Lost legends

20th February 2015 at 00:00

I have a colleague who is a particularly brilliant teacher. More often than not, she receives a spontaneous round of applause at the end of her lessons. A permanent queue of student and probationer teachers want to sit in on her classes. Pupils idolise her and call her "the Legend".

I have observed the Legend at work. She seems to have a mysterious power that keeps every pupil engaged and enthralled. It is easy to see that the Legend cares passionately about her students and the subject she teaches.

The Legend's classroom is a magical place, with pupils' most creative work carefully displayed on the walls and worktops. Lessons are well prepared and feature interesting and challenging activities, including discussions and role plays. Everyone gets involved. "Give each pupil at least one minute of your time," she advises student teachers.

I thought of the Legend after reading some compelling research from the US, which finds that the best strategy for improving schools is to retain and reward the most effective classroom teachers. This is the opposite of what we are presently doing.

There is no recognition or tangible reward for excellent classroom teaching - the sort that can inspire, significantly raise attainment and change lives. If excellent teachers such as the Legend want to develop their careers, they have to give up a considerable part of their classroom work for duties involving administration (as faculty heads) or pastoral care (as pupil support teachers).

Chartered teachers were rewarded for undertaking additional learning and research - although that scheme has now been stopped - but no benefits, either in terms of financial remuneration or enhanced status, have been offered for exceptional teaching. That oversight encourages our best teachers to forfeit the classroom work that contributes so much to standards of learning and teaching.

My school's intake of new staff one year included six highly effective and popular classroom teachers. Within three years they were all doing a lot of pupil support work and very little teaching. Certainly they were effective pupil support teachers, but many of their new duties were routine and administrative. It is important work, but others can do it. The situation suggests a lack of appreciation of classroom teaching.

In Japan, where I worked for a while, a school's finest teachers are awarded additional pay and enhanced status as mentors for new staff. The mentor role includes assisting trainee teachers with planning, sitting in on lessons and analysing classroom performance. Mentors also help to reinforce the confidence and enthusiasm of new staff.

It is a strategy that enables new teachers to become better teachers and, crucially, retains star practitioners for classroom work.

John Greenlees is a secondary school teacher in Scotland

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