What makes great teaching?

Before the summer, I asked on Twitter for advice on making a department handbook. The overwhelming response? Don’t. No-one will read it, it’s oppressive and not useful, it’s a bureaucratic tick-box exercise.

Much as I sympathised with such views, having new teachers join the department, and tending to spend much of my time (literally) running around the corridors of the school, I felt these teachers needed something to refer to when I (or a seasoned teacher) could not be found.

Brimming with hubris, I decided to open the handbook with “Teaching and Learning”, and proceeded to randomly write down ideas I had for what I think makes great teaching. It’s by no means an exhaustive, or even logical, list, but I’d be interested in the thoughts of others. I have pasted below exactly from the handbook, word for word.

Relationships

  • Like your students and tell them
  • Value what they say in class – ensure everyone is listening and taking note when anyone is speaking
  • Call home positively for as many students as you can. Do this early on and save yourself many negative calls later
  • Be there for your students emotionally, but remember you’re their teacher – refer on any pastoral issues promptly
  • Ask students to reflect on their learning and be honest with you about what they need more of. Be responsive to their needs

Mindset

  • Believe in the unlimited potential of all your students to succeed. Share this belief with them
  • Challenge your students to do better, even when they have “achieved” their “target” grade
  • Remind students who aren’t there that they aren’t there yet – further effort will not be in vain

Goals

  • Set clear goals for each lesson, each week, each term and unit of work. Share these goals with students

Feedback

  • Ensure written feedback is timely
  • Allow students time to ask you questions about your feedback
  • Give students time to respond and correct errors

Questioning

  • Challenge student answers – get them to develop their ideas further
  • Never accept “I don’t know” – always ask another student to help out so they can repeat the answer
  • At the same time, ensure all your students know “I don’t know” is fine to admit, as long as they show themselves ready to learn after saying this
  • Bounce questions to other students to answer
  • Practice hands down questioning regularly so all students are listening and ready
  • Aim to speak to each student at least once in each class

Pratice

  • Independent practice using key skills should be built into every lesson
  • Students should be supported by teachers during independent practice (e.g. circulating and making verbal corrections/suggestions for improvement as students write)
  • Bear in mind you might need to explicitly teach skills you take for granted – e.g. taking notes, the right place for a comma, what a verb is

Behaviour management

  • Expect 100% compliance with 100% of your instructions 100% of the time
  • Phrase instructions positively
  •  Talk about choices
  • Never allow students to “earn off” a sanction
  • Have a no excuses culture – one high standard for all
  • Have high expectations of behaviour – silence means silence; group discussion of the task means no off-task chat
  • Have clear and unchanging policies for all misdemeanours, no matter how minor, that you apply equally to all students (remember that it is not the severity of the sanction that is important but the certainty of the sanction)
  • Give specific praise – verbally and written
  • Narrate positive behaviour you wish to see in all your students
  • Avoid singling out students for chastising publicly, at least the first time you note off-task behaviour

Share and celebrate success

  • In class, verbally and frequently
  • Copy great work and share with the class
  •  Ensure students buy into learning as a desirable success to aim for
  •  Share success stories (students who have made incredible progress through hard work)

Knowledge

  • Have deep knowledge of the material you are teaching which goes beyond what students “need to know”
  • Use material throughout the curriculum to challenge students and empower them to find their place in any walk of life they choose

Discussion

  • Engage students in debate/discussion – allow them to reason through answers and ideas themselves. Challenge them to uphold their thinking. Ensure it is ok to change your mind with new evidence
  • Encourage structured and purposeful student talk

Differentiation

  • Know where your students are, using recent data, marking and assessment for learning in lessons
  • Plan the next step your students need
  • Teach to the top, support at the bottom
  • Tell your Teaching Assistant (if you have one) what they can do to most help your students

CPD

  • Be aware of your strengths and areas for development as a teacher
  • Share good practice (e.g. during department meetings)
  •  Go and see teachers who do something you’d like to do
  •  Raise development needs with your line manager so the department CPD can be appropriate

Assessment

  • Mark student books regularly (at least every 2 weeks)
  • Level or grade student work once a half term. Remember that levels/grades are not as important as developmental feedback, but these levels/grades will help you to complete Assessment Point 1, 2 and 3
  •  After assessments, spend time exploring what students need to do next time to improve

Homework

  • Set students homework which builds on their learning in class
  • Homework should be reasonable
  • Be aware that computer access is an issue for some students
  • Be aware that some students will thrive on “homework extensions”
  • Build in spelling and grammar to your homework routine
  • Set homework on the same day/s every week
  • Ensure students write homework in their planners 

Communication with parents

  •  This can form the key to excellent student progress
  • Try to ensure your first contact with parents is positive
  •  Don’t be afraid to call a meeting with a parent; ask your line manager to attend as well if there are pressing issues you need to discuss in person prior to parents’ evening

Mindset

Many months ago, I was taking part in a focus group on challenges students face in our current education system and I remember posing a question to the group.

