This is time of year when everyone starts preparing for school, usually somewhat nervously in anticipation of what the year will bring. This is most true for those starting school – primary, secondary or third level. It applies to teachers as much as students, but particularly so to trainee teachers.
Some weeks ago there was a discussion on @gtchat about what makes a great teacher for gifted children. I offered some suggestions and thought it was timely to elaborate.
There is a danger with discussion topics like this in that they can end up producing a list of qualities that no known person in the world has, or at least, not at the same time. Teachers are human and so we have our faults and quirks just like everyone else. We can inspirational’ but not all the time. We can be ‘motivational’, but not all the time. We can ‘differentiate’, though it isn’t always the best way to achieve particular learning outcomes. We can be ‘humourous’ although this is more difficult first thing on Monday morning and just after a pay cut. These are indeed qualities teachers should have but then they are qualities that most people possess. Yet is is clear that not all people capable of being great teachers.
I can not categorically say what makes a great teacher. Nor that if a teacher has certain qualities they will alway be a great teacher. Part of the problem here is that what makes a teacher great is, I believe, at least 50% subjective opinion. Unless we are to be all things to all people, it is simply impossible to objectively say a teacher is great. It is worth noting that this is not the same as identifying a poor teacher. A poor teacher is poor for everyone; a great teacher is not great for eveyone ie. At some point the subjectivity creeps in.
Humour, respect, understanding are all the grease that helps turn the wheels of teaching. But there are basic attitudes and approaches to the task of teaching which I think are fundamental to the ‘job’. The extent of these are present in the individual – not too much, not too little – are, I think, what makes a teacher great (please note I’m not ascribing these to myself!)
1. Passionate about helping young minds grow
Teachers need to be interested in young people first and foremost. Children can be frustrating and sometimes do and say the most stupid of things. They can be annoying and immature (who would have guessed!). But adults (sometimes not much better!) need to recognise that children are these things because they are learning. Children need the space to make mistakes and the forgiveness of the adults around them so that they can move beyond them. In this way they can grow. Teachers needs to be passionate about the process of helping children learn. This means getting over the silly things they sometimes do and remembering what is the goal of education – the formation of young minds.
2. Passionate about learning and about their discipline
Teachers need to be interested in their subject and interested in learning. It is not sufficient to go into a classroom and reguriate everything one covered on one’s degree course, suitably cropped for first or second level. Teachers need to be interested in the process of learning and in finding new ways help children develop their own learning.
In Ireland, second level teachers usually teach 2 subjects. Often one of them will be the poor relation i.e. the teacher will have fewer timetabled hours in it. Teachers need to be equally curious and interested in both subjects. This sounds like a given but I’ve met plenty of teachers who teach what has become for them a ‘9 to 4 shift’. Thanksfully, I believe they are in the minority. It’s not enough to enjoy the subject. I believe a teacher has to love the subject. Join your subject association/professional body.
3. Models learning behaviour
A teacher has to model the kinds of behaviour they wish to see in their students. We know students learn from making mistakes in their learning. Imagine a teacher couldn’t admit the same – deliberate or not!
A former student of mine corrected me on a silly mistake I made one day in class. Average air pressure is 1013.25 mb – basic stuff, I should have known it. I did; but what I knew was incorrect (1004mb) (I do have an excuse!). Thankfully she corrected me. I don’t think she believed me at the time (and still doesn’t) but it was really important and I am glad she did.
Now what if everyone in the class knew this and I had steadfastly refuted it? What kind of message would that have sent out? There’s no point having the correct answers so don’t bother looking them up?
But that is basic stuff. Teachers need to bring frsh material and ideas to the classroom. The days of students copying reams of 30 year old notes from overhead projectors or the
blackboard are long gone. Those who cling to them have a serious decision to make. Sure it’s a job. But what we teach a child lasts generations. Teachers have to care. If you don’t care, don’t teach.
4. Desire and ability to collaborate
Where would Lennon and McCartney have been without each other? While they were brilliant in their own right, something about the fact that they collaborated allowed them to access a level of creativity that was unmatched in the popular music.
It’s more than ‘two brains are better than one’ – the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. By collaborating teachers can test their teaching experiences and idea’s against the experience of their colleagues, learn something new, or different and model the collaborative behaviour they would expect students to use in group work. Sharing ideas for practice is a win-win for everyone involved. The alternative is 40 years inside a classroom where no ideas get out and no ideas gets in.
Collaboration has other benefits. Teachers dread the arrival of Inspectors. I read somewhere that in the dim and distant past, Inspectors in Finland needed escorts due to threats they recieved visiting schools! They eventually got rid of the Inspectors in Finland altogether. But there is a lot that can be learned by a teacher by having another professional give some feedback. I’m a fan of peer evaluation and think that this would be good as a model of inspection for teachers. I’m not going to go into this here just now, but I believe collaboration at this level can benefit the teaching community enormously.
5. Demonstrable Commitment to Continuing Professional Development
The Teaching Council in Ireland has published its Policy on Continuing Professional Devcelopment. Most of it is undefined – full of ‘shoulds’, rather than a holding concrete recognition of what constitutes CPD. I’ll blabber on another time about this amorphous creature. Suffice to say that CPD is a given for anyone calling themself a ‘professional’. In a regulated profession there should be a CPD policy. But for years Ireland didn’t have one. Still, teachers undertook, and still undertake, courses and activities that any sane human being would recognise as contributing to their work. The urge to keep up-to-date with skills and knowledge marks out one teacher from another. In an ideal world, CPD would happen as a matter of course. But it’s not and it doesn’t.
CPD doesn’t have to be always subject specific. One can learn all sort of things in all sorts of places. And when one goes places, one finds all sorts of things to bring back. Already in the last year I have brought back Twitter, Google+, and much more. I tried them out and then found out how they could help my teaching. If you don’t go somewhere, you won’t get anywhere.
I could go on so just one last point.
We are used to talking about teachers as people who teach children. We talk less about teachers as people who help children learn. For all the talk of ‘child-centred education’, much of it is still focused on teacher delivery of material in the classroom, rather than on the delivery of learning opportunities for children. We talk of teaching and learning – clearly two separates tasks – yet our treatment of them is the same; we assume that if teaching is happening, so too must learning. This is not the case. I think that if we are to reform the education system in Ireland, we need to stop talking about teaching in the classroom, and talk more about learning in the classroom. In this context, the teacher stops delivering information that can be found anywhere, and intead becomes a facilitator of learning. Instead of what we call ‘child centred education’ we should have ‘child centred learning’. One day.