Three things that make a good teacher

What makes a good teacher? A reasonable question that regularly pops up in conversations about teaching and learning; discussions at my own work place have been no different. What is distilled from those conversations compressed to three points:

Self-sacrificing – Fundamental to being a good teacher, one must be prepared to put others first. This might mean extra time outside of the classroom speaking to students, marking work and making sure that the feedback is meaningful, participating in co-curricular activities or attending parent functions at night (when you would sooner be at home with your own family).Another way of thinking about the notion of self-sacrifice (at least in the context of being a teacher) is having a passion for working with children, of seeing them prepared for the wider world. In whatever instance, teaching is about service.

Scholarly – at the end of the day, teaching and learning is a scholarly vocation. Content matters. Academics matter. Yes. That flies in the face of what many think teaching and learning today is about. Teaching and learning is about empowering students, to be sure, but that should not be a euphemism for “the teacher can take a break in the classroom”, or “we don’t need to know content as much as we need to know skills”. (That sort of statement sets up academics and skills or competencies as mutually exclusive. I would argue that they are not). As teachers, we should value the academic nature of our work and the subject that we teach. We should be prepared to have high academic expectations for our students and challenge or help them achieve them.

Sound – a strength in teachers is that they are sound. Stable. Sensible. Mixed in with a sense of humour, of course. How else are you going to cope with a Friday afternoon class that implodes for no apparent reason other than the wind changed direction? In many instances, school is a ‘safe haven’ for students because they know there is stability and continuity at school. For others, it is the fact that students know their teachers are people they can turn to for extra advice that is important. I’m not saying that teachers have to be sombre and serious and uninteresting. Again, in a similar manner regarding “scholarly”, my thinking is that as teachers, whether we like it or not, are models to students. We are being watched all the time by those in our care. Being sound or stable or sensible is going to be something that is a given in a our job description.

I realise in putting this list together, there could be further “S”-es to add, other concepts and notions to throw into the mix. For now, this is enough. This list was introduced as a baseline, a starting point if you will, for those traits that are “absolute musts” for being a successful teacher. I am sure there are others that you might add or that might build out of these three but at the very least, “self-sacrificing”, “scholarly” and “sound” is a place to start.

Why should school leaders continue teaching?

This is potentially a controversial question for some. It shouldn’t be, but, unfortunately, I suspect, it is. It is also a question that has been the basis of some interesting conversations recently with some colleagues.

So, the short answer to ‘why should school leaders continue teaching?’ is: because school leaders should be seen as learners. Lead learners, in fact.

Let me explain this a little more.

In The Principal, Michael Fullan recasts the role of the principal as a lead learner. He seeks to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader so that it maximizes the learning of the all the teachers and in turn of all the students” (Michael Fullan (2014) The Principal: Three keys to maximising impact, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, p.7). The book is a compelling argument about the need to redeploy the principal within the school so there is a genuine benefit for all various and related parties: students, faculty and staff, parents, the wider community. Fullan argues that there are three areas within which principals, as they become lead learners, will make an impact: leading learning, becoming a system player and becoming a change agent.

The focus of this particular post is the practical implications associated with becoming “lead learners”. In being a lead learner, Fullan proposes that “the principal’s role is to lead the school’s teachers in a process of learning to improve their teaching, while learning alongside them about what works and what doesn’t” (Fullan 2014: 55). For me, this suggests that one of the things that a principal who is a lead learner should do is to teach. To put it another way, for a school leader to continue teaching, to remain in the classroom, is the best way in which that school leader can come alongside school teachers in the process of learning and help improve the teaching that takes place. The action of coming alongside other teachers and being a direct part of the learning environment is, for me, a practical outworking of Fullan’s words.

Here are three questions that help to clarify my thinking:

  • Would student learning benefit from the principal being in the classroom as a teacher?
  • Would teaching alongside the very teachers that the school leader seeks to assist be one of the ways in which that school leader can learn about what works and what does not?
  • If a school leader is looking to make changes that will have a positive effect on the school they lead, would it not make sense to be in a position to experience what those changes will entail?
  • Assuming ‘street credibility’ positively contributes to the changes an individual school leader makes, would being in the classroom assist with obtaining and maintaining that ‘street credibility’?

