Roy Blatchford has observed over ten thousand lessons in schools around the world. Here he describes the cocktail of great teaching.
Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?
Thomas More: You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.
– A Man for all Seasons
What makes anyone accomplished at anything? Influential psychologist Anders Ericsson tells us that 10,000 hours of purposeful practice are necessary to create real proficiency, and maybe the platform for stand-out excellence.
Think The Silver Beatles playing the clubs of Hamburg; Lewis Hamilton, aged six, driving go-karts; the young Venus Williams on Palm Beach tennis courts; Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in their formative ‘garage years’ – each driven by different motives, investing hours and hours to perfect what later became their greatness.
Take a good classroom teacher, teaching 1,000 lessons a year. A decade later, what is the cocktail of their great practice?
- Knowledge No teacher can survive without the fount of knowledge which lies at the core of their everyday practice. The promotion of mastery, scholarship and enquiry amongst their pupils is their goal. Great teachers have an innate generosity to want to share what they know. The skilled teacher has knowledge effortlessly rising out of them like sap from a tree – and keeps practising.
- Craft In many walks of life a ‘craftsman’ is revered for her or his well-honed skills, whether cooking, sculpting or operating medically. The craft of the classroom involves its own special blend: skilled configuration of the classroom and management of pupils; time creatively orchestrated; ‘less is more’ lesson planning; judicious harnessing of resources; intelligent questioning and thoughtful feedback; that shrewd balance of critique and worthy praise. The reflective practitioner commands the classroom, physically and intellectually.
- Passion Love of being in a classroom with pupils is a pre-requisite for accomplished teachers, joyfully sharing those personal and professional passions which first drew them to work in schools.The passion for excellence, rooted in the teacher’s own achievements, is palpable and often thrilling.
- Values In a teacher’s every utterance and body language, their values about education and schooling shine through. Values reflect our sense of right and wrong and what we believe to be important to us in life. A teacher’s unambiguous set of values, embodying integrity and clear conscience, underpin memorable classroom practice.
- Fun Teaching is all about communicating to students that great double act: the fun and fundamentals of learning. Dealing in fun enables students of any age to feel confident about making mistakes, learning from them, and achieving that ‘aha’ moment of breakthrough comprehension. The fundamentals in any subject demand practice, memorisation, repetition. The fun in learning is about teachers and students sharing humour and wit; fun is equally rooted in risk taking and digression.
- Creativity The imaginative, thinking out-of-the-box spirit lies deep in great teachers’ hearts and minds. They positively embrace digression and those unplanned moments of epiphany for their students. The creative teacher has a predictable unpredictability about their person.
- Expectations Show me a fine teacher who does not have the highest expectations of those they teach, wherever and whomever they are teaching. When record-breakers in any walk of life achieve a new record, their starting point is an unshakeable belief that they can do it. What teachers expect is what they get in any classroom, in any subject and in any context.
- Empathy The ability to ‘climb inside the learner’s skin’ is a hallmark of those teachers who live long in their pupils’ memories. Students of any age testify to the fact that experienced teachers can empathise with the learner’s predicament, can ‘connect’ emotionally with them, can see that grey sometimes has its place alongside black and white. Empathy is that vital capacity in a teacher to imagine and understand that the learner may well have a different frame of reference.
- Resilience Building learners’ resilience in a contemporary world of ‘snow-plough’ learning devices is not to be under-estimated: ‘What’s a cosine?’ asks the teacher. ‘It’s that button on the calculator,’ comes the flawless answer. As vital as leading lessons with fun is the teacher’s commitment to lead with intrigue: taking pupils out of their comfort zones, making learning difficult and perplexing as the moment arises. The wise and practised teacher also recognises that their own trade is a demanding one: knowing how to pace oneself daily, weekly, termly is an art and a science in itself. Resilience is two track: one for the pupils’ stamina in new learning; and one for the teachers’ self-preservation and ultimate flourishing. Live to teach another day.
- X Factor The cocktail is more or less prepared. Yet its distillation is incomplete without the X factor. No two teachers are the same; they may embody in many ways the nine aspects outlined above. The unashamed joy of the generous teacher is that their own commanding classroom practice is, in the end, a matter of individual taste, tact and style. Each teacher has their own X factor, their unique ingredient of the pedagogical potion. Classroom excellence becomes their habit, and their ‘public’ never forget the magic.
Roy Blatchford is Founding Director of the National Education Trust. He was appointed CBE for services to education in the 2016 New Year Honours.