Fleshing out the superteacher

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Can the essence of a good teacher be distilled and given to colleagues eager for a share of the scent of success? Not exactly, says Bill Maxwell, HM chief inspector of education and a former psychologist.

"You can't bottle inspiration. There is no magic formula. But the craft of teaching can certainly be learned and developed and you can, I believe, help almost all teachers become very good.

"A few things are essential to a really high level of connecting with kids.

As a baseline, you need all the craft skills, such as organisation and management of the classroom, differentiating and employing a variety of teaching and learning methods. Beyond that, if you ask kids what that extra ingredient is, I think they might say that a great teacher makes them feel smart.

"Good teaching is not about knowing everything and simply imparting that knowledge. There is something counter-intuitive about this but kids often don't respond best to teachers who appear to know everything.

"It's about being an enthusiastic explorer of the great body of knowledge and taking the kids along with you. So they feel they have something important to add, their views are taken seriously and you are fellow learners.

"Men or women, young or old, can have that spark, that way of treating youngsters that engages them. Subject knowledge is often said to be important, but what underlies that, I believe, is enthusiasm for learning and stretching the boundaries of knowledge. Of course that will make you knowledgeable, but it is not the knowledge itself that makes a good teacher. It is the thirst for learning. All kids respond to that."

Gordon Ford, headteacher of Inveralmond Community High in Livingston, agrees with Mr Maxwell. "My feeling is that great teachers are born, not made. Just being mechanistic and doing all the things that need to be done isn't enough. You need a spark, a bit of personality, to get through to youngsters.

"Strength, empathy and humour are important in a teacher and some of that can't be taught.

"I don't think it's about age. I have teachers who are older only by the calendar; they are young in their attitude to the class. But I'm very lucky in having a handful of young teachers, like Margaret Gurney, who are really making a difference in the school. They are great teachers, and they are prepared to tackle anything.

"For about half our kids school is the real stability in their lives, so a teacher needs more than just strength. You have to be caring and treat the kids with respect. That way you earn their respect."

William McGair, this year's winner of the Scottish Executive Daily Record most inspirational teacher in Scotland award, says: "The nominations for the award, from present and past pupils, talked about respect for me as a teacher and as somebody they could talk to about other issues.

"A big thing was the enjoyment they got from learning history," says the principal teacher of social subjects at Dumfries Academy. "A lot of that is about what we do as a department, so I was a bit uncomfortable at being singled out.

"A big part of being a good teacher is communicating your love of the subject. I was inspired at school by a wonderful teacher who made history come alive. That is what I try to do.

"You have to build relationships with pupils, but there also has to be a line. When we go on trips, even with former pupils now grown up, it's still 'Mr McGair'. Strong discipline is important. Deep down young people want structure in their lives.

"One thing that makes a huge difference in the classroom is planning. I discovered that in my first year after qualifying, which was tough. Working 10 hours a day and planning every lesson got me through. You have to put that time in when you're just starting out in teaching."

Arlene Black, headteacher of Harrismuir Primary in Livingston, agrees it is essential to build relationships. She says: "It is important to create a classroom community, so that children feel safe and secure. They need the freedom to share their emotions and things going on in their lives.

"A good teacher invests time in building relationships with children and gets to know them as individuals. Creating a classroom ethos in which every child's opinion is valued is fundamental.

"There are intangible aspects of some teachers as personalities that can't be passed on, but everyone can improve.

"It's about taking time to get to know your kids, to plan lessons according to their needs, to differentiate so everyone feels they have had some success. There is nothing worse for a struggling child than being given work that's too hard. Of course then they're going to try diversionary tactics. Give them tasks they can tackle, and support when required, and disruption is minimised.

"We all need to take a little time to reflect on how the day has gone. You need courage to identify your mistakes and to do things differently next time."

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