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12 steps to a ‘Great Teacher’ reputation
By Tom Sherrington, author of The Learning Rainforest
Originally posted on teacherhead.com
I’m celebrating writing my 100th post, by trying to link together various posts relating to teaching. I suggest in my post ‘How do I know how good my teachers are?’ that there are three key sources that contribute to my judgement of the effectiveness of my teaching staff:
- Data – the measured outcomes from assessments and examinations
- Observation – those artificial snapshots of teaching that are over-loaded with significance in the OfSTED process.
- Knowledge – the drip-feed of micro-feedback gleaned organically from multiple sources: Essentially this is what I mean by Reputation.
So, whilst ideally we shouldn’t worry too much what other people think of us, in the context of being judged as a professional teacher, having a strongly positive reputation is a great asset. It may be the most accurate indicator of the impact we’re having on our students and, actually, our reputational standing is the area over which we have greatest control day-to-day. This is my guide to success in building a reputation as a ‘great teacher’ that will help you ride-out the fickle storms of formal teacher-evaluation processes.
12 steps to a ‘Great Teacher’ reputation.
PART ONE: In the classroom.
1. Teach great lessons consistently
This is obvious isn’t it?! In fact, you could argue that this is all you need – forget all the rest below. In writing the ‘Great Lessons‘ series I tried to capture the essence of the routine habits teachers need to develop to teach great lessons day after day:
1. Probing | 2. Rigour | 3.Challenge | 4. Differentiation | 5. Journeys |6. Explaining | 7. Agility | 8. Awe | 9. Possibilities | 10. Joy
They’re all important and blending these ideas together is the core business of being a great teacher; sustaining them over time is the key to building a great reputation. In truth, much as many teachers reject the falsehood of a snap-shot OfSTED-style lesson observation, it does allow people to turn on the style only when needed. However, there is no escape from the ever-present judgemental eye of your students or their capacity to talk about their lessons with you. The feedback from lessons that permeates into the fabric of school discourse is crucial in the reputation stakes. It demands variety (see Balanced Diet of Learning and Teaching) and consistency overall but because students are tolerant, it allows you to have off-days, to engage in a fair bit of slog and some wacky wild moments.
So, let me stress this: reputations are founded on delivering great lessons as often as you possibly can. Please read or re-read the series… or download the pdf version here. Great Lessons Series pdf
2. Build positive relationships
A pre-cursor to teaching great lessons is to have established strongly positive relationships with your classes. My post outlining a Bill Rogers Top 10 Behaviour Management strategies gives ideas for doing this and To maximise learning, get your students RAMPed focuses on the starts of lessons. Highly effective teachers are ones you ‘don’t mess with’ but you don’t want to be ‘soft’ or ‘strict’; the latter is never a positive descriptor in students’ eyes – it just means you shout too much or treat people unfairly. Sarcastic put-downs or a general softness in tackling low-level disruption are unhelpful. Great teachers enjoy warm, friendly relationships with students, take maximum ownership of behaviour issues, follow through on sanctions and use whole-school systems properly without dumping on other people. Almost always, there is a ‘controlled severity’ mode waiting in the wings that gets given centre stage every so often; every teacher needs that from time to time. Students respect it; in fact they expect it.
A potentially great teacher who is sarcastic, insists on having the last word, is inflexible or intolerant, can’t meet students half way to build bridges or uses their authority inappropriately – does great damage to their reputation as a great teacher. They’re not a great teacher.
3. Give effective feedback
Even if lessons are great, students and parents also want to know how well things are going over time. This is where the marking and other forms of feedback come in. In truth, a lot of parents have unrealistic unreasoned expectations about seeing books that are marked. Parents often like the sight of the red pen; it builds confidence that someone is taking an interest in their child’s work. In my experience, students are much less bothered; they just want feedback any way it comes. Strategies that involve all the students – like Think Pair Shareand using mini-whiteboards – are part of the feedback armoury. In general, making the spirit of AfL come alive can take many forms; it’s the basis of many great lessons.
I know teachers who have phenomenal reputations as great markers – and others with the opposite – independent of how good they are in the classroom. This is where we need to get a balance and make sure we’re explaining to parents and students how our feedback systems work. As I argue in Marking in Perspective: Selective, Formative, Effective, Reflective not all marking has impact and we need to take steps to minimise presentational marking that doesn’t make a difference to learning. My run-away top-hit post Making Feedback Count: Closing the Gap describes a range of excellent strategies and one very simple idea for doing this.
