The visual anatomy of a #GreatTeacher by @TeacherToolkit

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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This is a dissection of teaching at the heart of a classroom near you. For this article, I will be depicting a colleague I currently work with.

I am sure this teacher exists in your school too …



This is not a list: this is a outlook that underpins the disposition of a great teacher/teaching. I have made references to the Da Vinci ‘Vitruvian Man’ which “is a drawing is based on the correlations of ideal human proportions.”

“Vitruvius described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the Classical orders of architecture. He also determined that the ideal body should be a specific height.” (Source)

Meet the Vitruvian Man:

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds via Compfight cc
The perfect man…
Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds via Compfight cc

There are many articles, publications and meaningful research to reference; ‘what makes a good teacher?’ But, nothing outlines greatness exceeding good… There is some useful reading here on ‘great teaching’. and I give thanks to @cijane02 for recent and an invaluable source of discourse.

Do great teachers exist?

“….there ought to be the greatest harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the general magnitude of the whole…” (Source: Vitruvius’ De architectura 3.1.2-3)

I think great teachers do exist. Definitions aside, here I give you the philosophy – or reasoning – of a great teacher. I portray a great colleague I work with. You will certainly work with them too.

A great teacher:

This teacher is engaging in conversation and communicates high expectations to all students; colleagues and parents. They demand and encourage their own initiatives; as well as those of others (students and colleagues). In ‘greatness’, they have the capacity to reflect in order to learn; often coupled with a sense of humour and acknowledgement that they too, can do better. They know exactly where to improve.

They know that ‘the sum of the whole is greater than the parts’. (Gestalt psychology)

They know exactly where to improve.  Photo Credit: Bill Ruhsam via Compfight cc
They know exactly where to improve.
Photo Credit: Bill Ruhsam via Compfight cc

This teacher more than enjoys teaching their subject; they love it! They thrive on seeking (new) knowledge, skills and understanding and possess an unyielding sense of enthusiasm to impart what they already know. They do this, because they want to continue their own personal lust for learning and maintain a passion for their subject discipline.

The teacher is endowed with a solid knowledge base and are fully aware that pedagogy evolves and they must too. They yearn to be at the forefront of their subject and question the status quo; they challenge students and colleagues to think (including themselves), to create and respond to provocations that allow a deeper and more connected understanding of learning….

The great teacher offers practical applications and goes the ‘extra mile’; investing in the interests of individual students. Their classroom support nurtures the growth of students who are in their care.

Photo Credit: Dr Case via Compfight cc
Challenge the status quo?
Photo Credit: Dr Case via Compfight cc

The great teacher can give and receive feedback; maintaining a professional relationship continuously. They are sensitive to the needs of every individual (students and colleagues); developing a mentoring attitude and a coaching mentality where applicable.

A great teacher accepts their own limitations; but is always prepared for each class and is available and accessible for all students. They appreciate the cultural and ethnic diversity of students in the classroom and can break down barriers to learning. In essence, the great teacher demonstrates interdisciplinary connections, regardless of aptitude or background.

Photo Credit: Captain Tenneal via Compfight cc
They break down barriers to learning…
Photo Credit: Captain Tenneal via Compfight cc

In essence, the great teacher is self-effacing and possesses adroitness to encourage students to learn for the sake of learning.

Is greatness considered perfection?

We know that perfection is impossible and that mistakes can be made.

“Commit as many mistakes as possible, but do not commit the same mistake again! It is better to commit mistakes on your own and learn from them, rather than follow somebody else and not commit mistakes.” (Beyond Psychology: Trees Grow without Being Taught – Osho)

We can often see, read and hear what great teachers do. They often go above and beyond; but what we should also consider here is; what great teachers not do? And what I mean by this, is ‘what and when does the great teacher opt out?’

How would the Vitruvian Man – the great teacher – be viewed?

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc
If they opted out – what would happen?
Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc

The ‘Vitruvian Man’ would be very different to the norm.

Again, I make references to the individual teacher in my school. The great teacher knows when to say ‘no’. They know when to delegate and know when to refuse additional responsibilities or new initiatives. They see the bigger picture and often the medium and longer-term plan. The great teacher can see beyond their own classroom.

This teacher will (and should) opt out of additional professional duties and responsibilities that perhaps can deter them away from their core foci; the classroom and great teaching.

