What makes an inspiring teacher?

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A research project has observed a group of teachers identified by their school leaders as ‘inspirational’ in a bid to discover what it is that makes an inspiring teacher. Tony McAleavy looks at some of the common traits that emerged.

Being an inspiring teacher is not something reserved for a few elite teachers. New research from CfBT Education Trust explored the notion of inspiring teaching by looking at what a group of teachers who had been identified by their headteachers as “inspirational” did in the classroom. 

The teachers were those whom their headteachers thought most likely to be considered “outstanding” in their practice according to Ofsted. Their characteristics were identified using different methods: a study of their behaviours (through observations), what they thought (through interviews), and how their students thought about them and their lessons (through questionnaires). 

The research was commissioned by CfBT Education Trust as part of a collaborative professional development initiative involving the academies within the CfBT Schools Trust.

According to the teachers themselves, key attributes of highly effective teaching were more attitudinal rather than related to technical skill. They included enthusiasm for teaching, positive relationships with children, and high levels of motivation and commitment.

The attributes of teaching considered most important by the inspiring teachers themselves were closely linked to the quality of relationships and the need for an enthusiastic, energetic professional persona. 

The school leaders we interviewed agreed with this emphasis on the importance of the social and emotional features of the work of great teachers.

Teachers’ self-perceptions were confirmed by observation. The researchers noted a marked tendency towards some certain behaviours related to establishing a positive classroom climate. The teachers were a mix of primary and secondary practitioners but almost all of them demonstrated the following traits to a high degree:

  • Genuine warmth and empathy towards all students in the classroom.

  • Respect for the students both in his/her behaviour and use of language.

  • Praising children for effort towards realising their potential.

  • Seeking and honouring student choice and input.

  • Making clear that all students know that he/she expects their best efforts in the classroom.

In addition to these “climate” characteristics, the researchers found that these teachers had finely tuned technical skills in classroom management. 

While the teachers themselves had described their practice in largely social-emotional terms, the observers were struck by their high levels of classroom craft. The key areas where teachers demonstrated high levels of pedagogical skills included: 

  • Managing behaviour, space, time and resources efficiently and effectively.

  • Implementing clear instruction, including explicit and high expectations and objectives for learning.

  • Skilful use of questioning and feedback to make lessons highly interactive and extend learning.

Several key themes emerged from observations of the teachers – the most frequently noted aspect of their practice included evidence and examples of lesson structure and activities. This covered elements such as timing and transitions, making connections, clarification, student choice and input, and variety and use of technology. 

One particularly interesting area of the findings was in the field of differentiation. The researchers were surprised that the teachers in the study made relatively little use of formal differentiation by task. Regardless of the context – mixed ability or ability settings – the teachers typically created an inclusive set of activities for all students.

The researchers noted that formal types of differentiation (explicitly different activities or versions of a task) were not very common in most of the observed lessons. Instead differentiation was provided by the skilful use of questioning to ascertain individual misconceptions and the one-to-one and group level interaction between the teacher and students when activities were taking place. 

Following the current orthodoxy, all lessons included a clear objective, but teachers typically went beyond simply stating the objective. Instead they sought ways of enabling students to engage and internalise the objective. 

Techniques included students defining key words in the objective statement, explaining the relevance or importance of the objective, or connecting it to skills, strategies and content covered in previous lessons. For example the start of a female key stage 3 modern foreign language teacher’s lesson was described as follows:

At the start of the lesson, the objective is already written on the board in Spanish: “Hablar de mi colegio con muchos detalles.” Students are asked to translate the objective, and the teacher calls on volunteers to share their translations. A key word in the objective is written in red, while the rest is in black. In English, the teacher asks: “Why did I put that (muchos) in red?” A student suggests that this is because they need to use a lot of detail. The teacher asks why the objective is important. Student responses relate to being successful in the speaking examination.

All of the teachers located the lesson within a larger framework of learning, typically linking the lesson content or lesson objectives to broader learning goals. Most frequently, teachers made connections between the lesson content and upcoming formal assessment, often framing this by explaining how the task at hand related to assessment standards and performance.