4. Know your subject and use that to good effect.
Strong subject knowledge pays dividends in many different ways. It helps to plan the curriculum, to devise good questions, to be responsive in lessons and to bring in the depth and detail needed to secure the highest grades. This is obviously not sufficient to be regarded as a great teacher but it often helps to get you started. Certainly the opposite – having weak subject knowledge – does you no good at all. In posts on Rigour, Challenge and Explaining, subject knowledge is a central component. Do you know for certain what the A level or GCSE A* requirements are? Can you provide model answers at every level? Can you go beyond the syllabus and also make the complex seem simple? This is the path to a great reputation. So – keep up to date and keep learning your own subject… it’s going to pay off handsomely.
5. Lay a path to successful outcomes for your students
Excellent examination outcomes don’t happen by accident. Even though we might agree that they don’t tell the whole story, exam success is major element in building a strong reputation. However, the link is stronger if students testify to a teacher’s role in the process. Do you build confidence, giving students self-belief whilst setting them challenging targets? Do you provide them with all the resources they need to succeed? I know teachers who write blogs or put superb revision guides or exemplar essays together; they use lesson time effectively to rehearse, to model success, to ensure that the exams are demystified. It is so important to know your students’ exam structure, the content, the assessment objectives, the standards for each grade and so on – so that you can convey that to students in way that gives them the best chance of success. In my experience, the best teachers usually feel there is more that could be done to support students in passing exams…; weaker teachers are more likely to suggest they did all they could. (Admittedly a generalisation… but food for thought.)
6. Embrace a total G&T Philosophy
This is a theme dear to my heart as a learner and a parent. It’s something I explored in this post: Gifted and Talented Provision: A Total Philosophy I’ve known several teachers who would be well-regarded in every respect except in their capacity to meet the needs of the most able. This might link to subject knowledge but really it is a question of mind-set. A powerful source of reputational enhancement is feedback from the brightest students and their parents. If you have them on your side, you’re winning. If you don’t…you’re going to struggle. I still hold the view that, nationally, far too many students are systematically under-challenged every single day….but they don’t have to be in your lessons! Teach to the top and the rest will follow in the wake of high challenge; put a lid on expectations at your peril – and theirs!
7. Express yourself
All the great teachers I can think of are idiosyncratic in some way. There is no mould or formula just as there is no one way to teach. Teachers have great scope for self-expression; for doing things their own way; for being entirely autonomous. Coupled with all the ‘great lessons’ ideas and positive student relationships, a strong reputation can arise from a great teacher’s character; their funny stories; their unique questioning style; their love of setting things on fire; the camaraderie they engender with their students; their passion for poetry and reading aloud; their encyclopaedic knowledge of WWII battles; their witty critiques; their superb collection of YouTube clips; their love of cake; their tendency to go way off at a tangent ….. or whatever. Be yourself…express yourself…. use your autonomy to explore your passions and don’t be inhibited. This is all part of what I call ‘Rainforest Thinking’..let’s get off the plantation!
PART TWO: Beyond the classroom
8. Give time generously to students who need you.
Outside the normal flow of lessons, there are always going to be students that need extra help. On the reputational scale, a teacher’s willingness to give their time generously is often a major factor. I know teachers who have supremely high standing in this regard and others who really don’t. Obviously it is a choice you make.. but it doesn’t actually take much. Students and parents are often hugely grateful for just a bit of extra support.. and that can make all the difference to them, pushing them along at the right time. All the letters and emails I receive from parents who want to praise or thank a teacher focus on this aspect… the support given freely, beyond the call of duty.