What I want to know, I remember saying, is what makes this kid different. Plenty of my students face immense challenges, and they fail. How is this one, who has faced every challenge imaginable, thriving?

At that discussion, my question was swept away – perhaps it was too big, or too vague; certainly it seemed to the panel too little connected to our remit.

Let me be specific here in a way I wasn’t then. What I want to know is this: how has her unimaginably deprived upbringing and lack of parental involvement somehow led to the most impressive vocabulary in my year 11 class, and the most advanced understanding of literature? How are her difficulties translated into A*s, and other students’ difficulties aren’t?

The woman next to me wrote two words on my notepad as the discussion continued: Mindset. Dweck.

I had heard of this book; indeed I felt I had based my educational beliefs on its central premise without even reading it: all children can learn, all children can grow their intelligence. The ability to attain academically is created, not inherent.

When I finally got round to reading this book, then, I confess I was already willing it to be great. And, if you strip away two thirds of the anecdotes, it really really is.

Early on, these anecdotes are useful and illustrative; for example when exploring the approach of young children who seemed to enjoy tackling hard problems and failing, for the sole reason that, to their minds “they didn’t even think they were failing. They thought they were learning.” I would love my year 9 to approach English like this: we had an impromptu discussion about mindset after I had read the book and the students conceded that “we could learn more if we stayed focused… But it’s just too hard.”

This is just one example of the limits of mindset: yes, it is vital; but there are many other factors to consider when analysing the way children respond to education. My year 9 also felt their creative and sporting talents were fixed and unable to be improved. As one heart-breakingly put it: “I’m in bottom set for everything. I know I’m dumb.”

This statement clearly reveals the student’s mindset; what it does not reveal, however, is what has happened in the past to cause this student to be in set 5: not lack of intelligence, but lack of effort. What has happened in her education that she hasn’t put that effort in; hasn’t wanted to put that effort in? What challenges has she faced that students in the higher sets have not?

Dweck does acknowledge these and other limits, for example when discussing depression. Of course depression is caused by more than a fixed mindset, however she chooses to view the idea through this small prism, and in its own way it contributes to psychological discourse without seeking to define it.

One other caveat which is useful is her acknowledgement that people with resources, such as the safety net of money, will inevitably “take more risks and keep going longer until they succeed.” Moreover, “people with easy access to a good education, people with a network of influential friends, people who know how to be in the right place at the right time, all stand a better chance of having their effort pay off.”

This is a text all about work, and anyone who knows me will attest that work is my favourite thing. The central premise of this text was transformative for me: if more effort leads to more success, we’re just hours (perhaps ten thousand?) away from really amazing things.

More valuable than this, of course, are the implications for my students. I have long found that time spent convincing kids they can do something will always pay off. This book gives plenty of help on rephrasing your praise to be more growth orientated (although I draw the line at Dweck’s self-flagellation for accidentally saying her husband was “brilliant” – it’s fine; sometimes language needs to be more fluid than this).

So, back to the challenges facing students in education. Perhaps it would not be the worst thing in the world to spend some time investigating how best to grow a growth mindset in our most challenged students. If we cannot cure the social ills that plague our students, can we at least prevent the certainty that they will hold these kids back from achieving their full potential.

Finally, one of the surprising outcomes of reading this book was a personal one. When deciding whether to take on more responsibility as an educator, my initial response was: “no. I’m not ready. I will probably fail, so trying would be stupid.” Like my year 9, I sought approval: I wanted to be the best at what I was doing. Yet reading Dweck’s words had a profound impact on me: “people in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it. The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch.”

Yes, I might fail, but also yes – I would become a better educator for that experience. As one anecdote reads: “if you only go through life doing stuff that’s easy, shame on you.” Shame on me. Let’s see how I fail better next time.

mindset