement. They constantly strive to improve what they know and commit to regular and consistent CPD as life-long learners. They are always studious, creative, striving to stay ahead of the times and have a think-tank mentality. They also enjoy their work and the thrill of finding out more.

They are risk-takers and mavericks

Teachers who take risks and do things differently stand out in a sea of sameness. They make learning memorable and go out of their way to find the stickability factor. They demand magnificence and get it by enabling students to see the world from new perspectives. They use a variety of hooks to capture attention. They take risks so students can learn how to take risks themselves.

They don’t turn up the volume

There is a lot of lively energy in a classroom which for the most part is advantageous to learning. But sometimes we have to put a lid on things and effective teachers do it without raising their voices – their trick is to never talk louder than they do. Sometimes they let their silence do all the talking and restore order without saying a word.

They are ‘two percenters’

Ninety-eight per cent of us moan – a lot. Effective teachers manifest happiness and concentrate on being professionally positive even if they have plenty to sigh about. They choose happiness, embrace change, like the unknown and act in spite of fear. According to Andy Cope in his book The Art Of Being Brilliant, two percenters have Tigger-like energy, they thrive rather than survive, they have a spring in their step, they are life-givers – all this rubs off on whoever they come into contact with.

They HUGG

Another tip from The Art of Being Brilliant: effective teachers Have Unbelievably Great Goals. Having something to aim for is all-important and for workload-weary teachers, just getting to the end of the day is enough of a goal. But effective teachers have inspirational and aspirational goals that are whoppers – big goals that they keep in sight even when the going gets tough, which is most days. They have focus, drive and a sense of purpose.

They think inside the box

For years we’ve been told to think outside the box and while looking outward and being creative is definitely something to strive for and commit to, we also need to think inside it too. Sometimes we just need to keep it simple and focus on what we do without looking to gold plate everything or go faster. Not everything needs to have bells, whistles and fireworks.

They are selfish

The best teachers put themselves first and focus on their wellbeing. Although they might need mental first aid plasters, they find ways to stay in control and avoid TSB – Teacher Stress and Burnout. They don’t wait for the wheels to come off or rely on an annual MOT to alert them to things that need attention, they keep tabs on themselves daily, stay roadworthy and give themselves the best chance to pass through each term. Punctures are inevitable but gritty teachers make sure that they are fit to teach so look after number one and practise self-care.

They are time-stealers

Effective teachers are good at time-management and know how to prioritise. They can sort the wheat from the chaff and focus on what’s important and what’s detergent (the stuff that gets us in a lather and stops us seeing the water underneath). They can plan their time with insight and know how to decide, delegate or delete.

They put lessons second

Effective teachers don’t put learning first – they put relationships in pole position. The mantra of an effective teacher is “Relationships, relationships, relationships”. The secret ingredient of classroom management is a positive relationship between student and teacher – without this basic, there is no growth. The more we invest in relationships, the more trust and respect we earn and the more interest we get back.

The don’t micro-manage

Controlling everything can lead to things going out of control and students rebelling. Helicopter teachers don’t allow students enough independence or breathing space and this can be suffocating. Effective teachers push themselves to the perimeter of the classroom and so give students the room to learn so they can push themselves and each other.

They don’t swerve

While effective teachers are flexible and plate-spinners extraordinaire, what they don’t do is swerve from their classroom management plan. They don’t budge an inch from what they set out because if they do, cracks appear and classroom rules, procedures and systems start to fail. They say what they mean and mean what they say – no negotiations thank you.

They go off-piste

Effective teachers don’t stick to bullet-pointed plans – they start skiing but shoot off on paths and routes with virgin snow and explore routes that are unpredictable and risky. They realise that structured schemes and whole-school programmes that promise the earth can also suck the lifeblood out of a lesson and crush creativity. Off-piste means you relax the boundaries, push the boundaries and take students on adventures not scripts. They welcome change and like to keep students and themselves on their toes.

