What exactly makes for good teaching?

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Are we measuring the worth of our teachers in the right way? Professor Mick Waters argues that while good lessons are vital, good teaching involves so much more than the classroom.

I spend a lot of time in schools and, over the last few weeks, I have been closely observing how some teachers do their jobs, and thinking about the impact they have. I have been looking directly at the teachers rather than poring over spreadsheets and screens full of data.

I watched a teacher, crawling around on hands and knees in driving rain, helping two youngsters to erect a tent while on their camping visit to the Peak District. The sense of satisfaction and relief all round when the job was complete was palpable; the quiet togetherness through the steam of the celebratory coffee. 

At a schools’ music concert in Huddersfield Town Hall my eyes seemed to fix on one of the teachers sitting among the several hundred pupils on the stage as he lived every moment of the performance along with his pupils. The energy, enjoyment and effort almost literally “sang out”.

At a pupil referral unit, I watched from a distance as a teacher commiserated with a teenager with a syndrome and a statement and a difficult school history over the death of one of the animals on their “farm”. For the child to display emotion was a rare occurrence; it mattered because it was a point of learning rather than landmark to record.

At the end of a race at a regional athletics event, I saw a crestfallen competitor consoled by a teacher. She had stumbled and finished a lonely last having started as favourite to win. Quietly urging the loser to congratulate the victor was part of the essence of competitive sport, as young people learn to win with dignity and lose with grace.

At a buffet lunch where teenagers had done the catering, local employers met with suitably dressed and prepared year 10 students to “network” as part of a careers convention. A teacher moved around prompting introductions as necessary and standing back when possible as she pulled every opportunity out of the occasion. That evening she would be writing the letters of thanks.

These teachers are like most of their colleagues across the country. Decent, caring, committed adults who have chosen to spend their working lives alongside young people helping to make their prospects as good as they can be. These teachers know that their subject disciplines matter and that examination success is important. 

They also know that aspiration is more subtle than striving for higher levels, qualifications and career prospects. They know that aspiration is more than emphasising optimism. Unleashing aspiration means recognising contribution, developing belonging, and building spirit within the youngster.

When they turn up at school in August to be there as exam results are opened and join in the celebrations, the good teachers know that the exam success is a piece in the jigsaw of preparation for life and the blend of experiences beyond lessons will make also a difference.

There are messages in this about the way teachers are expected to go about their work and how we measure their worth. The first is to acknowledge that the lesson is not the only unit of teaching and learning. While good lessons are vital, good teaching in its truest sense takes place in a whole range of settings and is often less of a performance and more of a genuine human interaction, taking advantage of the circumstances conducive to the young person’s growth and development.

The second message follows on from this – if teaching is subtle and complex, let’s stop reducing judgements about its quality to the inspection observation of a few minutes of performance in a lesson and a quick flick through some exercise books. 

It sounds scientific to use terms like “triangulate” but some real observation of teachers going about their important annual work might give a better indication of the degree of teaching effectiveness.

Being close to adults who are hard-working, kind and funny, people who inform, explain, listen, think aloud, wonder and moan and at the same time structure some steps into understanding concepts or building knowledge is what young people appreciate as being with a good teacher. 

Good teachers talk about what is right or wrong and why. They help pupils to recognise propaganda, appreciate a poem, and mend relationships. Good teachers display knowledge, skill, charity, humility, care, sadness, concern and joy. 

I am not sure whether these are British values but they are decent, human values and in good schools we know that decent human values help to raise decent human beings.

  • Mick Waters is professor of education at Wolverhampton University and a member of The 21st Century Learning Alliance. His book Thinking Allowed on Schooling addresses these issues further.

Further information
The 21st Century Learning Alliance is a forum that debates difficult issues to help stimulate improvement and change. Visit www.21stcenturylearningalliance.org or follow on Twitter @Learning_21C


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