LouAnne (Michelle Pfeiffer) in Dangerous Minds and John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society would give one the impression that teachers are born, not made. Both portray a natural, hidden talent and the ability to connect with their student; abilities that surely cannot be taught or trained? However, this is a myth (thankfully) and teachers can in fact be moulded, guided and supported to become better at their art. After all, “Great teaching is an art. Great art relies on the mastery and application of foundational skills, learned individually through diligent study.” (Doug Lemov: Teach Like a Champion)
Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University, has found that in a single year of teaching, the top 10% of teachers impart three times as much learning to their pupils as the worst 10% do. Similar results have been found in Britain and Ecuador. Hanushek concludes his study by stating that “no other attribute of schools come close to having this much influence on student achievement.” Furthermore, the respected educational researcher John Hattie conducted the biggest study of classroom practice incorporating thousands of teachers, students and lessons. He discovered that all of the twenty most powerful ways identified by the study in order to improve school-time learning, depended on what a teacher did in the classroom.
Thus the situation we are faced with seems clear: enhance our students learning through deployment of excellent teachers and training to better our schools. Why is this not as easy as it sounds? Some reasons include:
- The IPPR opine that “our knowledge of what it takes to create great schools has outpaced our ability to train the expert teachers that great schools must have”
- Poor design and delivery of training and development
- Poor incentives for teachers to participate in training and development
- Difficulty in creating professional development cultures within schools
- The myth that teachers are born and not made
- As Marie Hamer at ArK Initial teacher training points out, “too often teachers are told what to improve, but not given clear guidance on how to make that change”
- The myth that if you know it then you must be able to teach it
- The myth that teaching is easy
John Tomsett, an experienced headteacher from UK writes that it is vital that we prioritise continuous professional development and learning (CPDL). He goes on to claim that teaching is the worst trained profession in United Kingdom and worryingly points out that in his twenty eight years of teaching, he can think of just three moments when his teaching practice has changed for the better as a direct consequence of training.
Schools need to make it very clear and prescriptive as to what they expect from their practitioners. Work with staff to decide what constitutes a great lesson and an excellent teacher. There are many different rubrics that can be used and must be used, but amended to one’s context. Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion: 62 techniques that put students on the path to college is a useful book to help staff with day-to-day lesson practices. All these ideas must then be complimented with strong support, mentoring and guidance from experts. Headteachers have a duty to free up time for staff to improve their practice, whether that be through personal reflection, peer collaboration or looking over educational research.
The vast majority of educators will agree that research should be used to improve one’s practice, however, time is always a constraint. There is an added problem with educational research. More importantly the scholarly language used within studies often requires a translator! Why not present an easy to understand, practical summary of findings? Keith Turner, editor of the journal Chemistry Education Research and Practice and professor of science education at the University of Cambridge acknowledges that the professional pressures researchers face are related to their research output in high-impact journals. Researchers may want to do the full job, but they’re only being professionally evaluated on half of it.
Of course teaching is simply half the solution. School leadership is the other half. Effective leadership combined with effective teaching is what makes a school great. The quality of education at an institution is simply the sum (and no more) of the quality of leadership and quality of teaching. “Effective leadership and effective teaching are the two biggest factors in student learning and school improvement” (McRel, 2003)
A lot to consider but the simple truth to bear in mind is that we need to train our teachers in order to enhance our students’ learning. No excuses!
- IPPR (the institute for Public Policy Research)
- John Hattie (2015): What doesn’t work in Education
- John Tomsett: How can Headteachers and Leaders promote staff wellbeing?