Thursday, October 3, 2013

Six Marks of a Great Teacher

Memories of great teachers

Photo courtesy Wiki Commons
Have you ever wondered what makes a great teacher? Have you or your children had some great teachers? I can think of two or three teachers who made a difference to my life. My memories of them are rich but the methods they used to engage me were very simple (and in some cases unconventional). All had a deep commitment to their teaching and empathy for their students. They wanted me to learn and saw potential within me that other teachers weren't able to see. For example, my 4th grade teacher Mr Campbell when confronted with a new aquarium in his classroom turned to me (a difficult and disinterested student) one day and said, "I'd like you to find out all that you can about tropical fish". He gave me a book and sent me off to find out about them and how to care for them. Several weeks later he asked me to present a mini-lesson to the class on tropical fish.  I was now the school expert on tropical fish! This was a critical turning point for me in this classroom.

One of my Year 11 teachers, Mr Hubbard, simply showed me that geography could be exciting by sharing his love of the subject and something of his life with a small group of senior students who he seemed to care for. He made it interesting by setting tasks that made us explore, solve problems and work collaboratively with others. And all the while he showed genuine interest in our lives.

Photo courtesy Wiki Commons

None of my best teachers used startling methods, but all showed an ability to see some potential in me and to try to reach and engage me. They also tried to understand me relationally, treating me with respect, believing in me and somehow, helping me to believe in myself. That's the art of good teaching.

Research on Great Teachers

There have been many attempts to describe what makes an excellent teacher, but many end up being descriptions that are set against the question what makes a bad teacher. I don't find this is helpful. I was part of a research team in 2003-2005 that considered the question 'what are the characteristics of an effective teacher'? But we tried to do this in a positive way. That is, we spent a lot of time doing research in schools in order to understand what successful teachers (based on student results) did that made them effective. The final report for the project was called 'In Teachers’ Hands: Effective: Literacy Teaching Practices in the Early Years of Schooling' (You can download the full report from my website HERE).

Our study used existing national Australian data on school and class performance to identify classrooms where students made significantly greater progress than could be expected. That is, we considered performance based on the school's previous performance and considered socio-demographic factors that traditionally affect student performance (e.g. parent education, poverty etc). In simple terms, we chose classrooms that out performed other like schools and classrooms. We didn't compare results across varied contexts; instead we chose classrooms that stood out compared to like classrooms demographically.

We then visited the schools across Australia and spent time talking with the teacher and students and observing classroom practice. We also videotaped the teachers’ literacy teaching practices and analysed them to try to identify common factors that seemed to be key factors for the teachers. I was involved in classroom observations as was every member of the research team. The teachers we observed were varied in personality, age and style. But as we carefully analysed our data, including numerous hours of videotapes, we found that there were six key dimensions to the behaviour and practices we observed in all effective teachers. That is, they displayed specific characteristics in their pedagogy in relation to ‘participation’, ‘knowledge’, ‘orchestration’, ‘support’, ‘differentiation’ and ‘respect’.

1. Participation - Effective teachers managed to organise their classrooms well (resources, planning etc) and motivated students to take part in lessons. They got their attention, engaged them, stimulated interest, enabled them to gain pleasure from learning; and they did this often.

2. Knowledge - The teachers had strong knowledge of literacy and were able to teach significant skills and concepts, using the class environment (including resources) to explain, create a sense of purpose, model, and often offer language to make sense of new knowledge.

3. Orchestration - The best teachers orchestrated their classrooms like a good conductor. They kept things moving, showed great awareness of what was going on ('eyes in the back of the head'), built in some structure and yet could be flexible. They also managed the pace of the lesson and were excellent at lesson transitions.

4. Support - Effective teachers also offered great support for learners and offered scaffolding. They offered good feedback, were responsive to needs and problems and were explicit in their explanations and instructions. They were also persistent in moving learning forward. There was pace to instruction.

5. Differentiation - Another key quality was their ability to offer differentiated opportunities for all learners that offered challenge, individual opportunities for learning and growth, variation in learning and connection to their lives and their needs. The classrooms were inclusive of all learners not just some.

6. Respect - Great teachers also showed great respect for their students, which seemed to flow on to students showing respect for one another. In their classrooms we saw much warmth and rapport. Students also demonstrated good skills as class citizens and had a degree of independence as learners as they worked together.

What this research project demonstrated for me is that often conversations about what makes a good or bad teacher focus on the wrong things. We need to spend less time analysing the curriculum methods that our teacher use and more time making sure that they demonstrate the six key dimensions discussed above.

If you'd like to see what some of this teacher behaviour looks like you can view some videos of the teachers in action on the 'In Teachers' Hands' website HERE

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