Good enough for my child?

29th September 2006 at 01:00
Effective leadership leads to effective teaching. Neil Munro and Elizabeth Buie report on the Scottish Learning Festival

What is effective teaching and what is necessary for it to happen? The answer appears to be that it requires effective leadership.

These were the dominant themes at the heart of a string of contributions to the annual Scottish Learning Festival, held in Glasgow last week. The audience of 5,000-plus who registered over the two days heard from a variety of experts, home-grown and abroad.

But it was a Scottish head with 19 years' experience behind him who first struck the appropriate note. In the inaugural TESS lecture at the festival, Gordon Mackenzie, head of Balwearie High in Kirkcaldy, told student and beginning teachers that the acid test he would urge them to apply in deciding whether a lesson had gone well or not was : "Would it have been good enough for my child? That's a pretty good benchmark."

Mr Mackenzie, a past president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said teachers reflecting on their practice should be prepared to take risks and be creative in the classroom: "There must be aspects of the curriculum that are boring - so don't teach it, go off at a tangent, make it exciting, make it memorable."

He said he wanted to appoint people who considered themselves teachers of children first rather than of a subject, and who were "collegiate". "My first question to a teacher applying for a job would be: 'What contribution are you going to make to this school?'."

Mr Mackenzie shared the platform with Jane Harrison, a newly qualified teacher at Denbeath Primary in Buckhaven, Fife, who said effective teachers had to have time, resources and energy. She called on probationers to be given jobs after their guaranteed induction year. "We've got to make sure people stay in the profession and are not put off from applying in the first place," she said.

Mr Mackenzie agreed it was critical that high-quality entrants should be attracted into teaching because of the loss of experience in schools over the next five years as older teachers retire. He said he looked at new teachers to see if they had leadership potential.

"Yes, we need teachers in the classroom who are creative, have initiative and drive and are prepared to take risks. But I also want to spot those who, in the fullness of time, will become the leaders of the future in our schools, because we do have a problem attracting people into leadership positions."

The theme of effectiveness was continued by Andy Hargreaves of Boston College in the United States, who said "sustainable leadership" in schools was essential for success that would last.

According to him, lasting benefits would come from an emphasis on learning not testing, in-depth training not ephemeral co-ordinators or special programmes, co-operation between schools not competition, diversity not standardisation, patience not immediate results.

But, he added, the key to it all was leadership. "Teachers see leaders as being more effective the more they give leadership away to others, thus building a leadership community. This is what energises teachers.

"But leadership doesn't just matter: it matters sustainably. If inspiring leaders come along and build reputations, they get poached. Everything they have worked for then collapses within months of them leaving - unless it is sustainable."

Professor Hargreaves said it was important to recognise that what made teachers effective was their passions and emotions, rather than the behavioural and intellectual aspects of teaching, which had been the preoccupations of the past.

The message continued with Marie Stubbs, the Glasgow-born headteacher credited with rescuing the west London school (St George's RCin Maida Vale) led by the murdered Philip Lawrence.

She also underlined the importance of leadership in bringing teachers together to build a professional learning community. "The test against which all change should be measured is: in what way will this or that take children's learning and development forward?"

Lady Stubbs said there were often very small steps a school could take to make an improvement - good lesson planning, better behaviour and manners, reviewing the marking of pupils' work and ensuring their work was well displayed throughout the school.

Qualities of a top teacher According to Gordon Mackenzie at The TESS lecture, a group of young teachers at his school came up with these:

* energy and enthusiasm;

* likes children;

* strong inter-personal skills;

* a team player;

* high expectations;

* real commitment to young people;

* commitment to the school.

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