New heights of excellence

20th October 2006 at 01:00
This year's Plato awards mark a new peak of outstanding practice, writes Tim Brighouse

Last weekend, 1,500 people from the education world packed into the Theatre Royal, in London's Drury Lane, for the eighth annual Teaching Awards. In addition to the 11 national Platos for 2006, we celebrated the 1,000th regional winner since the awards were established by Lord Puttnam in 1998.

There could, of course, have been many thousands more winners. Typically, each winning teacher will say in a deprecating way: "Why me, when I have so many colleagues who are better?" or "Why me, when I'm only as good as my team?"

They are a modest bunch, and Plato winners have a different tone from the self-preening winners of their namesakes, the Hollywood Oscars. Teachers'

natural modesty is born of the realisation that they never succeed with all of their pupils all of the time, preferring to remember the ones that got away.

But what else is it that makes outstanding teachers? We all remember the good ones - their foibles, mannerisms and humour. We probably recall, too, that they had standards for behaviour and homework we didn't quite share.

They all helped us to gain access to something of significance which we recognised only later in life.

But what of the teacher who does all these things and much more besides, the outstanding teachers? They go beyond simply caring for pupils and constantly impress on them the people they might become. They provide an example of learning themselves, either in their subject - "I've come across this poem, class 9. Just listen to this" - or in their teaching - "We are going to try something new today: a new computer package which you are going to master and then teach me." They treat the classroom learning experience as a co-operative activity: "This is a really difficult algebraic problem, but you're such a good group that I think we'll be able to solve it together."

Such teachers believe not in the predictable ability of their pupils, but in the transformation of everyone they teach, convinced and convincing that all of us can walk a step or two with genius in some aspect of human activity.

They are generous people with boundless enthusiasm and tireless energy, quirky humans who have the resilience not to be deterred when what's worked 99 times hasn't worked with the 100th group or pupil. They go away, mentally re-group and return the next morning with yet another way of unlocking the mind. They are utterly reliable recipients of our trust, and totally unpredictable as teachers.

We all know when we meet teachers like this because we find excuses to beat a path back to their door, and in challenging times later in life take strength from their recollected example. Indeed, if we never meet at least one teacher who did this for us, we were never really at school.

At this time of year, of an evening, as parents, we listen more closely to our children's tales out of school. It's a promising sign when nine-year-old Johnny says: "I really love maths this year". Didn't he hate it before the summer holidays?

Society expects more of its teachers, and the present bunch certainly know more than previous generations - from the implications of brain research to the cutting-edge use of computer technologies. One story, a technique of teachers down the ages, serves to underline the point.

In a London comprehensive recently, I asked of pupils which teachers were the best markers. "Mr Hodge," said one, "He tells you why you've gone wrong and how to improve your work." "Mrs Allen," claimed another. "If you only do what she tells you to improve your work you'll get 'satisfactory'. To get 'excellent' you need to think for yourself."

At this point a third advanced the claims of Mr Bailey, the music teacher, because he had gone beyond telling her how to improve her singing and cello playing. She could now understand how to improve it herself. "Mr. Bailey calls it meta-cognition," she confided. ("Assessment for learning in action," I thought. "A far cry from the 'B-minus, try again' of my day.") We know that such teachers make a huge difference not just to our children but to society. Without their work we would be trapped in communities where justice was unknown, where political freedom didn't exist and where morality in human dealings would be a distant memory. The Teaching Awards ceremony is a symbolic celebration of their work.

Tim Brighouse was chair of the panel of judges for the Teaching Awards.

Anyone can make an online nomination for 2007. See:

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