'The magical qualities that make for exceptional teachers are being driven out of the profession'

Good teachers can be trained, but exceptional teachers have something else. Whatever that “something” is, it’s being replaced by clones who only know how to teach to the test

Colin Harris

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I walked into a new school last week.

As I spent time getting to know the teachers, systems and structures, I happened to walk into the hall. There I found a Year 3 class with coats and bags on their shoulders starting a lesson because there was an electrical fault in their classroom. As soon as they had settled, they were told by the caretaker that they couldn’t stay because the roof needed urgent attention.

The class teacher then led them off into the local community to find a temporary home for the day. The local church was no good as it had closed down; the local pub was happy to oblige but the children were too young, and the local community centre was booked out.

Standing out from the crowd

Despite all this disruption and traipsing around, once the class was finally back in their classroom, the buzz was electric and the learning exceptional.

Witnessing this scene and talking to this teacher, it made me once again question whether teachers are born or made.

In my long career I have had the privilege to work with many exceptional teachers, and have often wondered what marks them out.

One of the problems with our profession is that those who are truly exceptional make it look easy – and so onlookers think anyone can do it. This is the reason, in my opinion, that teacher-training establishments seem to focus on a a few basics:

  • How you prepare and organise the classroom
  • An ability to stimulate in the classroom
  • A structure and focus for the lesson
  • A clear subject knowledge

Perhaps I’d agree with this list when it comes to training good teachers, but with exceptional teachers – well, I'm not so convinced. Truly great teachers have something special, something innate. So can this be taught?

To answer this, I tried to draw up a list of those factors that I associate with the very best classroom wizards:

  • Firstly, these teachers recognise teaching is a craft: one to work at and take the time, effort and attention to improve
  • They are always enthusiastic about teaching and also genuinely care and respect the role of a teacher
  • They also see they are learning all the time as well as their pupils. They never rest on their laurels and always want to get better. Every learning opportunity is grasped
  • They see risk-taking as normal
  • Fun is central to all they do
  • They all show a deep love of humanity,  evident in their teaching

The list could, of course, go on and on.

But more importantly, while it may not always be possible to train these qualities, it is very possible to drive them out of teachers. And that is what I fear is happening – thousands of teachers are prematurely leaving the profession. I know many of them are exceptional.

Managers and the government need to recognise this and stop trying to create "clone" teachers who just teach the test.

Our children deserve so much more than this: they deserve to be taught by the very best.

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsteds were 'outstanding' across all categories

To read more of Colin's articles, visit his back catalogue 

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Colin Harris

Colin Harris

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsted reports were “outstanding” across all categories.

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