What makes a great teacher?

19 January 2010
The Guardian
link to original

David Cameron thinks a good teacher is all about having a good degree but, says one member of the profession, that couldn’t be further from the truth

David Cameron’s proclamation that the Tories will be “brazenly elitist” about the calibre of candidates entering the teaching profession betrays the fact that he doesn’t know anything about teaching. As a teacher in various comprehensives for the past 20 years, I have seen many good teachers, and some, it’s true, fit the stereotype that Cameron wants to impose: graduates with good degrees from so-called “good universities”. But I’ve also met a great many excellent teachers who wouldn’t have passed his test. Some didn’t have degrees in their chosen subjects; others didn’t have degrees at all.

Cameron’s cardinal mistake is to think qualifications make a good teacher. They don’t. When you’re faced with 30 truculent children after lunch on a Friday afternoon, qualifications don’t count for much. Take Lesley, a high-powered business executive who I mentored as she trained to be a teacher. She had everything: a great degree, excellent organisational skills and good communication skills. Yet she crumbled in the classroom because she was so impatient with her pupils: nothing they did was good enough. Whereas her employees had tolerated her endless nit-picking, her pupils ­became demotivated and disaffected.

David was another illustration of the shortcomings of Cameron’s policy: he had a first-class degree from Oxford and a penchant for oatmeal jackets and cravats. As his mentor, I observed him teach what I felt was a relatively well-behaved class of 12-year-olds. A quarter of an hour in, it was clear that none of the children had the slightest idea what he was talking about; the class began talking, then chucking his elaborate worksheets around the class. Ironically, it was his support teacher, who didn’t have a degree at all, who rescued the lesson by explaining in clear English what was required.

If you don’t have the right personality, you’ll suffer in the bearpit of today’s classrooms. In my experience, there are four types of teacher who are effective: the despot, the carer, the charmer, and the rebel. And none of them, in my experience, requires an upper-class degree.

I’ve come across many despotic teachers in my career. They are the Terminator or Lara Croft of teaching; the tough guy or gal who everyone turns to when the going gets really tough. They are nearly always very experienced teachers who know not only all the pupils but their parents, too, having taught many of them. During my first year of teaching, one of my classes rioted, pushed all the furniture out of my room, swore at me and blew cigarette smoke in my face. I called in the cigar-chomping despot of my school, the deputy head, and he blasted them away with a sound telling off.

Most manuals don’t advocate this approach to teaching, but I have to admit it can be very effective, even if morally dubious. Despotic teachers often extract fantastic work from their pupils, and rarely have to use their full armory – their reputations are usually enough. They are often highly organised, making their classrooms into small fortresses, and in my experience nearly always achieve above-average results, because they teach the syllabus to the last letter.

The opposite of the despot is the caring teacher. Without wanting to stereotype too much, many carers are women. They become surrogate parents for their pupils. Many don’t have degrees, and have been appointed as “mentors” or “support teachers” to help struggling pupils plan out their lives – working out ways in which they can do their work most effectively. Usually, pupils love seeing their mentors, and learn from them the vital skill of “taking responsibility for their own learning” (as it’s known in the jargon). I’ve taught some pupils who were ­really going off the rails – taking drugs, skipping school, getting into fights – yet when they were taken under the wing of one of these teachers, they transformed and blossomed.

Unlike the despot, the caring teacher works with lots of people: ­parents, other teachers, social workers. What she or he manages to do is make pupils see they can control and shape their own lives. The teacher might mother her charges to death in the process, but the end result is nearly always a happy pupil who has achieved very much against the odds.

The “charmer”, on the other hand, is quite different from both these previous staples of the teaching profession. They can be a disorganised species, living off adrenaline and wits. They are frequently highly academic, and are in teaching to be mates with their pupils, to understand them and play with them. With this sort of teacher, the classroom becomes one great big, bouncing playground of learning. Take Martin, one of the best teachers I’ve come across, who would prepare his lessons on the hoof after reading the newspaper, and would ­totally change direction mid-lesson if hit by some new inspiration. He was very disorganised, but did everything with a wink and a smile.

Finally, there’s the most controversial but often most effective kind of teacher: the rebel. These teachers see school as a place that should aim to transform society, and are equally loathed by Tories and New Labourites alike. They are also a dying breed.

Using thinkers such as Karl Marx and the Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Freire, they believe that our children have been brainwashed by our capitalistic society into making certain assumptions about inequality, exploitation, injustice. They see the classroom as the place where these children can be “deprogrammed” – and make amazing teachers because they are so passionate and persuasive. In the staffroom, they frequently rage against the system, pointing out that education isn’t about producing good little workers to prop up our ­iniquitous society. Even if you disagree with their politics, you have to admit they deliver blinding lessons, whatever their subject.

But the crucial point here is that none of these teachers learned their skills by getting a good degree: they learned them on the job. All could ­improve by watching other good ­teachers in the classroom and learning from their techniques. However, there are some “generic” traits which should be borne in mind when discussing what’s best for our schools.

Research shows that all the best teachers motivate their pupils to work hard, and assess them very regularly. Recently, I feel I’ve improved my teaching because I’ve learned more about assessing my pupils frequently; instead of concentrating upon my teaching, I’ve looked more closely at what my pupils are learning and ­tailored my lessons accordingly (I’ve had to be trained to do this).

There is now a great deal of research to suggest it is not your subject knowledge that’s the determining factor of how well your pupils achieve, but how you use your assessment of their achievements to plan and shape succeeding lessons. But I’m well aware that I still need further training in this area. At the moment, I am paying for that training myself in the form of a doctorate in education; there isn’t any hope of receiving funding from the government (believe me, I’ve tried). Luckily, my partner works so we can afford it, but most teachers struggling with families and high living costs cannot.

Instead of demoralising teachers with his ill-informed comments about what makes a good teacher, Cameron should commit himself to putting proper money and time into training the existing teachers in the system. Instead of paying for the training of a “brazen elite” of graduates, he should improve the wages of all teachers so that we are all treated like an “elite”. His current policy, if implemented, won’t improve the standards of teaching, and will instead further dishearten an already deflated profession.

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