If we want students to excel, we must cherish our teachers – and here’s how (Sponsored article)

Great teachers aren’t born – they’re encouraged. And here’s how to do it

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David James

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The year is 1997, and two student teachers are studying for their postgraduate certificates in education (PGCEs) in the same city in England: let’s call them Mike and Sally. Both are bright, ambitious and keen to succeed.

As part of their training, Mike and Sally must teach several days a week in the same state school. It is rated as good, but has some difficult students and an ability range that is to be expected in a non-selective school in the South of England. Mike teaches English, Sally history. They both know their subjects very well.

As anyone who has studied a PGCE knows, getting the right mentor can make all the difference, and this is where Mike’s and Sally’s experiences differ, because Mike has a tutor who believes in his ability all the time, while Sally has one who does not always believe in hers.

When Mike is having a difficult time, his mentor quickly reminds him of what he has done right and where he can improve. By contrast, Sally’s mentor usually tells her where she has gone wrong, and, after one lesson, questioned if Sally was really cut out for the job. In short, Mike’s mentor has worked hard to ensure that his “student” knows he matters: to himself, to the school, to the pupils and to the profession of teaching. The language he uses is positive, ambitious and empowering.

Unintentionally, however, Sally’s mentor has done the opposite, focusing on her perceived failings, rarely recognising Sally’s great work with her classes and using language that is negative in tone. Inevitably, over time, Sally’s enthusiasm for teaching begins to dwindle. Once that process starts it’s very difficult to reverse.

Building belief

Let’s fast forward a few years. Both Mike and Sally finished their PGCEs, but Sally didn’t join a school on graduation. Instead, feeling that she was not a strong enough teacher, she went back into marketing and is still in that industry today. Nobody will ever know how many lives she might have changed for the better or how many pupils she could have inspired. Mike, however, is now a deputy headteacher.

Mike, of course, is me, and Sally is a friend. I was not a better teacher than Sally (in fact, I always thought she was better than me), but my mentor developed my existing self-belief into something that was resilient enough to withstand the classroom. This made all the difference. Understanding this can have a significant impact on attracting teachers to the profession – and retaining them.

Cultivating professionals

So how can schools ensure that every teacher matters just as every child does? If we want our students to achieve greatness in their work, and in their lives, how can schools aim to do the same for their teachers? Because pupils only ever excel if they are taught by teachers who believe in themselves as professionals.

As with most things in schools, it requires a balance between the professional and the personal.

By professionalism I mean simply this: don’t leave it to luck. Put systems in place that can be evaluated and that clearly make a difference. For instance, teachers mostly meet in the staffroom or over coffee; they rarely see each other actually teaching and demonstrating their expertise in, and passion for, a particular subject. This is easy to change.

Establishing a coherent lesson study programme can change the culture of a school, and if it allows teachers from different disciplines to see each other teach, so much the better. When an initiative like this was introduced at one of my previous schools, it was initially greeted with scepticism – but that rapidly vanished. One would often hear comments such as “I had no idea that she was such a great teacher” or “He really inspired his class today”, which made a significant difference to that important intangible: staff morale.

Virtuous circle

Get that process going and schools can quickly (and cheaply) develop a virtuous circle whereby teachers inspire greatness in each other – and themselves. When this happens, the main beneficiaries are, of course, the students.

The more guidance given in lesson study the better. If you are trying to capture those moments of inspiration, of greatness, that clearly move a student or a class on, then make that a discussion point between colleagues after the lesson. Was it planned? Could it be done again? Can such pivotal points be evidenced and scaled up?

Such professional dialogue should take many forms: newly qualified teachers should observe experienced teachers and vice versa. The evaluation form could include criteria such as: “this lesson mattered because” or “three moments of brilliance included…”

The important thing is to get these moments down on paper, so teachers can see that they are authors of their own craft and contributors to moments of genius. Too often, the great things that are being achieved in classrooms in every school every day are not observed or recorded, let alone celebrated. But all the outstanding schools I have visited ensure that their professional excellence is shared, both publicly and privately.

Importantly, outstanding schools see that creating a high-achievement culture is a process, not a fixed destination; this means that there should be room for risk-taking and productive, principled failure. The qualities of greatness in a school are the same in every teacher: a desire to innovate, an acknowledgement that consistency is important, high expectations and a recognition that everyone matters.

Personal touch

But what about the personal? Much of this comes down to tone, to the language used in conversation and in presentations to staff. Middle managers and senior leaders invariably teach fewer lessons than classroom teachers. Too often some forget how difficult teaching almost every period in a day can be. Trying to remain consistently great – or  even good – all day, every day, is an impossible goal. So, school leaders should set realistic targets, and above all ensure that staff know they recognise the challenges of teaching.

Senior leaders should be in lessons regularly, and make sure they tell those teachers that they enjoyed their lessons. Encouragement comes in many forms, and choosing the right moment can have a huge impact.

I once observed a parent criticising a teacher to a senior leader in front of that teacher. The senior leader listened to the parent’s accusations and demands, and then, calmly, said: “This teacher is a great teacher, and your son is lucky to have her. I have complete trust in her outstanding ability.” He could say this because he had seen her teach. That matters.

The right answer

Other factors matter too, such as choosing a development programme that is coherent and meets the needs of everyone in the school community. Organisations such as Choose2Matter can provide a unified and supportive vision of what can be achieved when expectations are raised.

Of course, such things are not an answer in themselves. As every teacher knows, that begins with self-belief, with a sense that we will be listened to. For some pupils, the difference between success and failure will depend on whether they feel confident enough to raise their hand; the same is true of teachers. We should all feel we matter, and we should all be able to take a deep breath, put our hand up and suggest the answer.


Dr David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School in Dorset

David James picture

David James

David James is deputy head (academic) at a leading UK independent school

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