It is no surprise that we regularly come across judgements about teachers at the school gate or in the media. Members of the public frequently express an opinion about the overall state of teaching and education, perhaps highly influenced by their own experiences while at school, college or university. Describing any teacher as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is often unfair and too simplistic. Such evaluations can easily overlook the complexity of both teaching and learning in everyday practices.
In general, government, education authorities and parents appear to accept, at least tacitly, that teaching is a demanding vocation. Nonetheless, high standards are expected from all stakeholders. A consummate challenge for teachers to-day is to perform effectively and consistently regardless of social factors or quantity of resources. If, as is often said, teaching is both an art and a science, how do we decide on what are the qualities to be most valued? There are formal criteria for assessing teachers but here the aim is to explore the issue of how teaching styles can be perceived within a more wide-ranging civic perspective.
From a discerning public position, effective teachers are those who create stimulating learning contexts for their lessons, taking due account of their students’ ages and abilities. They provide well-judged opportunities to extend learners’ knowledge, understanding and skills while monitoring and assessing achievements at individual and group levels. They use their expertise and experience to plan how best to motivate pupils, making sure to integrate ideas securely within the syllabus being followed. In order to maintain continuous progress, they adopt a flexible and open-ended approach so that they are able to adjust programmes of study with regard to content, pace, outcomes and context. By no means should these capabilities be regarded as trivial or easy. They are challenging and require intelligent, astute and sensitive decision-making and implementation.
Challenges and potential pitfalls
The demands on teaching professionals are constantly changing and on occasions it is difficult for them to keep abreast of developments. If this is the case, think of the confusion which can befall students, parents and employers. As specialists, dedicated teachers are not afraid of innovation. However, they are aware of the need to look out for unnecessary fads or gimmicks which are publicised commercially but are of little value to children and young people. From time to time, they will be willing to undertake potential risks in using new teaching materials and methods, evaluating their worth in the process. They also will allow or encourage their students to adopt a similar stance as in extending their personal skills through independent, computer-based learning, for example if appropriate, in the effective use of massive open online courses (MOOCs). This open-minded, philosophical outlook will be evident in their attitudes and practices. To paraphrase the views of that outstanding Scottish scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, the committed teacher’s standpoint is: “I would never dissuade young people from trying an experiment; if they do not find out what they want, they may discover something else.”
There are two false dichotomies which need to be confronted and clarified when teachers’ contributions are being judged. The first is linked to the unhelpful dispute concerning which is the more important – learning or teaching. It has echoes of the alleged medieval debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Learning and teaching can be seen as two sides of the same complex process within classrooms or lecture theatres. Investigations show that both are significant and perhaps we should leave it at that. Stated simply, a principal focus of teaching is on high quality learning by students, coupled with a genuine concern for their personal and social wellbeing.
A second debate relates to the issue of the value of theoretical knowledge versus skills. Even when I was training to be a teacher – sadly long, long ago – I recall reading a treatise against skills. There was an elitist view – which unfortunately can still be found today – that skills were somehow inferior to knowledge. This regrettable opinion may remind readers of the supposed time when some colonial grandees felt that the British Empire could best be run by classics graduates with Oxbridge backgrounds. It is necessary for teaching to include principles, facts and skills, with the development of practical competences being neglected at society’s peril. All these features are intertwined and improve through study, application, experimentation and creativity. Proficient educators ensure that young people have suitable and up-to-date opportunities to advance in a broad and integrated manner.
Support for students
Steady progress towards personal, long-term targets are often more important for a pupil than test results and can provide a secure pathway to later academic success. Professional expertise helps in promoting pupils’ belief and confidence in their own abilities and competences. It facilitates the creation of positive mindsets regarding further attainment and enhances multi-faceted progress.
As well as students’ individual achievements, the main aims of education must address the collective needs of society. Well-judged group activities on communal issues identified by pupils – employment, human rights, homelessness, pollution etc. – can endorse a sense of citizenship and social responsibility. (A bonanza for teachers is that they can learn about topics in greater depth through preparing for and then implementing their lessons and tutorials!) There will be occasions when pupils can internalise information and concepts more fully by being asked to make presentations to their peers on matters which they have researched. Building motivation and encouraging upbeat attitudes concerning teamwork, resilience and planning for the future are on-going duties which require constant vigilance. They are among the most valued characteristics of the gifted educator.
