This much I know about truly great teaching, in a week when there has been so much debate about QTS!
One of the most fascinating things in the world is to teach 15 year old boys. If you don’t believe me you can find out why here and here.
We can all be better teachers. Dylan Wiliam, in his keynote speech at the SSAT Conference in December 2012 said, Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.
What was the last thing you learnt from scratch? The last thing I learnt, which I had never done before, I learnt via a Youtube video. I had bought a colleague an antique leather document wallet, but the stitching was rotten. With time against me, I bought the waxed linen thread and a proper needle and learnt myself, with the help of this Tandy Leather video! Click below and you can learn too…

stitching pic

Ask any set of students for the five key features of a good teacher and they will give you essentially the same answer: good teachers are enthusiastic; they make lessons fun; they know their subject; they respect us as adults; they help if we don’t understand. We knew this instinctively, and it was confirmed for us by some work we did with Group 8 Education.  These are the common features of good teaching identified by our students from a bank of thirty or more descriptors:

  1. Teachers respect me;
  2. Teachers are knowledgeable in their subject;
  3. Teachers are friendly, approachable and willing to listen;
  4. Teachers are positive, enthusiastic and have a sense of humour;
  5. Teachers encourage and help me to succeed;
  6. In class I do work that is interesting and challenging for me.
  7. Teachers celebrate my progress and achievements;
  8. Teachers remind me that my success depends on my effort;
  9. My classes have clear rules for how I should behave throughout the class;
  10. Teachers provide me with useful feedback on my work.

It’s a pretty good set of descriptors, one forged and selected by students, the ones who have experienced the full range of teaching quality…
A good teacher is like Autolycus from The Winter’s Tale – a snapper up of unconsidered trifles. You’re always on the lookout for teaching materials, things to grab students’ attention, to keep your resources up-to-date and relevant. I used to use this article about hard drinking in Hartlepool, which I nicked from an Independent newspaper Saturday magazine over twenty years ago, to teach point of view and bias.
Some things work in the classroom every time, year after year. Every time I teach representation, I begin with this tip from Len Masterman’s seminal book from 1985, Teaching the Media.
I make sure I ostentatiously screw up the picture of the horse and throw it in the bin, because I could never do that to a horse!
Teach the students in front of you. Do everything you can to know who they are. Anyone who teaches lesson after lesson systematically from the same Scheme of Learning year after year shouldn’t be doing the job because they don’t really care about the students.
Schemes of Learning can only be general overviews. You can’t plan more than a couple of lessons ahead because you can never know exactly how the learning from your lesson will progress.
I’m so bored with the knowledge vs skills debate. Of course we have to teach knowledge, for goodness’ sake! I could never have learnt about the subtle, highly technical workings of a sonnet if I hadn’t listened for an hour to Bob Jones dismantle Sonnet 130 so brilliantly in my first few weeks of undergraduate study. I still have a copy of his lectures which he published in Studying Poetry: An Introduction.
There is no prescribed way to teach. I know nearly every single reader of my blog will have seen Michael Wilshaw emphasise this fact, but in case you haven’t take a few minutes to watch this video:
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Technology is changing the way we learn, but I reckon you will still need great teachers, no matter how what the future brings.
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And here’s to the several teachers who taught and inspired me:
Tom Hickey and the annual pilgrimage to the Marxism conferences at North London Poly;
Martin Sacree on how to draw the graphs in Economics;
Marion Greene and her copy of Irish Poets 1924-1974 which I still possess;
Dave Williams’ wonderfully thorough teaching and his complete loathing of Love’s Labour’s Lost!
Sue Winter’s pure teaching of Pure Maths;
Ann Pearce’s legendary Chi squared analysis;
Mr Stone who helped me gain CSE grade 1 in German in four terms;
Geoff Wall for giving me a chance to study literature when I probably didn’t deserve it;
Dr Alan Charity for weeping in V045 as he recited Shakespeare;
Nicole Ward Jouve for her analysis of the Yorkshire Ripper murders;
Pippa Tristram and how every time she read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde she hoped it was Criseyde coming over the hill in the dawn and not the man pushing the cart;
Tony Ward for urging me to write sonnets;
Hugh Haughton sharing hand-written early drafts of Heaney’s Haw Lantern sonnets;
Derek Pearsall laughing at our inability to pin down Chaucer;
CA Patrides lecturing on Milton with such panache;
Sid Bradley introducing me to Deor just when I needed it.
Is teaching an art or science? Like everything in life, it’s somewhere between the two. The bottom line is that to be any good at teaching it has to matter to you, properly, right there in your chest.

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This post has 5 Comments

  1. Fantastic post as always John! I’m currently leading a project to improve teaching across my school, would you mind if I used some of your descriptors in a talk I’m giving after half term? If you haven’t already done so I’d also recommend reading ‘The Icarus Deception’ by Seth Godin. I know he’s not for everyone, but in this book he talks a lot about how meaningful work is an art form and I think it chimes. Well with this post!

  2. Much to be inspired by, as always, John – thanks. I’m glad we seem to be entering a somewhat wider-thinking phase that in recent years. We do indeed need to remember that teaching is an art as well as a science – that’s been widely forgotten. What’s more, no artist is perfect.
    I consider myself a pretty dedicated teacher, yet I always feel a tinge of deflation at such lists of teacher qualities. I’m a mere mortal; I do my best – and I do have a wider life to lead, including other things I’m dedicated to, too. While we continue to imply that only perfection and 100% commitment is good enough, it will always have a somewhat mixed impact.

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