Build a Brilliant Teacher

When a teacher fails, it’s “mea culpa”; when we succeed, it’s “didn’t the students do well?”

Something that struck me when listening to John Hattie speak at the recent London Festival of Education was his exhortation for teachers to speak up in defence of our own excellent practice.

In reality, students can claim 50% of the credit, at best, for their success – or otherwise – (and most of this relates to their inherent cognitive ability or their disposition to learning), and we, their teachers, pretty much make up the lion’s share of what’s left.

So, if it really is the teacher who is the key factor in ensuring students’ success – and it is – what can be done to ensure we’re enabled to get on with it?

1) Praise us like you should

If you work with a teacher who is consistently achieving miracles in the classroom. Praise the pants off them. Keep praising them, every day. Show others what we’re doing well. Ignore our humility and emphasise the key importance and the known effect of our practice. Don’t make the success about the person and their nature, make it about the effect their teaching has. Encourage their colleagues’ curiosity about what’s happening in their room.

(This notion is a parallel to my teaching tenet to “attend to the actions I want to cultivate in the classroom“. Hattie et al would call this ‘reinforcement’ if it were applied to students in a classroom, and it would have an effect on the student’s achievement of 1.13 standard deviations)

2) Feed our appetite for learning

If there’s one thing all brilliant teachers have in common, it’s our eagerness to improve. Feed this hunger. Ask us what our needs are, listen to our answers – and invest in supporting us. But, listen to us. Some of us may ask for a day off to read; others to attend professional development. Some might want to observe teachers in other cities; others to present at a conference; write a poem. Listen. We know what we need, give it to us.

(Hattie et al might call this Instruction, with an effect size in the region of 0.9 standard deviations)

3) Give us frequent, high quality, critical feedback

Brilliant teachers love feedback. It needs to be fair and well-qualified. It needs to clearly express our next step in professional practice. We need to have faith in the person giving the feedback. It should be a conversation, a dialogue. Teachers’ critical reflection should be given time and it should be valued in the process. We should contribute to least 50% of the discourse.

(If, as Hattie says, “[student’s understanding of their] achievement [must be] enhanced to the degree that students develop self- strategies: to seek and receive feedback to verify rather than enhance their sense of achievement efficacy.” – why would this be any different for an adult?)

4) Make a leap of faith

Find an opportunity to actively support a teacher in a moment of risk. Be our belay as we scale our first climb into an unknown initiative. Share the risk of innovation, share the rush of success and the gut-wrenching disappointment of failure. Stand strong, alongside us. Show to us the loyalty you hope to inspire in us.

Get these for things right, and you’ll be well on the way to unlocking the true power and potential of the most valuable resource in education. Your teachers.

Posted by Christopher Waugh

  1. This is great. I even learned a new word – “belay”.

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  2. You point about feedback is so important… Good teachers I know are often disappointed by how little they get. In my experience, we are poor at supporting each other this was. Too insular.

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    1. I understand what you mean there. Something I’m keen to encourage is for us to use the same good practices when dealing with each other that we use when working with our students. The priorities and needs are remarkably (or perhaps, logically) very similar.

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