They don’t jump on bandwagons

When a bandwagon comes by then everyone jumps on it, especially if it’s being driven by a celebrity teacher or academic with stardust on their eyebrows. This is what happened when VAK learning styles barnstormed schools only years later to be derided as poppycock. When a bandwagon hits town, step back and let it go – effective teachers do this. They wait for the dust to settle and if they feel like they have missed out they can always catch up.

They unplug

Given the 24/7 nature of the job, effective teachers draw the line and know when enough is enough. Work/life balance has to be factored in and factored in it is: leaving school early on occasions, not marking at home, not checking emails after 6pm, exercising, having time out and relaxing.

They sleep

The secret weapon of an effective teacher is sleep – it is our key skill. Without sleep or with only a few hours under our belts we just cannot function and fire on all cylinders. We make poor judgements, we make mistakes and we become irritable – all disasters for teaching. Teachers that invest in good sleep practices and routines give themselves a real fighting chance.

They say ‘no!’

Effective teachers aren’t yes teachers because this comes at a human cost and adds to workload. Instead they challenge and stand-up for themselves and if this means saying “no!” then so be it. They have confidence in saying no to being in a meeting that they don’t need to be in. They say no to answering parental emails at 9pm and they say no to triple marking.

They don’t blame

If something isn’t right or if something goes wrong then effective teachers look inwards not outwards. Lots of things can’t be “fixed” and we work with the tools we have and do what we can. Designating a guilty party and scapegoating might make us feel better but sometimes we are at fault and need to acknowledge this.

They smile

Teachers who smile tend to be more effective because smiling builds rapport with students. Teachers who lay down the law, grimace and don’t smile until Christmas aren’t viewed positively by students and they aren’t inspired by them.

They have a laugh

Teachers who inject some comedy into their teaching routines teach with impact. They also enjoy their work far more. They don’t suffer from FOLF – a Fear of Looking Foolish – but they get creative, tell jokes, play with words, act about and make learning enjoyable.

They don’t have destination addiction

Constantly looking forward to the weekend or the next holiday is natural but it can become addictive and destructive. Effective teachers enjoy each day as it comes rather than survive each day as it comes. They focus on the hundreds of positives that come with the job rather than the downsides.

They make mistakes

Effective teachers aren’t super teachers with pedagogical powers that can magic away the hardships, hurdles and headaches. They make mistakes too, and lots of them – but it’s what they do with them that really matters. They see mistakes as empowering and transformational. They also share mistakes and come clean.

They get regular feedback

Effective teachers know they are doing a good job because their line managers and senior leaders tell them so and regularly tell too. They get pats on the back, unwavering support and pointers on how to be even better. They aren’t left to flounder and become disillusioned – great managers stick their oar in so that never happens.

They observe

Effective teachers work in psychologically safe schools that value collaboration, value ideas and help teachers to support and grow together. Many teachers work in video learning teams where they explore using video to improve student learning. They use remote lesson observation to coach and mentor, review and talk about how to improve. It is more like therapy and a world away from traditional clipboard style live observations.

They have role-models

Effective teachers “like” and “follow” other teachers and academics on social media. Having education role-models is important because following the ideas and practices of leading and respected pedagogues can inspire you, make you more creative and spur you on to greater things. Effective teachers follow each other, feed each other and mentor each other.

They steal ideas

Effective teachers are thieves. They beg, borrow and steal ideas and this kind of behaviour is only to be encouraged. Professional plundering is actually the giving and taking of ideas and there is nothing wrong with that. If they see a strategy worth pinching and trying for yourself then they do it. They take learning walks around their school or someone else’s to see what ideas can be pinched.

They are lazy

Lazy teachers work exceptionally hard at being canny and streamlined. They don’t do everything and kill themselves in the process. They use strategies to make classroom management easier and employ techniques that put the responsibility for learning onto the students These teachers don’t get bitten by fatigue and resentment.

They have a strong network

Effective teachers are 21st century connected educators that jump onto social media and technology to network with others around the planet to share know-how, ideas and resources and join the learning dots together. They invest in themselves in order to grow professionally, communicate with a purpose and become part of a collaborative community.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.co.uk


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