As a society, we spend an inordinate amount of time, resources and money looking at how to improve the quality of education in our schools.
The questions we ask ourselves are always the same. How do we improve the quality of teaching and learning? (and its corollary, our examination results?) How do we make our children more motivated and competitive? And how do we get children to value and ‘own’ their education?
And yet, after all the talk of new methodologies and curricula; after new and different methods of teaching and models of assessment; after all the time and money spent on technology; after the personalisation of education and differentiated teaching; after learning styles and habits of mind; after mindfulness and Every Child Matters; after the debates about continuous and formative assessment; and after all the constant tinkering, bureaucratic and legislative, with their greater focus on data and compliance, we seem to be no closer to establishing what are the most important factors that make children succeed.
The only consistent factor we can identify is the role of the teacher, whose abilities and skillset, knowledge and enthusiasm are crucial in determining the success or otherwise, of the children they teach.
Teaching, after all, is about engagement, about getting children to listen and switch on. The best investment any government can make is to get the most effective, the most talented, the best teachers they can in front of the children.
By best, I don’t mean those who are the best qualified, but those teachers who know how to enthuse and connect with children regardless of their own levels of education. I mean those teachers who can properly engage with children and teach them by inspiring and challenging them.
Sometimes the pathway dictates that the process comes down to hard work rather than inspiration, but teaching is all about the relationship between teacher and pupil more than anything else.
Children will work harder for a teacher they respect, even if they demand more and insist on discipline and high standards. One can only speculate what would have been the impact if all the money spent on technology had gone instead into lowering the teacher-pupil ratio and improving the identification, selection and training of the most effective and passionate teachers. Where would we be now? In a somewhat better place, I would suggest.
I look back at outstanding teachers from my own teaching career and remember, in particular, one woman, whose ability with children was legendary. She was strict, uncompromising, but children wanted her approbation.
One particular year she took on a particularly difficult class of Year 4 children, two of whom had considerable physical and intellectual difficulties and could not even print their names and yet finished the year with impressive cursive writing – achieved through repetition, practice, discipline and unwavering high expectations.
She made such a difference to their young lives and all who were fortunate enough to have her as a teacher.
Good teachers don’t need the security of extra resources and technology that, evidence suggests, can detract rather than add to the learning process.
While they may use resources to embellish their lessons, they will not allow the resources to become the lesson. The best teachers are always wanting to do and find out more about their own craft, pushing out the boundaries of their learning and teaching, which is why many exceptional teaches re-work or even discard their teaching notes on a regular basis and look for new topics, and ways, to teach.
Teachers need to keep learning and growing – it is not a profession for the cynical or indifferent. The best can be identified by their enthusiasm and interest in pedagogy. They are not characterised by their own high academic performance, but by a thirst for passing on the benefits of education.
They may be unorthodox, idiosyncratic, employing a variety of approaches to get children to want to learn and to question what they are being taught. They are typified by their passion, their non-negotiable standards, breadth of interests, high expectations, understanding of how children learn, empathy, an insistence on greater self-discipline and by their relationship with their pupils.
Interestingly, children know who the best teachers are, even if they try and avoid them in favour of the more popular variety who may make their lives easy. They often criticise them to their parents for being too demanding and only realise later the opportunity they have squandered.
These are the teachers who entered the profession in order to make a difference. And they do.