What really makes a good teacher?


Inspectors would have you believe there is one, infallible recipe for perfect teaching, but is this really the case? Not according to head Alistair Macnaughton, who considers what really makes a teacher great...

We are sitting in a stuffy seminar room somewhere in central London, five men and nine women, picking at a few broken shards of custard creams.

It is 11am and the 14 of us are already being nibbled at by incipient boredom and claustrophobia. To be fair, this isn’t entirely the fault of the avuncular ex-head who is leading the session. Why has our miscellaneous group been summoned from the four points of the compass? We are here, as the course notes inform us, to learn about the theory and practice of lesson observation.

We have spent and will spend our day learning again what lessons need to be planned and resources prepared, that Differentiation by Task and not just by Outcome is a good idea, that there needs to be an “appropriate” range of activities, that the “transitions” between these activities have to be “effectively managed”, that questions should be open and closed (never in between), and that we ought to be seizing “Opportunities for Assessment” all the time.

It seems a great deal to pack into our lessons, but if the observed lesson is to be deemed “excellent” rather than “good” or merely (the horror) “satisfactory” – packed in it must be, no matter what the course or class might require. 

Encouraged as we are to devise our own “organic” lesson forms, it is impossible to avoid the feel that the ingredients of excellent lessons are always the same, that there is an infallible recipe and we will return to the shires to taste our colleagues’ teaching and ensure it’s right, even if it amounts to one spoonful after another which tastes exactly the same.

How could anyone fail to be sentimental about the Bad Old Days when “Teaching” and “Learning” were altogether less scientific? I remember some of the teachers I had at school. What, I wonder, would our course leader make of my old English teacher leaping onto a table to rant Shakespeare at us like the actor manqué he undoubtedly was? Or the maths teacher who ignored algebra on the syllabus (because he didn’t like it) but had us like desperate prospectors searching for patterns in primes?

One can only imagine what an inspector would write on the clipboard about “practitioners” like these, but yet both were teachers who ignited our learning beyond the mundane requirements of mere exams and who captured our hearts because they had given themselves permission to uninhibitedly be themselves. Above all, perhaps, they trusted their instincts, even if there were times when their instincts led them, and us, into uncharted territories.

Back in the seminar, we are watching films of specimen lessons. In one, a young history teacher leads a series of group discussions of 19th century diseases; in another a science teacher laboriously takes her students through an experiment on oxygen and carbon monoxide. Assessing the lessons on our fancy grids, my colleagues were in no doubt: the first was “very good”, the second only “satisfactory”. 

Alone, however, I thought that both lessons were equally poor, for if the young history teacher knew when to speak out and when to listen, when to split them, when to bring them back for “plenary” and how to provide the wunderkind in the corner with the odd bit of extension, there was, at least I believed, a smug deadness in her approach which left me cold and would, I think, have left the class feeling the same.

It is a world of watchers that we live in now – and we all know that this is better than the old world of closed doors and unaccountability. Raising standards cannot happen without systematic observation and with systematic observation comes performance criteria and recommended good practice and oodles of training, even if some course providers are being paid a small fortune for stating the obvious. I can’t help asking myself if we are taking it too far and, in an effort to be consistent, creating a rule book for teachers which may leave our pupils feeling processed and teachers preoccupied with methodology at the expense of the passion. Cliché it may undoubtedly be, but education is still about hearts and minds. In steering the latter, we may be forgetting the former and the alliance between them that makes both work at their best.

  • Alistair Macnaughton is head of The King’s School in Gloucester.


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