10 Teaching Essentials


Originally posted on teacherhead.com

This post is a companion to 10 Teaching Pitfalls.

In writing this, I’ve been thinking about two sets of teachers. Firstly, I’ve been thinking about various very strong teachers I’ve known, including those who taught me, to consider what ‘essentials’ they might have in common.  (Something I’ve done many times before e.g. in this early post: What makes a great teacher?). Secondly, I’ve been thinking about how to support early career teachers to improve and to use their time wisely to support their professional learning.  The purpose of this list, as with any other, is to promote self-reflection: 10 essentials to work on – alongside avoiding the 10 pitfalls!

1. Model expertise

I was going to call this ‘Command Respect’ or ‘Project Authority’ or ‘Give Confidence’ – but I only mean those things in the sense that the teacher knows their subject, their material, their course. They give their students a sense of security that they’re in the hands of someone with the expertise needed to help them succeed.  Modelling this is part and parcel of every lesson: confident answers and conspicuous depth of knowledge of the subject that models the value that is placed on learning it.  Actual expertise matters more than simple enthusiasm.  There is no short-cut here: study the subject continually, know your stuff, get ahead.  Don’t wing it or teach off the cuff, guessing your way through.  Would you get an A Level A* in your subject? Or least 100% in the students’ tests!?

2. Prioritise  Curriculum

Linked closely to Model Expertise, it’s essential to know how your subject is deconstructed  into key concepts, skills and knowledge elements that allow learners to make progress – so-called pedagogical content knowledge.  Do you know how the course curriculum relates to the wider subject knowledge base? Is there an optimal sequence or at least one you could make a good case for?  You should have a sense of a sensible sequence and hierarchy of ideas and be able to see where content areas overlap.  You should have good knowledge of the assessment criteria in general and the specifics of any public exam.  Knowing the types of questions that students should be able to answer is essential in understanding and planning your subject curriculum – the enacted curriculum that students experience in your lessons.

I’d suggest that developing ever deeper knowledge of your subject curriculum (so that you can make it ever more accessible and/or challenging for your students) should take priority over most other CPD elements.  Read exam specs so you really know them – and  keep in touch with how other teachers deliver your subject curriculum; there are always alternatives.

3.Hold Attention 

At a basic level of behaviour management, this is an essential skill.  Can you keep everyone in your class locked in on you or whoever is speaking, listening and engaged, whenever you want them to?  Can you sustain that for as long as is needed? That’s the challenge.  It’s worth deliberately practising this until you’ve nailed it with any class. Give a signal for attention; pause…as long as is needed; make eye contact around the room and insist on full engagement.  Without this, most of the rest won’t be effective.  It always pays to reinforce the routines around attention so that you get it promptly from everyone.

4. Explain well

There’s an art to explaining – it’s about making complex ideas make sense to people who are only just getting to grips with them.  Knowing something isn’t the same as explaining it; it takes time, experience and practice, just like anything else.   This post explores the art of explaining in more detail.  You need to find different ways to explain the same thing – not simply repeat one method over and over.  How to explain ideas ought to be a regular feature of departmental CPD.  It’s often overlooked because people spend so long talking about what to teach, rather than how to teach it.

5. Question responsively 

Questioning has three components:

Knowing what questions to ask: This links to your curriculum thinking and planning.  Designing good questions is a skill you acquire with experience and research – initially it pays to explore sources of questions rather than make them up.

Planning how to organise questions in a  classroom context: The trick is to involve every student, solicit multiple responses and engineer a collective response that deepens everyone’s understanding – rather than skimming from person to person.

Knowing how to react:  Being responsive to students’ answers is crucial to maximise the learning from the process.  You need to tackle misconceptions and explore errors without making it seem a big deal to get things wrong; you need to probe and challenge for deeper and better answers; you need to involve other students in building on each other’s answers.

6. Feedback effectively 

Building on knowing how to react to student responses, more generally, giving good feedback is an essential teaching skill.  Your goal is to seek improved performance, correct errors and challenge misconceptions but also to affirm and deepen successful learning. Feedback needs to be positive and specific, and be very much geared towards an immediate practice opportunity.  Good AfL training often uses sport-coach examples e.g. to improve an athlete’s discuss throw, telling them to ‘throw further’ or ‘try harder’ isn’t any good.  You need should tell them what they’re doing right; identify a specific aspect of their technique to change and improve and then get them to practise.

7. Reinforce routines

In a good lesson, the routines are well-understood; they are followed and fall into the background without too much fuss, making the learning flow more easily.  This only happens because the teacher reinforces their expectations routinely and addresses issues when routines are not followed.  As with Bus Lanes, if you don’t enforce the rules, they get broken and learning is disrupted.   If you do enforce them, everyone’s a winner.

8. Manage time

Time in lessons, time across a unit of work and time across a whole year: it can all be managed well or managed badly.  You can think you’ve been teaching like a champion for six months and find you’ve only got two months left to cover half the syllabus.  Or you find you’re always rushing at the bell with your class in a shambles and the homework wasn’t explained properly.  It pays to map out the long term, set some time goals and milestones and always give yourself five minutes at the end of a lesson so they end well.

9. Drive standards 

I’m big fan of the concept of ‘drive’. It’s an essential teacher characteristic. It suggests conveying to students that there’s a degree of urgency, that the learning in hand really matters, that there are certain minimum standards you’ll insist on and that there are ambitious goals you want everyone to strive to reach.  Driving standards involves a fair amount of metaphorical whip-cracking but it also requires effusive celebratory recognition of progress, breakthroughs and major accomplishments.

10. Show kindness

I could have used Build Relationships – but increasingly I think that this is too nebulous; relationships are a product of other actions.  I’m suggesting that showing kindness is an essential element to teacher-student relationship-building.  You can be assertive, authoritative and inspire confidence in your expertise but still have difficulties – or cause them – if students don’t connect with your human qualities; if they fear you or resent you.  Kindness means allowing mistakes to be made, extending a degree of parental warmth and acknowledging emotions.  You can be quite formal and disciplined and still be kind.  Crucially, it’s essential to give kindness in order to receive it in return.