I have recently been rereading Fergal Roche’s book Mining for Gold . This book is a reflection on the teachers he has encountered through his life, as a student, teacher, consultant and parent, and his reflections on what has made them effective. It is a collection of little vignettes on teachers from across the decades and an exploration of what has made them so memorable to the author.
There are many things I love about this book (not just that this blog is referred to, or the annoyance of my mother that I was referred to as indolent) but primarily it is the way it celebrates great teachers.
There is perhaps a danger here that it leads to a glorifying of a golden age of teaching – of a time when teachers smoked a pipe at their desk, glowered at their class from a teaching dais as pupils hung on their every utterance. Many of the early stories from the book are drawn from independent schools and don’t seem to be quite in line with those stories I hear from those sent to inner city secondary moderns at about the same time. Are we at risk of just romanticizing the past when we think of “great” teachers?
Critics of progressive education are frequently accused of nostalgia, seeking a return to the prelapsarian educational landscape of the 1950s. This book is not a call to the return to some distant glory and the world of blackboard, canes and the 11+ is not the future it proposes. To claim that education took a wrong turn during the 1960s is not imply that schools were travelling in the right direction.
What we can do is look to the past and the teachers we thought of as great and see if there are any common characteristics they share with teachers we think of as great today. I asked this question on twitter and received dozens of interesting answers.
Many fell into two camps. Either that the traits a great teacher has are the same as we would hope any human would have, traits like kindness, empathy and humility, or that great teachers are so different we can’t identify any common characteristics.
Many though did point to things that felt great teachers in particular would need. These often boiled down to;
- Excellent subject knowledge
- A passion for the subject
- An ability to communicate both of these things very well
- Excellent organisational skills
- A desire and willingness to reflect on their own practice.
When we turn back to Fergal Roche’s Mining for Gold what do we find? Teachers who were passionate and deeply knowledgeable about their subject and who make their pupils believe that this subject matters. The first teacher we encounter is the English teacher Peter Hardwick who we are told “…encountered ideas ideas and nuances that mesmerised him, and he made us jealous of the journeys he was travelling in front of us.”
He also talks a lot about teachers who were incredibly well organised and turned up to lessons with notes of all the things they wanted to include in the lesson or who had very clearly defined routines for marking books and giving feedback. This comes up time and time again; that when you walked into the classrooms of these great teachers you knew what their expectations were and you in turn knew what to expect – and they never let you down.
On expectations we can see that these teachers had sky high expectations of their pupils; like Colin Humphrey who wrote on the author’s daughter’s work “A* but not Oxbridge quality.” This idea of high expectations often comes up in the characteristics of great teachers. The teacher I remember most fondly, Mr Small my Maths teacher, never spoke down to us and always assumed we would get there in the end. He refused to accept I was a genius (the cheek) declaring I was at best a G but could perhaps earn the E with some hard work.
These high expectations are mixed with compassion and support. Fergal Roche recollects Mr Wood who would stop the class if a pupil had a question to ensure that everyone was ready to move on together and ensured that asking questions was never seen as a sign of weakness.
One of thing that comes across in people’s reflection of great teachers is that they were very much individuals. They were doing things in a certain way because they knew it worked. They had devised an effective and efficient way of working that was usually very simple and to the point. There is a lack of hoop jumping and game playing. Indeed Fergal writes:
The alchemy that takes place in schools happens in the interactions between teachers and pupils and in the learning experiences teachers create. Rarely in the Head’s office.
While the head teachers and school leaders may set the conditions for great teaching to flourish in, it is the teacher who then has to make it happen.
I think there is much we can learn from looking at teachers from the past as it allows us to see what has stood the test of time. As Dame Allison Peacock writes in the foreword to Mining for Gold “The language has changed but the practice has remained the same”. Great teaching has always been great teaching and the basics of what that takes doesn’t change.
I think my conclusion is that great teachers do share similar traits but their methods of teaching may vary considerably. They all seem to combine an excellent knowledge of their subject with a deep understanding of how to communicate it. They use this understanding to set clear routines and expectations and they expect their pupils to succeed.
Above all, great teachers aren’t necessarily the ones who are working hardest. Their ability means they do just that which works. They are simple. And the best.