how to be an excellent teacher

How to be an excellent teacher

This guide reveals what factors contribute to making an excellent teacher. I write this guide based on my own experience as a tutor and teacher for 10 years, and also from my observations of the excellent teachers I have come across along the way, some of whom taught me. This guide deliberately shies away from the infamous ‘outstanding’ label, because it is felt that being an excellent teacher is more than just the performance of teaching (although that too is important), it is also about the person who does the performing and how they manage to do it again and again. This guide is broken into 5 parts which have been branched into three main themes:

Conscious Behaviour

  • An excellent teacher’s lesson
  • An excellent teacher’s character

Subconscious Beliefs

  • The philosophy of an excellent teacher
  • The self-image of an excellent teacher

External Factors

  • The kind of environment which helps support excellent teachers

The great news is that 4 out of the 5 parts reveal actions that can all be learned! Let’s crack on with number one.

Conscious Behaviour

An excellent teacher’s lesson

Excellent teachers typically and consistently deliver excellent lessons and the following attributes are nearly always present for each lesson.

Well planned

Lessons are always well planned and thought through even when they are not written down. At the same time, the teacher is flexible enough to make adaptations to the lesson plan if and where necessary. Students are humans and the needs of humans change in different contexts. Thus, no two lessons are exactly the same. The excellent teacher is aware of this and has a lesson plan that is structured enough to be delivered fluidly, but flexible enough to adapt if necessary.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

  1. Spending more time thinking about your next lesson than planning it.
  2. Be kind to yourself when things don’t quite go to plan.

The learning intent comes first

Before the teacher delivers a lesson the first thing they decide is what each student needs to learn. Only after this has been realised, the teacher then decides exactly which tasks the students ought to do. The order is never reversed, where knowing what the students will do comes before knowing what they will learn. Having it done this way around often leads to more creativity in the tasks and activities the teacher plans for the lesson.

Criteria for success

In an excellent lesson, the learner is aware of what success looks like in the context of what they are learning, and further, how success will be determined.  The student knows that if I can do X then I have succeeded. Crucially though, there is often more than one criteria for success, and each criterion formulated according to the ability or competence range of the group being taught.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

- Randomly ask a student what are you learning how to do, every student should be able to answer this at any point in the lesson.

Differentiation is consistent and thorough

An excellent teacher always differentiates their lessons thoroughly. In order to do this, they have a comprehensive awareness of what some students can do, most students can do and what all students can do before and after the lesson. The entire lesson is structured with differentiation in mind, the teacher is aware of how to support the lower quartile and how to extend the learning of the upper quartile. Crucially, however, in spite of the range of ability of the group, each child remains challenged throughout the lesson, and because of this sense of challenge, they are stimulated and engaged.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

  1. Read what is differentiation and why is it important.
  2. Use effective resources that are already scaffolded. (Well I had to pull the plug at some point didn’t I!) 😀

Perfect pace

The pace of an excellent lesson is pitched to perfection. Well, almost. The students are hardly left waiting or unsure of what they will do next. Similarly, the students are always engaged and focused because the pace is set in such a way that they are neither bored because it’s too easy, nor overwhelmed because it’s too hard.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

- Don’t be afraid to give students longer to answer your question – the average time a teacher waits is less than a second!

Constant feedback and assessment

In an excellent lesson, the teacher constantly receives feedback from the students throughout in order to assess who knows what. By the end of the lesson, the teacher will know what each student has learnt and what they need to learn next time. This assessment can come in the form of questions on the board, self-assessment such as a show of thumbs for students to indicate their own understanding, or through verbal questioning and answering. It can even be achieved through a student-led group activity or a whole-class game.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

  1. Ask for thumbs up, down or to the side to indicate whether students think they have met the success criteria.
  2. Don’t take it personally if a student hasn’t met the success criteria, but take it personally if you don’t know that they have.

An excellent teacher’s character

An excellent teacher is able to earn the respect of their students, which helps when managing behaviour, and it also makes it easier for them to motivate their students.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

  1. Always create and stick to a seating plan.
  2. Learn all of the students’ names as quickly as possible.

Uses humour wisely

The teacher uses humour as a valiant tool which helps to lighten the mood and makes them likeable to the students.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

  1. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  2. Admit when you make a mistake.
  3. Become more confident and secure within yourself.

Asks killer questions

Excellent teachers ask killer questions and plenty of them. An excellent teacher is constantly asking poignant, concise and thought-provoking questions.  Not only does the teacher ask their students questions that encourage them to think, the students too have learnt how to ask good questions as well.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

  1. Never ‘give away’ the answer.
  2. When students get stuck, encourage them to ask a question. Read this article to find out how to do this.

Communicates well

Because they are brilliant communicators, coupled with their approachable demeanour, students find it easy to relate to the excellent teacher. The excellent teacher uses their emotional intelligence to solve difficult situations as well as to inspire confidence within their students. The teacher takes the time to get to know the names of each of their students, and they use names cleverly to communicate with each student personally.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

  1. Reduce the amount of ‘teacher talk’.
  2. Know that teens have an average concentration span of 5 minutes.
  3. Choose your words carefully.
  4. Listen twice as much as you talk.

