Take 30 children, add one masterchef . . .

26th September 1997 at 01:00
It may come as a surprise, but chief education officers are not all the stuffy, faceless bureaucrats of legend. Most of us are only too happy to leave the confines of the civic centre or county hall and see what is happening on our patch.

I am disappointed if I do not get into schools at least three or four times a week. Sometimes I take an assembly or present the awards at a prize-giving ceremony. At least once a week I like to spend at least half a day in a single institution - seeing a master teacher at work.

Most headteachers could point to a number of teachers who they think are exceptional. I am not always lucky enough to see them at work because I am just not in the classroom long enough. At other times, my very presence is disruptive - since any visitor to a classroom naturally interrupts the flow of teaching and learning.

Yet sometimes, just sometimes, there is that magic moment when you cross the threshold from a cold, impersonal corridor into a classroom where something special is happening.

I suspect that an inspector would approve of what I see. There would be careful planning, specified learning outcomes, high expectations of pupils and all the other characteristics of good teaching outlined in the Office for Standards in Education Framework.

But - and it is a big but - I have a hunch that the average OFSTED inspector only sees through the glass darkly. Not that I possess mystical powers of insight. But the best teaching cannot be reduced to a simple list of ingredients. There is something about the masterchef in the good teacher which brings together those ingredients to create something unique.

So, what is it that separates the competent, and even good, from the outstanding and inspired? First, it is unbridled enthusiasm coupled with limitless energy. The cynics might scoff and say that nobody has such enthusiasm or energy nowadays. But that is not true.

Really exceptional teachers demand the very best. Often I see it in their body language and posture. They dominate the space and almost will learning to happen. You can hear them say: "If you come into my classroom, you will not fail!" Second, it is all about language. A skilled teacher will be an effective questioner. The truly outstanding have an uncanny sense of when to talk and when to listen. I recall being in one lesson with a teacher who hardly said a word.

The class of eight-year-olds teased out all the implications of the question: "Is it ever right to tell a lie?" Simple hand gestures, an occasional nod of the head, a hand on a shoulder to signal encouragement - all created a powerful atmosphere for learning.

Third, laughter lubricates learning. The best teachers know how to strike that delicate balance between a happy, relaxed and, at times, hilarious atmosphere and a sense of focus, purpose and order. For secondary teachers, this can be difficult, given that combustible mix of adolescent embarrassment, energy and volatility. Yet, more often than not, the outstanding teacher will understand the liberating power of humour.

And then there is what you might call "with-it-ness". It has nothing to do with being friendly or encouraging a false bonhomie in the class. Nor is it simply about having eyes in the back of your head in a narrow classroom-order sense.

Rather, it is that amazing capacity to know what all the pupils are doing, whether you are teaching the whole class together or working with an individual.

It's getting the balance right between standing back or stepping in, knowing when to teach and knowing when to let pupils learn for themselves. It is that defining moment when everything comes together in a classroom.

Some people would argue that teachers have become mere functionaries or technicians, implementing this or that initiative. If that were true, I am not sure I would hang around the education service despite my distance from the classroom. But it is not true. I have seen the above characteristics in lessons as diverse as a key stage 1 literacy hour and an A-level science group.

Perhaps TES readers may speculate on how we can publicise and disseminate the practice of the truly outstanding. I have been wondering for a while how we might, in one local authority, identify and utilise the experience of our very best teachers.

As a first step, we are planning to bring these teachers together to reflect on their practice, and hear from them what it is about their training and experience that has brought them to the height of their powers.

Finally, a note of caution. May I suggest that we leave our cynicism at home. There may be 101 reasons for objecting to what is written here. You may feel that I have not addressed important issues such as teacher motivation, status, pay, perverse incentives to leave the classroom and so on.

But surely, we should be shouting from the rooftops about the achievements of our very best teachers. It is they who will make the difference in the end.

David Bell is chief education officer for Newcastle City Council

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