In pursuit of the wow factor, be sure of your flight plan

23rd November 2007 at 00:00
It's open season on teachers again. Sir Cyril Taylor, chair of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, is the latest one to have a go. He thinks the bad ones should get the push. There are so many of these sub-standard educators, Sir Cyril reckons, that up to half a million pupils suffer as a result.

But should we constantly be putting the emphasis on bad teachers when there are thousands of good ones out there too? You might have caught the Teaching Awards on television recently. While these were for schools rather than colleges, what makes a teacher "good" surely translates across all sectors, ages and subjects?

So what does make for a good teacher? Of the 11 award winners smiling their way across our screens the other night, the one thing they had in common was what you might call the "wow" factor.

While to one degree or another they all had it, the "wowiest" of all was clearly Andy Bell, primary teacher extraordinaire, who was variously described as phenomenal, mesmerising, vibrant and charismatic. What he does after breakfast we weren't told, but the judges recommended a visit to his classroom to see "just how exciting teaching can be".

Perhaps not every teacher can be an Andy Bell, but good ones surely do need some spark, some life in them that shows they enjoy being in the classroom and that they expect their students to enjoy it too. They also need to have confidence, purpose and a sense that they are in charge and know where they - and their students - are going.

Isn't that, after all, what we expect from other professionals when we call upon their services? This was brought home to me big time when last I stepped on to an aeroplane. As we were taxi-ing out to the runway, the captain came on and welcomed us aboard our flight to Carcassonne. Up until then, no one had been paying much attention, but now all 180 of us most definitely were. The plane wasn't scheduled to go to Carcassonne.

There was a pause, a cough, then the words, "Sorry, I mean Perpignan." After another pause and another cough, he added, "Actually, they're quite close together." Words related to holes and digging simultaneously insinuated themselves into 180 minds. Longingly we looked towards the exits, but it was too late - we were already at the end of the runway.

The good teacher also surely has to be strongly "connected" to his or her students. I'm not talking here about those sad individuals who, while chronologically 43-years-old, somehow manage to persuade themselves that they are still only 17. Despite the saggy jeans hanging off their equally saggy backsides and the adoption of all the latest street talk, the only thing that is really 17 about them is their IQ.

Handy Andy Bell, doyen of the primary class, most definitely is connected - and has presumably long since realised he's not seven years old any more. According to the awards website, he manages to build "a close connection with every child" and thus "helps every pupil make progress".

Although not much emphasised at the awards, one thing that comes up time and again when teachers themselves discuss good teaching is humour. A classroom without laughter can be a dull, dull place. Be warned, however, that not everyone finds the same things funny. A while back, I was receiving feedback after my lesson had been observed.

"Nothing wrong with humour," my unsmiling observer told me, "but I think some of your jokes are too Eurocentric."

"All right," I countered, "have you heard the one about the mother-in-law from Addis Ababa?" Funnily enough, that didn't seem to be what she wanted either.

A good teacher is likely to use good methods, but good methods - while making a bad teacher better - will not of themselves make that teacher good. Or to put it another way, a Smart board won't make you smart - though it may make your students less bored. Methods come in and out of fashion, but good teachers exist in all eras.

However you might rate yourself against the points listed above, remember that there are others around who are only to willing to do it for you. I refer, of course, to the students. A colleague of mine - who is a good teacher - fielded a question in class the other day. "Tell me," asked the student apropos of nothing, "do you enjoy your job or are you just doing it for the money?"

Not a little affronted, my friend asked why he had put the question. "Well," said the youth, "it's just that I noticed you paused in your delivery a moment ago."

"Yes, Derek," he countered, "it's called breathing. Even teachers have to do it now and again."

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