Walking the chalk: what really makes a good teacher?
Saturday 2 November, 16:00—17:15, Cinema 3
Chair: Richard Woolfenden
This is the question that I was first asked when undertaking a PGCE twenty years ago. What makes a good teacher? I am partly of the view that thinking about such a question too much can be a little self defeating. The more answers you hear to, ‘what makes a good teacher?’ the fewer of them seem to describe you. Fortunately in Cinema 3 there was a panel of highly confident teachers, although again, perhaps too confident for comfort.
Mark Taylor felt that independence was an important trait, along with the willingness to be judgemental. if teachers provide a moral voice of sorts in the classroom then that can only be good for the students who need guidance. This is perhaps why this discussion is uncomfortable. It is probably right that teachers need to have a judgemental approach, but in the back of your mind you might think to yourself, who am I to judge?
This would probably not be a concern for Barry Smith. It felt like I was the only one in the room who had not seen Barry Smith teach. Now a headteacher in Great Yarmouth, he previously worked at The Michaela School near Wembley. Everyone said how good he is at teaching, including Smith himself at one point. Asking Smith, ‘what makes a good teacher?’ started to sound like asking Usain Bolt what makes a good sprinter? He felt that the teacher needed an element of ‘autopilot’ since the daily routine is necessary, if mundane (giving out books, checking homework). The good teacher is also not a ‘praise junkie’; over-praising can be demotivating. Since the grades matter, said Smith, some teaching is about dumbing down in the sense that subjects have to be taught to score exam marks. Then there’s self confidence, but not arrogance.
Jo Facer highlighted subject knowledge, echoing Taylor’s point that teachers should be readers (which made me feel relieved.) In addition, she said, teachers should like children (as quite often they don’t). Twenty years ago the onus on teachers was to make everything fun (God, I remember all of that!) where group work, games and entertainment was the order of the day. Thankfully, this has been fazed out, said Facer, and, I thought, we can be grateful for that at least.
Martin Robinson previously worked as an advanced skills teacher, which represented one of New Labour’s flagship education policies. The 'AST' got paid more, and was observed more, and was supposed to be a beacon of brilliance that would influence everyone around them, like Yoda with an interactive whiteboard. I am not sure whether Robinson was retrospectively mocking the whole process. Still, he added, good teachers collaborate - learning is a shared process.
grades or learning
One audience member took exception to Barry Smith’s assertion that to teach exam classes well you have to dumb down. But he stood his ground. Introducing too much high end French vocabulary runs the risk of the examiner not knowing it, he claimed. This led to the question of whether grades or learning was more important. Interestingly, no one made a case that learning and grades amounted to the same thing. There is a sense of resignation amongst teachers now that, whilst exam results have to be the focus, there is no point trying to tip the grades boat.
No one on the panel tried to claim that good teachers are effective at responding to e-mails, analysing data and predicting grades, although these jobs seem to underpin what teachers do for so much of their time. This debate has the effect of making me feel deflated, like you are trying to reach an ideal that will soon shift anyway. Mark Taylor discussed the importance of a moral influence on students, and it reminded me of a stand up comedian who once said of performing, ‘if the audience is behind you then you are probably facing in the wrong direction.’ Although teachers are not performers, except perhaps the panel who seem to be the most observed teachers in the country, I think this sentiment still has salience. Teachers should be challenging students. Unfortunately, in the social media age, it seems like the first objective of the teacher is to make everyone else think how good they are. I wonder if teachers are only ultimately any good at all through the benefit of hindsight.