What makes a good teacher?

How devastating it was to read the comments written by followers of Rescue Our Schools on an article about age being no barrier to good teaching. Teachers in their fifties vulnerable to redundancy, teachers in their fifties working on zero hours contracts for agencies, their teaching input now limited to covering for others. What a complete and utter waste of talent and experience! From whom do new teachers learn these days? Whose wealth of experience can they tap into? The Head with ten years teaching experience? Well, not really ten years as their teaching hours would have been cut down as they stepped into management in year two! This blog is dedicated to all those teachers over the age of fifty whom I was lucky enough to meet on my journey and have inspired and nourished my ability in the classroom and my love of teaching.

On a recent tour of my local secondary school which only opened three years ago, my friend who accompanied me commented, ‘The teachers are very young!’ Our year nine tour guides informed us that only three teachers remained from the first year of the school’s inauguration. So young teachers and a high staff turnover. Nothing wrong with young, enthusiastic teachers, of course, but oh for the teacher who can walk into a classroom, with no PowerPoint primed or lesson plan clutched in hand, but the ability to teach off the cuff; to walk in and bring knowledge and skill to the learning space!

When I was an NQT, the department I joined was a source of great wonder and entertainment. I received very little practical support but what a whirlwind of teaching characters I was thrown into! Meetings were fabulous. Tension always high and arguments allowed to run. There was an ex-couple in the department who used these moments to spit venom at each other. Mr Bennett (or Mr B to me) would always leave the meeting on the dot of 5.30pm in line with union rules, no matter what discussion was full flow.

I remember an Assistant Head Teacher coming to one meeting to do some training on the Accelerated Learning Cycle, which was to become the template for all our lesson plans that year. I had already had this training in my NQT induction and in the initial staff inset of my first year, but once again I had to hold one fist aloft and wrap my hand around it to initiate my kinaesthetic appreciation of the brain’s structure.

Now, Clive had no time for this. ‘I’m not doing it,’ he stated boldly, leaving the AHT dumbfounded. This was a school initiative which we were all to apply immediately in our planning. But Clive was Clive. He was a maverick. He had taught PE and was now a fabulous English teacher. I remember walking past his classroom once to find he had moved all the desks out of the classroom, because he had gone off plan suddenly and his students were building an escape route for the characters in their current text. He came in on my request to team teach my challenging year 10s for a lesson, as I wanted to tap into his behaviour management. A group of boys who were testing me to the end of any tether I could find, sat like obedient puppies in awe of his presence. When he was funny, they laughed, when he was unimpressed, they retreated. He reminded me of Mr Montgomery, my year 4 teacher when I was a child. I barely took my eyes off him and waited to hear his voice, as whatever he said was going to be worth my full commitment. The energy they both brought to their learning space was absolutely electric. Every word was heard and lapped up.

Then there was Mr B. He was in his early sixties and the school was getting twitchy about his inability to manage certain classes. He was struggling with challenging year 7 groups, but let’s face it, why should he have had to? He’d given the school years of his energy, commitment and incredible subject knowledge…why not use him in a way which would benefit him and the school? The sixth form had opened recently, and he was the most perfect recruit for teaching English Literature A’ level. He was the man to intervene and support the most able at GCSE to assure those top grades were hit. I shared a year 12 form group with him for a year and listening to him advise on UCAS applications and career choices was formidable. With examples and references, he would subtly support students to make sensible choices, not, for example, to apply for Medicine when their grades weren’t letting them near such a course but to consider who they really wanted to be. By the sixth form they listened. They wanted to hear more from Mr B. But the school appeared to want rid. They gave him more challenging year 7 classes. He struggled. And he retired before he could really afford to. I remember writing in my card to him; ‘You are a man who thinks so far outside the box, you cannot even see the box.’

In the past couple of weeks, I have been dealing with a student who is struggling with life. I teach adults now, but vulnerabilities are still alive and potentially lethal. He was withdrawn from his Maths class due to his recent haphazard attendance, but I argued against this action in English. He needs this GCSE. And to be honest, before this episode he’d been a wonderful asset to the group. Bright, interested and full of contributions. This could be the turning point for him in a chaotic life; a life he wants to understand and control. I had a meeting with him and one of the senior team to defend his continuation in my class. In the meeting, he declared that his commitment to my lesson was 100%. He likes my energy. For him his English lesson was a light in a dark place. And my energy mattered. For me, if I can get this student to the end of the year, despite possible hurdles he has to battle over and around on the way, that is proof I have done my job. He may send my attendance statistics into freefall but if he falls, I want to be there when he scrambles to his feet, with a nineteenth century text to annotate, ready to keep him moving towards that exam date. That’s what teaching is about, surely? And this is what I liked about Clive’s teaching. He brought himself into that space, commanded it, and welcomed the students to join him in this experience. Maybe I’m a bit Clive too.

John Hattie, a leading Australian academic who has been researching the impact of key factors on learning outcomes for many years, found that Collective Teacher Efficacy is at the top of the list. As Jenni Donohoo comments in her blog post on the topic, ‘Educators with high efficacy show greater effort and persistence, a willingness to try new teaching approaches, set more challenging goals, and attend more closely to the needs of students who require extra assistance’ (The Learning Exchange, 2017). If a school’s teaching community shares this approach, behaviour improves and students’ own expectations of their performance rise. This is why you need an age diverse workforce. The new teachers are fresh, enthusiastic and put the hours in, and those with twenty or thirty years of classroom experience still bring enthusiasm but also a wealth of tried and tested practice; they have stories to tell; case studies to share. I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today, one who stands my ground and questions the benefit of a tick box culture, the culture Mr B couldn’t navigate, if I hadn’t worked alongside Clive and Mr B in my early years of teaching. They may be more expensive, but they are worth their weight in gold.

Leave a Reply