Just Great

Reading time: 4

John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
Read more about John Dabell

How do you define greatness? 

Great teaching and being a great teacher don’t go hand in hand. You might be a great teacher but your teaching might not be that great. Equally, you could deliver great teaching but that doesn’t make you a great teacher. You could actually be doubly great.  It depends who you ask and how they ‘measure’ you.

According to Jamal, his Y6 teacher Mr Bedford, is a “really great teacher”. Jamal measured this on Mr Bedford’s ability to make him laugh, his patience, his kindness and because “Mr B really makes us think hard.”

According to his last lesson observation, his line manager said his teaching was well-intentioned but overly ambitious, a little too brisk for some children and muddled in places. The year 6 SATs results last year weren’t that good either, and this reflected poorly on Mr Bedford even though: (a) Mr Bedford is in his second year of teaching and, (b) Mr Bedford remembers hearing once in a staff meeting, that the SATs results were a whole school responsibility.

Really great

So what does great teaching actually look like? The Sutton Trust can help: Professor Rob Coe from Durham University led a team that analysed more than 200 pieces of research to compile the What Makes Great Teaching. The review says,

Great teaching is defined as that which leads to improved student progress. We define effective teaching as that which leads to improved student achievement, using outcomes that matter to their future success. Defining effective teaching is not easy. The research keeps coming back to this critical point: student progress is the yardstick by which teacher quality should be assessed. Ultimately, for a judgement about whether teaching is effective, to be seen as trustworthy, it must be checked against the progress being made by students.

But what progress are we talking about? If we are talking about Mr Bedford’s impact on Jamal’s emotional quotient and his behaviourthen he is a great teacher. Jamal used to hit other children and swear at midday supervisors – Mr Bedford worked tirelessly with Jamal on coping strategies and positive behaviour techniques. Jamal is now a model pupil: repaired, restored and reflective and all thanks to great teaching from the great Mr Bedford. If Mr Bedford was being measured on Jamal’s progress in understanding fronted adverbials, then he is out on his ear because Jamal hasn’t a clue: completely unfair.

It would be great if we could all deliver knockout lessons and punch like a champion, but boxing clever as a teacher involves hidden skills that are rarely measured, but still have considerable impact.

The above review rightly point out, that schools use such a wide variety of frameworks that define the essentials of effective teaching that qualities are too broadly described; these features are then wide open to different interpretations as to whether high quality teaching has been observed in the classroom. So, what does the research say?

Go To Great Pains

If you are looking for a starter kit for thinking about effective pedagogy, then the Sutton Trust lists six elements of great teaching suggested by research that teachers should contemplate when assessing teaching excellence. They list these in order of how strong the evidence is in showing that focusing on them improves student outcomes.

Good quality teaching will likely involve a combination of these attributes manifested at different times; the very best teachers are those that demonstrate all of these features.

  1. (Pedagogical) content knowledge (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes): the most effective teachers have deep subject knowledge, understand the ways pupils think about the content, assess the thinking behind pupils’ own methods, and identify common misconceptions.
  1. Quality of instruction (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes): high quality instruction is characterised by effective questioning, reviewing previous learning, providing model responses,  giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely and scaffolding.
  1. Classroom climate (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes): high quality interactions between teachers and pupils coupled with high expectations in a classroom that is constantly demanding more, recognising students’ self-worth, attributing success to effort rather than ability and valuing resilience to failure.
  1. Classroom management (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes): a teacher’s abilities to make efficient use of lesson time, to organise classroom resources and space, and to manage pupils’ behaviour with clear rules that are consistently enforced.
  1. Teacher beliefs (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes): why teachers implement specific practices, the purposes they aim to achieve, their  theories about what learning is and how it happens and their conceptual models of the nature and role of teaching in the learning process.
  1. Professional behaviours (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes): reflecting on and developing professional practice, participation in professional development, supporting colleagues, and liaising and communicating with parents.

The Sutton Trust report points out that when it comes to assessing teacher quality then this needs to be done through multiple measures.

Clearly Great

Clearly, being great is not easy to pin down and identify. Mr Bedford, like all teachers, has flaws but he is a great teacher in the eyes of his children: he is positive, optimistic, consistent, funny, reflective, energetic and he has never let them down. His colleagues think he’s great too and see him as being a uber-passionate teacher, highly organised, curious, a great team player, happy, flexible and child-centred. If you measure his subject knowledge to the nearest millimetre then Mr B isn’t great and he would tell you so himself. But measure his greatness to the nearest millimetre according to how he has made his class feel about themselves, then he is the secret sauce; he’s made all the difference and that makes him absolutely great.

Great teachers can’t win if the pupil progress they are judged on relate to spreadsheets, data and SATs results. Great teachers are multidimensional and great teaching is like a Rubik’s Cube with 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 different configurations.

A final thought. Whenever I have done CPD with teachers I always quote Dylan Wiliam who told us in an assessment conference,

“The great thing about teaching is that you never get any good at it; you never crack it.  That’s what makes it so frustrating, so challenging, and yet so rewarding.”

Good news then. We can all be great but we’ll never be any good.

2 thoughts on “Just Great

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.