Gives plenty of praise

Excellent teachers give plenty of praise. They have a positive outlook, and easily spot good behaviour, effort or progress. Praise is used effectively as a form of reward. It is not used so frequently that it loses its value, but instead, praise is used conscientiously, so that it is appropriate and more importantly, valued. The teacher is not shy to praise individual students publicly (even though the student might be!). The teacher recognises that praise, and rewards in general, play a vital part in fostering a positive learning environment.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

  1. Think more positively and don’t take misbehaviour personally.  Always separate a child’s behaviour from who the child is as an individual.
  2. Be kind to yourself. Accept that you will have off days but be aware when you are having one of them.
  3. Give more. Go over and beyond wherever possible.
  4. Read these top ten tips for behaviour management.

Takes appropriate responsibility

The excellent teacher takes responsibility for the progress of all students but is also able to defer an appropriate amount of the responsibility for learning on to the individual learner. In other words, the excellent teacher knows when to help and when to encourage the learner to help themselves.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

  1. Accept that being a teacher means being a responsible person.
  2. Encourage students to work neatly.
  3. Use the pronoun ‘you’ more than ‘I’. For example instead of phrases such as, ‘I’m very unhappy that..’, or ‘I expect more from you’, say ‘your success depends on you taking a lot more care…”, “your achievement could be affected by your attitude…” “your behaviour is hindering your progress…”, “your effort is why you have made so much progress”, and so on.

Is passionate about their subject and/or learning

The excellent teacher is passionate about the subject they teach as well as, or largely compensated by a passion for learning. Some may disagree with me here, but I do not necessarily think that fervent passion for a subject is absolutely prerequisite in order to be an excellent teacher, but of course, it definitely helps. Excellent teachers can teach anything they know well enough. What excellent teachers do have in common is a deep desire to help through the power of learning. They value the importance of education and see learning as an incredibly rewarding experience.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

  1. Brainstorm everything about a new topic you have never taught before you teach it.
  2. Read books so you are always learning.
  3. Try to be competent at one level above whichever is the highest level you teach, for example, be proficient in AS Level mathematics if you are teaching GCSE higher mathematics, and GCSE foundation mathematics if you are teaching year 6 mathematics.

Pedagogical subject knowledge

Excellent subject knowledge goes without saying, however, excellent teachers don’t just know what to learn but know how to learn it. Proficiency in a subject does not necessarily correlate to proficiency teaching it. Excellent teachers are masters at simplifying the knowledge they possess and translating that to others.

Practical tips for how this can be achieved

  1. Engage freely with other teachers about the ins and outs of teaching.
  2. Always evaluate your lesson, even if it is just mentally.
  3. Embrace technology and realise its pedagogical values.

The next section deals with factors other than a teachers’ conscious behaviour. This next section talks about the power of subconscious beliefs in shaping excellent teaching.

Subconscious Beliefs

Teaching as an art, not a science

What are subconscious beliefs? Our subconscious operates like an involuntary muscle, automatic. The only difference is that it is always active, silently, but sometimes our subconscious beliefs become conscious ones.  Some people believe that all that we are emanates first from our subconscious. Why is this important for you? Well, teaching is an art, not a science. Being good at teaching is about human choices, not static laws. How we build, maintain and cultivate human relationships is an important aspect of teaching, but crucially, how we form human relationships largely depends on how we relate to ourselves. Here I’ll present you with the philosophy and self-image that I have observed typically exist deep within the subconscious of the excellent teacher.

The philosophy of an excellent teacher

Some of the beliefs that an excellent teacher holds about the world are:

  • All humans want to learn.
  • All humans like to learn.
  • Every student is important.
  • Every student is unique.
  • Giving creates happiness.
  • Confidence is king

An excellent teacher’s self-image

Some of the beliefs that an excellent teacher holds about themselves are:

  • A belief that they deserve to be listened to.
  • A belief that they deserve to be respected.
  • A belief that they are highly confident and competent.
  • A belief in human potential – all humans.

External Factors

It’s easy to side-line the significance of external factors when considering what makes an excellent teacher. However, a teacher’s environment, particularly their school environment, can really help to bring out the best (or indeed worst!) of them. Supportive work environments help to produce a better labour force. A teacher in a supportive external environment is in a better position to perform well consistently each day.  The ethos of a school, in order to cultivate the best teachers, is typical.

Wholly supportive

The teacher ultimately has a sense that the school is always ‘on their side’. They have a sense that the school leadership is not just there to observe, judge and monitor their every move, but in fact that they are there paying attention to how they are doing as well as aware of when they may need support or intervention.

The effect: the teacher feels empowered (to act freely).

Quick to recognise

The leadership team not only recognise the progress and achievement of students but crucially, they also recognise the progress and achievement of staff. This means not only giving recognition to staff members with bags of experience and confidence but also recognising staff who have made a lot of progress with their pedagogical craft.

The effect: the teacher feels appreciated.

Fair and reasonable expectations

A supportive leadership team who have fair, realistic and reasonable expectations for their staff are more likely to create an environment where excellent teachers feel respected not only for their talent but also as a person. Expecting teachers to spend an unfair number of hours in meetings after school, for example, sends a message that, we do not value your time, nor therefore, how hard you work.

The effect: the teacher feels valued.

Being an excellent teacher, rather like being an excellent parent, is as much about being a better you as it is about learning certain practices. Why is it important for us to strive to be excellent teachers? Because we are influential to the lives of young people, who are of course our future. By being positive role models we teach them the value of diligence, commitment and focus, and we bring up a generation of individuals who learn, not out of obligation or fear, but out of passion, enjoyment and fulfilment. In this way, we put our students in a better position to create a more passionate, joyful and fulfilling world.

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