“My name is Prince and I am funky”
The defining trait of Prince is that he is funky but what are the traits of the best teachers?
There is a body of research on the qualities of effective teachers (see here for example). However, this is not that kind of post. Instead, it is a subjective argument based upon the type of teacher that I would like to be and the type of teacher that I like to work with. Please feel free to differ in the comments.
The top five teacher traits are:
The best teachers are rarely late to lessons nor do they have to nip out to do some last minute photocopying. They have a clear idea of what they are going to teach, even if it does not fit exactly on to the school’s lesson plan proforma. These teacher tend to not miss deadlines for assessment data, reports etc. unless those deadlines are unrealistic. Being organised is a sign of respect for yourself as a professional, for your colleagues and for the children that you teach.
4. A genuine interest in the subject
I am fascinated by physics, maths and science more generally. I see myself as an ambassador for those subjects. This means that I do not have to organise daft poster work or card sorts or playing about aimlessly on computers. I have faith in my subject; in the fact that it is intrinsically interesting. So I don’t need to put a wig and lipstick on it.
A genuine interest in your subject is a difficult quality to fake. But it can and must be nurtured over time.
3. General Intelligence
All teachers need a sufficient level of general intelligence (IQ). General intelligence has two components; fluid and crystallised. Crystallised intelligence is knowledge of the world. It is critical for primary teachers, who are usually generalists, to understand the common misconceptions that children have and to not perpetuate these (I wonder how many primary school teachers understand the cause of the seasons). Yet all subjects interact and draw upon other subjects to an extent. It is not OK for a PE teacher to talk about forces and get it wrong. And it is wrong for English teachers to proudly exclaim that they were never any good at maths.
At the heart of good teaching lies effective explanations that often use analogies and draw upon examples. All of this needs good general knowledge.
Fluid intelligence – raw processing power – is needed to deal with the complexity of parallel tasks that teachers are required to perform. Over time, a lot of these routines become automatic yet explaining a tricky concept whilst simultaneously monitoring for understanding and listening to feedback is always a challenge.
2. Subject Knowledge
One of the reasons that I am so suspicious of discovery-based approaches to teaching is the moral hazard associated with them. If a teacher is not confident about his subject then that’s okay, the thinking goes, because we are all learners here together. Not only is this a recipe for confusion, frustration and misconception, it generates a lack of respect for the teacher. Children can tell when you don’t know your stuff and it’s not a good look.
This is critical for a number of reasons. Firstly, we are all taught nonsense when we train as teachers and part of the process of becoming more effective is to abandon this along the way. If you wrap your ego into your practice, however, this becomes difficult. Pride makes it hard to let go. You start to view criticism of a teaching method as criticism of you as a person. This makes people emotional and militates against a cool and objective evaluation of what does and does not work.
Humility also guards against the temptation to hold court rather than teach a lesson. Many teachers who are inadequate in their personal lives draw emotional support from a sea of adoring faces. If this comes from telling jokes, anecdotes, discussing the football and at the expense of learning maths or English then the students are bearing the cost of this emotional support.
Finally, humility helps you accept negative feedback rather than dismiss it. It allows you to evaluate test scores and wonder what you could do differently next time. It means that you can take a phone call from a disgruntled parent and be open to the possibility that they might have a point.
What’s not on the list?
Notably, I haven’t said that great teachers must ‘love children’. I’m not sure what that really means and I think it can lead us into error; particularly the error of using the kids for emotional support. However, a good teacher should certainly not dismiss students’ questions or concerns with a high hand and I think that’s related to my comments on humility. An arrogant teacher is inclined to wave students away whereas a humble one will try to understand the issue.
Fundamentally, I think we misconceive teaching when we define it in emotional terms. It is a quintessentially intellectual vocation. The best teachers demonstrate this fact, daily.
And a little bit of funkiness is fine, too.