The seven secrets behind great teaching

8th May 2009 at 01:00
What makes the good stand out from the rest?

Stephen Covey's business self-help book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, has sold more than 15 million copies. The book lists seven principles that, if adopted as habits, can help people become truly effective at what they do. But what makes teachers highly effective?

The TES magazine teamed up with business psychologists Crelos to analyse the personalities, motivations and behaviour of 15 award-winning teachers to uncover the seven habits that make them successful in the classroom.

How the research worked

We chose our research group to represent a cross-section of the teaching population - from teaching assistants, primary and secondary teachers to heads, who were assessed through a series of tests and interviews.

First, the teachers were asked to complete two online psychometric tests: the Orpheus test, which measures personality traits on five scales: fellowship, authority, conformity, emotion and detail; and the Intrinsic test, which looks at people's motivations and then matches these to particular "roles". These roles are grouped into understanding and implementing, working within systems, team working and communicating, taking action and striving for success.

Crelos then used a behavioural event interview procedure, where the teachers were asked to discuss specific events in their career. This kind of interviewing is based on the Schroder framework, which was used to identify the behaviour of principals in high performing schools in Florida in the 1980s.

Crelos found that teachers performed the best at the `inspiring behaviour': that is, they are good at influencing others, building confidence and inspiring communication. They also excelled at `involving' behaviour, which is primarily about developing the capabilities of those around them, facilitating interaction and helping others to open up.

1. They build confidence

Many pupils suffer from low self-esteem, basing their aspirations on celebrities and feeling disappointed when their lives don't match up, so teachers have to build confidence in abundance.

The teachers assessed for this research show this behaviour at least to a competent level, while 73 per cent have it as a strength and 6 per cent build confidence at a strategic or cultural level, the highest on the scale.

For one headteacher, building confidence is part of her personal and professional ethos. She consistently celebrates pupils' success - individually and as a group - by developing mottos with an element of "believe in yourself" and holding award ceremonies.

Teachers like this can inspire confidence and optimism, and this is something that can be learnt and developed throughout a teacher's career. "Some of these things you may be better at initially than others, but you can learn to be very good at it," says Elizabeth Henshilwood, client director at Crelos, who carried out the interviews.

David Miller, a secondary teacher at St Ninian's High School in Bishopbriggs, Glasgow, believes that building confidence should be fundamental. "It's so much to do with your connection with the child and valuing everything that a child has. They have to trust a teacher not to be judgmental or mocking. Teachers also need to instil a culture of integrity and respond seriously to children, as they would to an adult," he says.

"You can build pupils' confidence by identifying it as something that you want to develop and then build it into everything you do. It comes gradually," says Ian Jamison, religion teacher at Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

2. They're not afraid to make difficult decisions

The decisions teachers make on a day-to-day basis have a profound impact on children's lives. It seems natural then, that 57 per cent of participants have a strong or extremely strong preference for authority, meaning that they are comfortable making difficult or unpopular decisions.

Although this is something required of senior management, it is a personality trait rather than a behaviour that can be learnt, according to Crelos. But that doesn't make it easy to acquire, and teachers who are in leadership roles are more likely to have a natural tendency towards authority. Decision-making will change according to a teacher's specific role in school but all teachers need to have authority and be capable of making potentially difficult decisions in the classroom.

"To me, this seems like the difference between a manager and a leader," says Mr Jamison. "A manager may list all the pros and cons and find it difficult to reconcile them, but to a leader who has foresight, it's not going to be difficult, because you know what you're going to achieve."

Teachers may not consider the decisions they make as difficult, because they have confidence in their own authority. "I think that anybody who's vaguely sensitive is afraid of difficult decisions," says Mr Jamison. "But at the same time, if you're really focused, what looks like a difficult decision isn't, because you know what's right."

3. They develop others

This behaviour is collectively the most prominent among teachers. It is one of the involving behaviours and as well as developing your pupils, it's about developing your own and others' capabilities by providing opportunities for career development, giving coaching and constructive feedback or setting aside a specific budget for training.

All of the featured teachers are at least competent, while 73 per cent show a particular strength and 20 per cent demonstrate this behaviour at a strategic or cultural level.

"One headteacher set up an opportunity for one of his teachers to go into a local junior school to help out with some problems they'd been having with behaviour," says Ms Henshilwood. "This was a great opportunity for the individual to develop, but was also a great help to the junior school."

In school, this behaviour may be displayed when teachers give up their time to help other colleagues acquire new skills or oversee training days.

Kirsten Darling, a primary school teacher at Southesk Primary School in Angus, Scotland, says this is definitely something she's experienced throughout her teaching career. "The relationship I had with my mentor when I was an NQT was a very important relationship and both of us benefited. I learnt so much from her years of experience, and I was able to fill in some of her gaps and help with things like ICT," she says.

