Are you excellent?

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I’m all for acknowledging and celebrating success and excellence in teaching, so when Pearson asked me if I’d like to mention their teaching award on Primary Stories I was very happy to oblige. The very process of identifying why you believe you are a good teacher is an enriching exercise for a number of reasons. A lot of reflection in teaching revolves around what didn’t go exactly to plan, and what could have been done differently, or better. Feedback on observed lessons tends to focus on procedures, and how you do things rather than on what impact you are having on each individual student in your class. However experienced the observer, they cannot know what you were faced with at the start of the year, and how far each child has come in the context of their own learning. As a teacher trainer who regularly does observation and feedback I don’t want to imply that this process is invalid. Instead I want to suggest that rather than waiting nervously for your yearly formal observation for judgement on your teaching, you trust the evidence you have before you. Evidence gathered from hours and hours of classroom experience, time spent getting to know your students, what they like and don’t like and what they are good at or need help with. Evidence which inevitably feeds into the lessons which you plan.

Easy? Not so much. Identifying what makes you an excellent teacher means making a conscious decision to build regular self-reflection into your already busy schedule, and then really engaging with what is happening in the classroom. Young learner teachers are advised amongst other things to include in lessons a mixture of activities which alternately stir then settle students to cater for their short attention spans and burn off excess energy, to provide plenty of scaffolding to make tasks achievable, to build in plenty of repetition and revision as young children forget quickly, and to establish routines so the focus can remain on learning rather than classroom management. This is all sound advice, but it’s easy to mistake a lesson which includes all these elements and from which children leave happy for an excellent lesson, and therefore excellent teaching. Put children in a classroom and they will undoubtedly learn, but are they reaching their full potential?

It’s hard to define what makes a great teacher. Google threw up various ideas, namely excellent knowledge of subject matter, good organisation, planning and communication skills, solid classroom management and the ability to build a sense of community. What often seems to be missing from these lists is the ability to pitch lessons with an appropriate level of challenge, catering to the varying needs of all the students in the classroom.

Without strong relationships, aka rapport, a plus one level of challenge is potentially detrimental for children who may fear failure and become demotivated. But rapport, both between teacher and students and between classmates, is also slippery to define. We often talk about a positive learning environment or an atmosphere conducive to learning, however, as previously mentioned a popular and fun teacher can often keep children busy on tasks without necessarily doing any teaching. The teaching advice given for building rapport always astonishes me, because it seems to be nothing more than how we would expect two people to behave towards each other in any given situation anyway. Show respect, listen, be fair, learn names, be authentically yourself, to list a few identified by Scrivener (2005) and Harmer (2007). It’s easy to forget that what’s obvious to us, isn’t obvious to everyone. It very much depends on the role models you have growing up. When teaching young children a foreign language, it’s also easy to forget that they are curious about things they don’t understand, that they are capable of making informed decisions and judgements, that they have opinions they want to express and that they are easily influenced by those around them.

The UN convention on the rights of the child states that all children have the right to express their views and that these views be taken seriously by adults, as well as the right to learn and express their opinions. At times, being a teacher can feel overwhelming and simply teaching the language seems a big enough task on its own – surely there’s someone else who can deal with all these other things? I’ve worked at private language schools which have special weeks dedicated to important issues, for example environment week, anti-bullying week, equality and diversity week, where everyone is expected to teach lessons on a particular theme. Some teachers inevitably discover during these weeks that a (very small) percentage of their students actually hold some pretty unsavory views. It also turns these big issues into something special, when they should be commonplace and every day. Awareness is certainly raised, but I’d hope most teachers address these issues as needs arise. I believe these weeks would be much more impactful if they were an opportunity to share and celebrate all that has been learnt or achieved about these issues throughout the year, rather than an allocated time to address potentially tricky subjects that are best left alone the rest of the time for fear of causing offence. Advice for teachers dealing with inappropriate comments from students is often to divert, diffuse and distract, then have a quiet word with the relevant student(s) after the lesson. If we don’t talk about big issues in the classroom, then where can they be safely and intelligently talked about?

For me, an excellent teacher is someone genuinely interested in his or her students whatever their age. He or she challenges their students to think by asking them questions, by engaging with their ideas and by guiding them where necessary. An excellent teacher has high expectations of their students and is not afraid to face the needs of their students full on, whatever they may be. It’s someone who understands their responsibility in helping the children they teach grow up making wise, intelligent, informed decisions about their own lives and the lives of those around them. For me, being an excellent teacher is much more than helping children make progress in their particular subject. Are you the best role model possible for the students you teach? If so, then get entering this competition and I’ll see you at IATEFL Brighton 2018!

References:

Harmer, J. (2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching (4th edn). Harlow: Pearson Longman.

Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching: A Guidebook for English Language Teachers (2nd edn). Oxford: Macmillan.

2 thoughts on “Are you excellent?

  1. Another great blog. Thanks. I think it is difficult to define the ‘excellent teacher’. There are so many definitions and aside from the technical criteria we use when observing classes, much of the discussion regarding great teachers is quite subjective. I think it’s Thornbury who says that teaching is an art, not a science so like beauty, great teaching can be observed differently by the eye of the beholder. One thing you mention which I think is vital is the constant need to reflect an an essential tool of continued professional development. Through such interaction, can come insight and effective progress in our professional teaching evolution.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Richard. Yes, extremely subjective which is why teachers need more help with reflection. The ‘technical criteria’ are often quite mysterious for teachers, otherwise formal observation wouldn’t be so traumatic.

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