Some teachers also made the lesson tasks or content more relevant to students by drawing connections to daily life beyond the classroom, to popular culture, or to novel or exciting events likely to engage students’ interest and attention.

Synoptic thinking, a male key stage 5 history teacher explains, is “seeing everything together”. “This is how to get the top marks,” he says, referring to A levels. He elicits students’ ideas about social networking sites and how they have changed over time, comparing some of the different sites and what has made them successes or failures. “This was synoptic thinking,” he informs the students, “you’ve just done it!”

A PowerPoint slide is projected, entitled The Marks Scheme, with three levels and explanations of what it takes to do well at each level. “We’re going to work on these Level 3 approaches,” the teacher announces, before handing out resources for the main lesson activity.

There was frequent evidence of variety in tasks and activities. It was common for this variety to involve working with different partners during the lesson, switching from whole-class discussions to group or individual activities or vice-versa, and alternating between spoken and written tasks. 

Some teachers also provided variety by introducing novel activities and materials to their lessons. One such example was seen in a key stage 3 English lesson delivered by a male teacher with less than five years’ experience.

The teacher has created different stations at several tables around the classroom, each representing a different part of the experience of being stranded on a desert island. On each table is a writing prompt, accompanied by props (one table holds a pile of clothes, another has food wrappers, and a third has images of wild beasts or monsters). Some additional props are scattered around the room to add to the effect.

Students are given dry-erase felt-tip pens, and told to write their responses to the prompts directly onto the tabletops. They are allowed to interact with the props as they choose; some put on costumes from the clothing pile, and many wear paper masks. All of the students write busily, despite clear variations in ability and/or motivation (some write articulately and go on for paragraphs in response to a prompt; others write a sentence or two with grammar or spelling errors). Students move freely between the tables as they finish responding to each prompt. Some take occasional breaks from writing to read others’ responses and discuss their thinking with classmates.

Students’ ratings of schools, classrooms, their own involvement, and particularly teachers, were generally very favourable overall, with girls giving slightly but significantly more positive ratings than boys. Students’ overall ratings indicate that they strongly believe their teachers:

  • Have high expectations for students, and positive relationships with them.

  • Create a positive, supportive and reassuring classroom climate.

  • Provide clear instructional goals and well-structured lessons.

  • Are approachable, fair and helpful.

  • Transmit their enjoyment of learning to students.

  • Promote positive learning experiences, attitudes, engagement and motivation.

Additionally, students’ written comments showed that they valued:

  • Group work and collaboration.

  • Varied lesson activities, group arrangements and topics.

  • A range of resources – from handouts to ICT.

  • A prompt start and appropriate lesson pace.

  • A strong focus on learning and progress.

  • Lessons attuned to student interest/enjoyment.

  • Clarity about what to do and how to improve their work.

  • Interactive teaching approaches and individual support.

  • Positive relationships with their teachers.

  • Teachers who show consistent and effective classroom management, ensuring other students’ positive behaviour.

  • Lessons that are fun.

  • Teachers who are kind, fair and have a sense of humour.

  • Being known and valued as individuals.

Based on this study it seems that inspiring teachers show a high degree of engagement with their students, they are effective, organised and knowledgeable practitioners who exhibit a continued passion for teaching and for promoting the wellbeing of students. They are highly professional, confident and reflective practitioners. 

Despite external challenges, nearly all want to continue in their teaching careers, they genuinely like students, they enjoy teaching, and they show resilience in the stressful and fast-changing education environment. Their classes revealed a strong emphasis on making learning enjoyable and engaging, activating students’ own motivation, and providing classroom experiences that were typically varied, imaginative and fun.

  • Tony McAleavy is director research and development at the CfBT Education Trust.

Further information
For more examples about what inspiring teaching looks like see the summary and full reports which are available to download for free from the CfBT Education Trust website. Visit http://bit.ly/1vP79A2


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