New projects challenge their pedagogy and although they may be full of greatness; this can be tarnished with the occasional reluctance to engage with fresh ideas that would enable their own practice to impact on others further afield. This may be an informed choice, but they are humble enough to concede that have played an important role in fostering values and developing students, but there is a need to share this expertise with a wider audience …

Photo Credit: TheArtfulBadger via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: TheArtfulBadger via Compfight cc

Of course, there is a time and place for us all to consider our own professional practice; our workload and the additional duties we take on – whether as an additional job responsibility, or something that may be a one-off task that offers no financial incentive, other than ‘experience’.

You will know this teacher in your very own school. They may be in the very classroom next door to you? They may be bounding along fitting in with Ofsted terminologies and grade definitions; but they have the lurking capacity to steer away from the constraints of school polices; Ofsted-wants and curricular and examination requirements to be bold and audacious.

The great teacher may often be cited as a maverick. Yet, nothing what I write here will quite match up to being in that classroom, watching a great teacher in action. When did you last walk through their door? If this is ‘you’, when did you last walk into another classroom or allow someone in yours?

As much as I would like to give you a video of a teacher in the classroom; or drag all my readers into a lesson, all I can offer to you, is the visual anatomy of great teacher; my second-best effort. This summarises the text above. (Click to open/expand view)

The visual anatomy of great teacher by @TeacherToolkit
The visual anatomy of great teacher by @TeacherToolkit

Greatness: What if?

I can trust a few reliable sources through prolonged dialogues with some of my Twitter-colleagues. The first, is by headteacher @JohnTomsett, who recently blog a reflective piece about being coached to improve his own teaching and body language and posted a series of video clips of himself, teaching in his very own classroom!

John’s videos inspired my own recent 6-part series of #360Reviews on leadership. (Currently 3/6 complete).

"body language and tone of voice"
“body language and tone of voice”

Then I also discovered this tweet by Tom Sherrington, posted over 300 days ago (Twitter: @headguruteacher) via David Didau’s blog on ‘What 3 things would you do to help a teacher improve?’ (Twitter: @LearningSpy)

What if? - click to open
What if? – click to open

What if?

As Sherrington states in his tweet, what would you do?

What if the great teacher presented the Vitruvian Man in a different form? How would this look to you?

Being great is not merely being defined as ‘good or outstanding’. Language and descriptors that commodify teachers and pedagogy to fit neatly into descriptors, can only be limiting by its referent of labelling.

Photo Credit: _ormolu via Compfight cc
Innovation? Inspiring? Greatness?
Photo Credit: _ormolu via Compfight cc

If the handcuffs of education were removed, how would the good teacher evolve into greatness? Would lines of good and great still remain blurred? Would they flourish into innovation? Perhaps offer alternatives for us all? Truly promote a love of learning without the restrictions of examination dogma? Perhaps a great teacher may become too abstract and lose sight of greatness? Sherrington provides his analysis here.

As the @RealGeoffBarton says in his TES article :

“Young people appreciate great teachers as much as they ever did but are more intolerant of mediocre ones.” (What makes a good teacher?)

A great teacher is a master of their subject and demands high expectations every single lesson. Even the lessons, when our guard is lowered at the end of term, or those one-off occasions when we drag students off to whole-school assemblies or events. The great teacher’s expectations always remain the same.

They are clear and communicate well with everyone. The great teacher is prepared and organised. They engage students and have strong caring relationships. They are respected and occasionally viewed in awe.

Who do you know that is truly great in your school?

The late and great, Mike Baker, is one the first articles to appear in this search engine: ‘What makes a good teacher?’. I was lucky enough to meet Mike once, during a Teachers TV meeting with Dylan Wiliam on The Importance of Teaching in November 2010. I managed to find this video of Mike in the archives.

Mike sums up the good/great question fittingly:

Sometimes the simplest questions in life are the hardest to answer.”


Another Mike, (Mr. Michael Wilshaw) has also been quoted several times in ‘The good teacher’ speech he presented at The Royal Society of Arts in the summer of 2012

“All good teachers share the same goal: to give children and young people the best chance in life. However, the way in which they reach that goal will depend on what works for them and their pupils.”

A ticket to great teaching?
A ticket to great teaching?

Is Wilshaw and Ofsted’s latest January 2014 updates, more freedom to gain our ticket to greatness?

In keeping with John Tomsett, I will be soon offering small video-bytes of my own teaching here; so that I may too, become great.

Thank you for reading this far.

Visual anatomy download:

To download a copy of my visual anatomy; click The visual anatomy of a great teacher by @TeacherToolkit.


Creative Commons License@TeacherToolkit by Ross Morrison McGill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Based on all work published at

Related reading:

The University of Strathclyde provides a great range of important characteristics and these are referenced in this post.

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