9. Engage with parents
Teachers who take the time to reach out to parents or to respond promptly always gain from it – and the reverse it also true. There is often too much unhealthy teacher-talk about ‘pushy parents’ or ‘nightmare parents’. Actually, almost all parents want their children to succeed at school; they have their own view of what their role is and how much they can help; they have their own expectations and perceptions of their child’s abilities and aspirations. We simply have to work with that. Some parents may be excessively demanding in your eyes but, actually, we’d be a lot better off if all our parents were pushy …even if that sounds like a lot of stress and pressure. Making a few strategic calls to give praise or share concerns is immensely powerful. Breaking bad news at parents’ evening can be disastrous.. especially if the issues have been brewing for months. If a parent says the homework is too easy, isn’t ever marked or that lessons are being disrupted (so they hear…) then don’t be defensive; it is far more effective to acknowledge their concerns and commit to resolving them whilst also giving your perspective. A teacher who listens is one who commands respect and support; it’s a win-win. Homework is a superb vehicle for communicating expectations and values to parents, as I describe in this post: Homework matters: Great teachers set great homework.Being a teacher who religiously sets homework in a variety of engaging forms, providing practice, challenge and opportunities for exploration, is always going to gain. A low volume of homework-setting is always undermining.
10. Get involved in the school community
Time and time again I’ve seen teachers grow in confidence and stature through their engagement with students and colleagues outside the confines of the classroom. It can be a release from the normal routine and a great source of joy to take part in extra-curricular activities – but with the bonus by-product that students learn to perceive you as a more rounded person. This always enhances a teacher’s reputation amongst students and helps build relationships for learning that might otherwise have taken much longer. On top of that, these experiences can help develop a wider set of skills – planning, organisation, leadership, managing people – that can be an asset when looking to take on further responsibilities. Ever since I started teaching, my extra-curricular work has been immensely rewarding; the motivational aspect of that feeds back into the teaching. You do need to get a balance of course; I’ve known teachers whose non-teaching activities have begun to impinge on their core role…but in general, a teacher who plays a wider role in the life of the school always benefits.
11. Maintain high professional standards
This will seem blindingly obvious I’m sure but it is worth stating because, too often, people fall down in this area without realising the impact it has. Teaching and learning are clearly the priority – without question. But there are some aspects of general professional life that can enhance or reduce someone’s reputational standing. I’d include things like being on time for meetings, meeting deadlines, matching the dress code (top buttons done up if that is the expectation of students), sticking to email protocols, being disciplined with comments on social media at all times…. and so on. It also extends to using appropriate language with students, alcohol and smoking, making spelling errors in formal letters, handling disagreements, maintaining confidentiality, modelling full commitment to equality policies….. a long list. For me, these things are completely compatible with being an idiosyncratic, creative, maverick classroom practitioner or a more straight-forward conformist. Homophobic comments in the staffroom, a public argument or an overly revealing late-night tweet can be very harmful. We’re basically under scrutiny ’24/7′ whether we like it or not.
12. Show initiative; offer solutions; be collaborative; be your own CPD champion
The people who command the greatest respect and admiration, to my mind, are those who contribute to leading the school forward at every level. It is so great when a teacher comes forward to present an idea – something they’d like to try or that they’ve already explored but want to take further. At departmental level, the collaborators and sharers are vital to taking teaching and learning forward. You can’t really be a full-on ‘great teacher’ if you fly solo; you’re in a team. There are all kinds of pedagogical, operational and strategic challenges in school life…it is always easy to pick out the faults in the status quo. It is far harder to suggest solutions and harder still to commit to implementing them. So, whether it is the marking policy, the curriculum structure, the lunchtime supervision rota or the behaviour of boys in 8F, teachers who have ideas or who at least can express concerns in a constructive manner always gain reputational credit.
With CPD, the same issues are relevant. It is unlikely that anyone is going to send you on a course..if you’re just waiting in hope. However, if you see a course you want to go on and make a request or you have an idea for a project you want to work on with some colleagues…then doors begin to open. Clearly the school systems and middle and senior leaders have a role to play; but their role is not as important as yours. With any number of school based projects and initiatives, my feeling is – get on with it and then report back. If you wait too long for permission, it may never happen.
As I described in this post on Leading 21st Century Learning there are so many ideas out there to engage with; it is an exciting time. A great teacher will be getting stuck in, reading the books and the blogs and trying hard to refine their thinking and improve their practice all the time. Despite the challenges we face with all the noise from OfSTED and the DFE, there is hope for a better system, especially because we have the power to do so much of what really matters ourselves. In the same spirit, each teacher has a great deal of control over the reputation they great generate; OfSTED will come and go; exam results will go up and down… but your reputation as a great teacher can grow and grow. It’s really up to you.