Account also needs to be taken about the specific obstacles which students – depending on their age, ability and social backgrounds – may experience in diverse curricular areas. Subtle, varying approaches and strategies are often required regarding learning and teaching in different subjects such as history, art and design, mathematics and technology. Indeed, further meticulous research is needed to ascertain how best to structure and present programmes of study in various components of the curriculum, including in computing and science education.
At times, teachers have to support students in confronting their negative feelings about academic setbacks and provide guidance for them to triumph over barriers to learning and progress. Through their flair in identifying difficulties and advising on learning strategies, they can assist students in building what might be termed ‘intellectual buoyancy’ – their ability and determination to come back from disappointments and to overcome challenges of different kinds.
A passing thought: Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, does not appear to have been regarded as a truly exceptional student at school or higher education. However, he did make some thoughtful comments on the nature of teaching, for instance: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” He clearly believed in this vital role bestowed upon teachers.
Support for staff
Educationalists are greatly assisted in being able to sustain high-quality practical skills if they look after their own physical and mental health. Amid the pressures placed on education in today’s society, teachers need to be to be alert and resilient in maintaining their vigour and wellbeing. Stress, at an individual’s optimal level, can be a positive factor in increasing motivation and engagement when undertaking tasks. However, there are many potentially harmful features which can impact on performance. These may include a toxic combination of disruptive behaviour in class, rapid changes in the curriculum or assessment procedures, an endless demand for higher standards in formal examinations and, at times, over-demanding parents or administrators. All teachers need to be knowledgeable about how to identify threats to their mental health and to make effective use of ways to combat them.
Lifestyles which embrace a healthy balance across work and leisure, support from trusted colleagues, and the use of individualised therapies can have a central role in maintaining confidence and positive attitudes regarding teachers’ daily duties. Importantly, staff should not regard undue stress as simply belonging to them alone or always occurring because of personal traits which indicate their fault. Excessive workloads arising from organisational failures within disorderly environments require to be examined in such circumstances. Effective managers are skilled at recognising stumbling blocks, taking steps to reduce unnecessary tensions and building job satisfaction through improving the ethos in which their staff are expected to operate.
In fairness to teachers in all sectors of education, it should be emphasised that promoting affirmative outlooks, fostering a love of learning and ensuring academic success are not simply their responsibility. Although these characteristics should be fundamental and central within all educational settings, they also must stretch far beyond their boundaries. Education must never be viewed as the exclusive property or responsibility of schools, colleges or universities. No classroom, lecture theatre or institution is an educational island; flourishing links with and support from local communities, the general public, industry and government are paramount.
If a country wishes to raise accomplishments in specific curricular areas or across all subjects, then there needs to be a positive, collective agenda for improvement. To a large extent, a noble endeavour of this kind often requires cultural changes – not only within individual classes but at whole-school and societal levels. Momentum will be accelerated if, as a nation, a much more forthright approach is taken towards recognising, sponsoring and paying tribute to first-rate benchmarks reached in learning and teaching. The plain truth is that capable teachers help to create excellent centres of learning which, in turn, facilitate and foster tolerance, respect and economic development amongst the wider society.
What then contributes towards becoming an inspirational teacher or does it simply depend on whom you ask? Although one may come across various zany answers, there appears to be some overall agreement with regard to the following characteristics.
- are skilled at motivating, organising and assessing
- care about ensuring that their teaching styles are exemplary and that students benefit from the instructional episodes which they have planned
- build from ‘where scholars are at’ and provide clear, helpful feedback on strengths and progress to all relevant stakeholders, particularly those learners for whom they are directly responsible
- are leaders within their class or subject area but willingly ‘give away’ their knowledge and expertise
- encourage their students to cultivate self-belief, confidence, open-mindedness and independent learning skills within the complex and evolving requirements of modern cultures
- believe in the importance of research and development in education, in improving their own professional competences, and in evaluating in an honest manner their successes and disappointments with regard to raising standards of attainment and achievement.
Key questions and issues for further consideration
Does society sufficiently value and commend those teachers who consistently perform above and beyond the formal requirements of their profession? Is the autonomy of teachers being eroded through the imposition of unnecessary bureaucracy and market-led directives? How can schools and learning environments adjust to the rapidly changing circumstances of contemporary society?
Nothing stands still, including the demands made concerning methods of tutoring and the acquisition of knowledge and skills. The delivery of education for all is creaking from many pressures. Further ground breaking means of utilising technological advances should continue to be developed for both within educational establishments and beyond the normal school day. How can these innovations be used more effectively in the promotion of the principles and attributes underling high quality teaching? How best can students benefit from them in more practical, accessible and flexible ways?
(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)