Top class

15th October 2004 at 01:00
What makes an inspirational teacher? What is it that gives that added value? A quiet, professional manner, a caring attitude, the ability to instil a love of learning in children - all these and a lot more, as Douglas Blane discovered

Four months is a long time to go without a smile. Yet, one piece of advice new teachers invariably hear is: "Never smile before Christmas".

Any hint of humanity is a sign of weakness that pupils will pounce on to create classroom chaos, or so crusty colleagues insist.

The image of glum pupils absorbing facts in a sterile classroom, while the leaves fall and the mornings grow cold, is one that would gladden Gradgrind's heart. Yet every deplorable dictum holds a hint of truth.

"My most difficult situation was self-created," says Margaret Gurney, now in her third year of teaching English at Inveralmond Community High in Livingston, West Lothian. "I wasn't clear about what I expected. I didn't know fully that I was a teacher.

"While I still don't believe this 'don't smile till Christmas' stuff, I quickly learned you have to be firm and clear about what you expect from pupils when you first meet them."

Gordon Ford, her headteacher, describes Ms Gurney as an exemplary teacher who combines strength with empathy. "She adds value to kids in even the most challenging classes," he says.

Lindsay Rooney, who is now in her fourth year at Harrismuir Primary next door, explains her attitude. "I always wanted to be a teacher because I remember having fun and feeling valued when I was at school. I want to bring that to these kids, who live in quite a deprived area.

"I feel very protective towards them and try to create the structured space a lot of them don't get outside school. I want them to feel happy and safe."

The crucial role of outstanding teachers in a child's education has recently become clear. A seminal study in the United States (in 1996 by June Rivers and William Sanders) found huge differences in teacher effectiveness and its consequences. For children unfortunate enough to get two or more ineffective teachers in a row, the impact on achievement was often devastating. Crucially, however, good teachers "elicit significant gains from students of all ethnicities and income levels".

So, what is the essence of a good teacher? One answer lies at the heart of the Scottish Executive's vision of a teacher for the 21st century, in particular someone who can "teach effectively while also reflecting on their own practice and, more broadly, the work of the school and its relationship to the needs of children, their families and society at large".

In fleshing out this idea of the superteacher as reflective practitioner, HM Inspectorate of Education lists attributes that includes adaptability, an enquiring mind and a commitment to self-improvement.

Such qualities shine out of teachers such as Margaret Gurney, who clearly reflects deeply on her own practice and experience.

"I am fascinated by how the brain works when someone is trying to learn.

Training to be a teacher is an intense year and it teaches you a lot about learning. It made me reassess my ideas about achievement.

"If you expect to be brilliant at discipline, teaching, interacting with kids, you are going to feel you are failing. Being a good teacher is about taking baby steps all the time to improve.

"The professional development I find particularly valuable is practical stuff about thinking yourself into the minds of pupils, devising a variety of teaching strategies, teaching to different learning styles," she says.

Physical learners in particular are not well provided for in many subjects such as English, she believes. "So I have introduced spells of physical activities, like brain gym and throwing a soft toy to see who is next to speak. Even with the older students it makes a huge difference to lessons."

A scoping study the Inspectorate has carried out for the Scottish Executive's ongoing review of initial teacher education, which is expected to report by the end of the year, required gathering information about good teachers and how to produce them from a range of people involved in teacher training. These included university lecturers, student teachers, recently qualified teachers, mentors and education authority staff responsible for probationers.

One group noticeably absent from the survey was the pupils. Very few youngsters, when asked what makes a great teacher, say: "Miss X is a highly reflective practitioner." Instead, they reply like the Harrismuir Primary P5s: "Miss Rooney is very kind and gets us to be kind to each other" (Stephen) and "Other teachers tried but Miss Rooney stopped the bullying" (Mark) or "She is nice and kind and helps us when we're stuck" (Shona), "She tells stories, says funny things about us and makes us laugh" (Gary) and "She looks after you like a mum would" (Hannah).

Miss Rooney left the room while the children talked about her - and they did talk about her, despite being asked to think of any good teacher they knew.

Looking after children and making them happy may be a recipe for classroom popularity but another well-worn maxim is that a teacher needs to be respected, not necessarily liked. So, does it get the job done?

"Lindsay exudes a quality and professionalism from the minute she steps in the door," says Arlene Black, her headteacher. "You just need to look at her classroom to see how orderly, purposeful and interesting it is. She does it all in a quiet, unassuming manner.

"In her probationer year she had a very difficult class with challenging behaviour. She managed that in an exemplary way for a young woman straight out of university."

While she has a natural affinity with children, good results are built on conscious effort, says Miss Rooney. "I collected examples of techniques that worked for other teachers and built up a bank of them.

"There is a lot of trial and error involved. Methods only work for so long with kids and with challenging behaviour. Then you have to think of something else, find new resources, different methods. Kids get bored easily."

The key to her approach to teaching is to focus on the positive, says Miss Rooney. "I model good behaviour. If I see someone sitting properly or doing good work, I point it out and they get a reward. Then other kids follow that example.

"While dealing with negative stuff calmly, I home in on the positive, which boosts the kids. That is the key to success."

Ms Gurney wholeheartedly agrees. "Discipline issues are often about some frustration that has nothing to do with your class. So you create an environment where bad behaviour is not necessary and is not rewarded.

"Most pupils have a good heart. Teachers just have to find it."

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