What makes a great teacher?
Well, we know what makes great teaching, thanks to the good work done by Rob Coe and the Sutton Trust. But their definition, although essential – “that which leads to improved student progress” – isn’t terribly inspiring.
And it is inspiration and encouragement that many adults consider most important when they recall their great teachers. An analysis of Tes’ My Best Teacher subjects over the years sees these qualities rated way above getting them great results. Subject knowledge fails to get a mention and fun isn’t considered paramount either.
Ask the children, however, and you get a different story. The 3,000 primary, secondary and special school pupils Tes surveyed want “funny” teachers – by a fair old landslide, which will have the neotrads weeping into their knowledge organisers.
But before you reach for the clown costume and the joke book, it might be worth trying to deconstruct what children may be saying. It’s not necessarily about wanting teachers to amuse them day in, day out; it’s more likely to be about being warm and approachable. In short, it’s about human relationships, as many of the other attributes on the list indicate – understanding, helpful, good listener.
According to Ed Dunkelblau, former president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor in the US and director of the Institute for Emotionally intelligent learning, humour in the classroom “brings a sense of pleasure and appreciation and creates a common, positive emotional experience that the students share with each other and the teacher”.
But should we be even listening to children? After all, teachers are the adults in this relationship and know what is best for those in their care.
National schools commissioner Sir David Carter thinks we should and that we should even encourage them to take the lead in shaping their educational experience and their community. But this is about more than just student voice – and therein lies the challenge. Writing in these pages last week, he said that we need to do more to get them to be leaders within the school gates and beyond them. “The school does not belong to the workforce of today: it belongs to the community of tomorrow.”
There are schools that rise to this challenge. St Christopher in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, is one. It has a school council that makes the recommendations about finance, health and safety and the curriculum. In short, it has a great deal of power. The headteacher can veto a proposal, but this power has been used only four times in 25 years. “Self-government,” says headteacher Richard Palmer, “is about more than council and school meetings.” It is, he says, “about the relationship between freedom and responsibility”.
It is that often fraught relationship that is at the heart of education. And children instinctively know that. In our survey, they have used their freedom to put “funny” at the top of the list for what makes a great teacher but, importantly, used their innate sense of responsibility by putting “knowledgeable” in the top 10 for both primary and secondary. They know they are at school to learn.
Adults may look back on their school days from the privilege of the pinnacle of their achievement and remember who encouraged and inspired them. Children on the start of that climb look forward to learning and achieving with a knowledgeable teacher who knows what pupils need to achieve and, more importantly, knows how to get them there – with good grace and with humour.
Maybe that Sutton Trust definition isn’t so uninspiring after all.