In the commercial sector, there may be a more insular attitude, but not in teaching, says Ms Darling. "Everyone's got their own strengths and in the schools that I've worked in, we always make the most of them. `Each for their own' just doesn't apply - it's all for the good of the children."

4. They're good communicators

Being able to communicate well is fundamental to teaching and all teachers provided evidence of this. "This is an inspiring behaviour and is about getting the same message across to a range of abilities," says Ms Henshilwood. "It's also being able to communicate across the board - from parents to colleagues, the wider community and to pupils."

Many of the teachers gave examples of using school displays, songs or analogies to communicate their message. One head that scored well had used the song "Proud" by Heather Small to convey a message of confidence through the school.

If you understand your audience, you can tailor your behaviour to communicate and inspire other people more effectively. This group of teachers was found to be particularly strong in this area: 50 per cent are competent, 33 per cent are strong and 7 per cent show empathy at a strategic or cultural level.

Judging by programmes such as The Apprentice, understanding other people's needs is less developed in the corporate sector, says Ms Henshilwood, but for teachers, it's necessary.

In the interviews, it was apparent that teachers had to work with many different communities and needed to empathise with minority groups, parents, different cultures and religions, she added.

5. They're non-conformists

Teachers may get frustrated with pupils who insist on asserting their individuality at every opportunity, but it turns out that they are just as averse to conforming: 87 per cent have a low or extremely low preference for conformity as a personality trait.

This shows that they are comfortable in ambiguous situations where things are likely to change and they enjoy coming up with new ideas. Non- conformists need to enjoy their jobs and are more likely to become bored or dissatisfied if they aren't given the opportunity to innovate.

Many people go into teaching because they want to be creative by devising lesson plans, leading extra-curricular activities and even just dealing with daily school life.

This quality goes against the grain of much of the reality of teaching, given that there are so many restrictions placed on teachers, such as curriculum boundaries and the need to test.

"I've spoken to quite a lot of ex-teachers who say that legislation takes them further away from what they want to do, which is helping young people," says Ms Henshilwood. "What you tend to find is that if something doesn't fit with your personality or your motivation, you cope with it for a period of time and then say no, and move on to something different."

While teachers may not always admit to it, Kirsten Darling agrees that teachers tend to get bored easily. "Teachers generally don't like doing the same thing day in, day out. And the pupils find that more interesting too," she says. "There are a lot of structures put in place for teachers that can be quite limiting, but if you have people in management who allow you to pursue your own creativity and be dynamic, that's ideal."

6. They thrive in the company of others

While a vast proportion of the population spend their working life in front of a screen, teachers spend most of their professional life in front of children. So it's good to know that teachers enjoy the company of other people and there is a strong leaning towards fellowship among this group: 31 per cent show an extremely high preference and 44 per cent are above average for this extroverted personality trait.

This goes hand in hand with being a good communicator and although that is a behaviour that can be developed rather than a personality trait, teachers tend to be natural communicators.

"I don't think you would go into teaching if you didn't enjoy working with others," says Ms Darling. "I definitely like to be in the middle of things. This is also apparent outside of the classroom in meetings - it's so much more interesting to bounce ideas off each other."

Despite the strong emphasis on fellowship, 19 per cent of the teachers have a below average score for this personality trait, which is a fairly high diversion from the norm. Ms Henshilwood has a potential theory for this discrepancy: "The results for the teacher's motivation show a high preference for being a technical specialist - that is, motivated by being really great at one particular thing," she says.

"It could be that this overrides the fellowship personality trait. Some of the participants may prefer working on their own and getting into that one thing. But overall, they prefer working with other people."

7. They see the bigger picture

Just over half of the teachers interviewed show a low or very low preference for detail in the results of the personality test. This suggests that they prefer to look at the strategic objectives rather than get involved with the minute details of planning or administrative tasks, says Ms Henshilwood.

"The teachers are all quite good at looking at what other schools are doing, looking outside of their immediate surroundings and even outside of education," she says. "These are all award-winning teachers, and as you are seen to be better at your job and become more senior, you are given bigger management responsibilities. If you're a head of year or department you start having to take on the bigger picture."

Mr Miller believes in taking this approach in the classroom as well as at the level of management. "I feel like there's a deep learning going on in my class - the pupils are almost like mini-academics and engage with the texts," he says. "In this way, I think outstanding teachers look at the whole child. It's my belief that teaching a different subject every hour is a terrible way of doing things. I'd much prefer to teach across the curriculum on a wider level."

Mr Jamison was surprised the survey revealed teachers' dislike for detail. "I would say it's almost exactly the opposite. You're often so busy with the day-to-day things, that you don't have a chance to think about the bigger picture," he says. "But it does depend on what you mean by the bigger picture. You're always conscious of the fact when you're teaching a lesson, that they're going to be taking an exam that will potentially have an impact on the rest of their life."

Where teachers "could do better"

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