To remain in the classroom, even if it is to teach a bottom-streamed Year 9 class (in my case, that would be History), shows a willingness to ‘walk one’s own talk’. School leaders talk about a great amount of change and development and what constitutes ‘best practice’. Sometimes, it doesn’t go beyond that; teachers don’t see the school leader living through what he or she has suggested is the best thing to do. So, in remaining in the classroom, teachers would see a colleague struggling with similar issues or concerns, as opposed to a detached administrator whose experiences in the classroom as a teacher are but only a distant memory. Teachers would see a colleague working to enhance his or her teaching to the best it possibly can be, as opposed to an administrator that appears to leave others to demonstrate professional accomplishment in the classroom. Powerfully, colleagues would see a colleague who, despite being an administrator, shouldering the various responsibilities of school leadership, has not lost a love of learning and a love of the classroom. They see a leader who loves to learn.

Perhaps the most important reason for principals to remain in the classroom is that students get to see the principal in action, as a learner. Students see the principal struggling productively with the same material with which they struggle. Students see a model for learning; an experienced (and we can assume an expert, perhaps) spending time in the classroom to make sure that the students get the most out of a subject. Students see the principal work within the same structures they have to in relation to assessments and tests. Thus, the experience of learning becomes shared, contributing to a coherent approach to learning within the whole school as well as an environment in which deep learning can take place.

Blogging voice: contrived or real?

I am not new to this blogging thing and one of the things I have noticed about blogging is that one’s blogging voice is different from that which one speaks with when drafting a chapter in a thesis, writing a marker’s report or composing a paper for a conference. Of other educationally-related blogs I have looked at (or indeed have followed), I have noticed that the blogger’s writing seems to flow more freely than compared to those texts that are engaged in more professional or specifically academic space.

Does this mean that the blogger’s voice is not as learned? Does this mean that the blogger’s voice is articulating words that are not as well considered? I don’t think so. Perhaps it is the anticipation that someone might be reading the blog. Perhaps it is the desire to make sure that what is posted is something that is of interest to the casual reader in the hope that he or she might return again to the blog. Perhaps it is the anonymity, albeit in a limited sense, that a blog provides that gives a sense of freedom. I am not sure. What I do know is that I have often wondered why one’s levels of creative output disappear or change when one shifts from the professional / academic piece to that which exists online.

I suspect it has everything to do with the anticipation and anonymity that comes with being a blogger. Certainly, there is a blogging etiquette in that you must be prepared to stand by your opinions online as if you were justifying them in a face-to-face environment. In other words, what you say online should be no different to what you say away from your blog. I think the ability to churn out a 2000 word post in a short space of time and then not be able to do the same with a thesis chapter – despite the fact that the level of knowledge for the topic being covered in the blog could well  be commensurate with the level of knowledge for the section being covered in the thesis – is that there are more heavily defined conventions when it comes to writing a thesis.

That is not to say that blogging is something that happens without any conventions or rules. There are a couple, particularly in relation to the comments one posts, the treatment of others both in and out of the blogosphere and so on. Conventions for blogging are not nearly as acutely defined as those related to the presentation of research. In one sense, I believe that blogging is an outworking of postmodernism. If we apply the concept of blogging to the construction and depiction of history, then blogging can be considered to be a medium for conveying history in a postmodern mode.

Let me ventilate what I mean by using a comparison with what might be considered to be a typical approach to the writing of empirical history. In a empiricist’s account of the past, one would expect to find footnotes and reference lists. The preoccupation with the sources, and indeed with primary sources, is something that has been characteristic of the empirical approach since the nineteenth century. The art of blogging bypasses this expectation. Certainly, there is the capacity to cite sources in a very direct way; hyperlinking the source so there is a direct connection between the blog post and the cited source. In one sense this is the epitomy of empirical history. Technology has provided the means for a reader to judge for themselves the validity of the source material upon which the historian has based his or her argument. The journal-like nature of a blog allows for free thought. There is no need to cite sources or footnote references because the nature of the blog is to allow for a freeflow of ideas. If relativism is at the heart of postmodern thinking then a blog encourages the reader to arrive at their own determination of  the discussion that has been posted. The reader has the ability to verify, in an online manner, what the blogger is saying. He or she has control over this themselves, in a very real and direct way.

So, is the blogging voice contrived or real? For me, it is quite real. I blog in the same way as I might lay out ideas in a classroom for students. The turns of phrase I use in a blog are conversational but they are not what would appear in a research-related publication. I meet the expectations that are set for successful writing in an academic context. I don’t think a blogging voice is contrived. It is simply a reflection of a different way of thinking and of discussing ideas. It is free of the formality that comes with academic publications, both in terms of the writer being free to express their ideas and the reader being able to verify what has been said, but this freedom from formality does not equate to a lack of academic integrity. No. The style may not conform with a peer-reviewed journal or the writing guidelines for a dissertation that is about to be submitted for examination but it can, if the blogger so wishes, remain a thoughtful and objective exercise in critical thinking.

My hope is that will be the case for this blog, as I continue to add to it.