What makes a good teacher?

The Bury Free Press launched its Best Teacher of the Year Award just recently, in partnership with Discovery Education. This is a tremendous opportunity to share what it means to be an outstanding teacher and I’m delighted to support this initiative.

How we identify the ‘best teacher’ will be an interesting challenge, to say the least. Some may say that the effectiveness of a teacher is a straightforward calculation – it’s the percentage of pupils in his or her class who achieved national expectations in standardised tests at the end of the year. Find out this number and you can then rank the teacher’s performance alongside all other teachers in the country who are teaching the same year group. Easy. Sorted.

But such a calculation only tells you half the story, or even less. It’s like saying the best baker in the county is the one who bakes the most loaves. Schools are not production lines, churning out standardised products that meet or fail quality assurance checks. Judging the effectiveness of a teacher’s ability requires more than a glance at the data. Yes, of course, a teacher is there to teach his or her students a syllabus of knowledge, skills and proficiencies sufficiently well so that they can gain academic qualifications. The teacher’s performance will always be judged against those learning outcomes. But the plain truth is that behind every academic result lies a real person, living a real life in a real context, making real progress in ways that stretch far beyond the data. Academic results are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning outcomes; there are deep down things that a teacher is influencing, shaping, encouraging in every child, qualities which are invisible to the data lens. If every child were identical – with the same skills, the same character and the same advantages or disadvantages – then judging the success of a teacher would indeed be very easy, just look at their results and ignore everything else.

But every child is different – with different attitudes, behaviours and backgrounds. Children learn, or don’t learn, depending on their emotional state at the time. They may hear and respond to some of what the teacher says to them in class, but not much. They may read and reflect on what the teacher writes in their books, but not much. They may even take on board the advice they are given in reports, but not much. The most significant impact any teacher can have on a student is found in the way they make that child feel about themselves. That is the legacy of a good teacher, and it may not be visible until long after they have left school. The seeds of self-confidence and self-worth are being sown by teachers right now, in classrooms across the region, but they may not be yielding visible shoots of growth for some years to come. As teachers we play the long game, even if those who measure our performance need instant results.

So how do we judge the best teacher, if their reach and influence is so invisible? I think there are some observables; there are signs which tell you that the teacher in your child’s classroom is good at what they do. They smile and project optimism at all times. They are calm, patient and understanding. They present the story of learning with expertise and a repertoire that enables them to connect with all the pupils in their class, whatever their learning differences.

But looking at and listening to the teacher will only tell you so much. The best way to judge a good teacher is to turn around and look at the children. Are they engaged and enthused? Are they collaborating and cooperating? Are they willing and able to share what they think? Do they feel safe and secure enough to dare to have a go? Are they bouncing into class looking forward to seeing their teacher?

The very best teachers use all their skills and experience to empower students to feel confident and ambitious as learners. They help them to see that there is a reason to bother, a reason to try. In short, they project unshakeable belief in what their students can achieve. Children will have ups and downs, always. They may be fortunate enough to be feeling confident and enthusiastic on the day of an examination, or they may flunk a test because of something someone said to them in the playground. They may have good short term memories and remember the correct facts and figures to score well in a test, or they may panic and forget the lot. But how their teacher made them feel in class – how they helped them form their mindset – that is what will shape the way in which they handle success or failure for life. It’s not just about what you know, it’s about what you do when you don’t know the answer. It’s your character that counts, even if it cannot be counted.

The best teachers help their students to be the best versions of themselves, in school and into adulthood. The best thing about being a teacher is that you can have a positive influence on children every day. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that you have an influence on children every day and you have to get it right.

I for one can’t wait to celebrate the good teachers in our region. To quote a much used cliché, they are all winners already.

In The Bury Free Press, Friday 4th October 2019


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