Posts tagged ‘Good Teachers’

What makes a good teacher?

Recently, Australian Catholic University Vice-Chancellor, Prof Greg Craven, spoke at the National Press Club on the issue of teacher quality, arguing that the ATAR (tertiary admission rank) is a deficient indicator for selection of candidates into teacher training degrees.

His comments were made in response to the NSW Department of Education’s Great Teaching, Inspired Learning public discussion paper which cited that in NSW in 2012, ‘more than 20% of entrants to undergraduate initial teacher education courses had ATAR scores below 60 and education was the least popular course for students with ATAR scores of 90 or above’.  Prof Craven made the point that the ATAR lacked the sophistication to measure the ‘human qualities’ required for teaching.

A good teacher is a contributor.

Everybody’s got an opinion of good teachers. In most of the current literature, there are descriptions of the qualities and characteristics that make a good teacher.

When I think about what makes a good teacher, the following comes to mind.

A good teacher is:

Curious – they want to know more about their craft and know more about the students they work with. They are open to new ideas, new ways of thinking and they take responsibility for their own personal and professional growth and development.

A contributor – they give of themselves and their expertise and, in most cases, without any thought of what they receive in return.

By nature collaborative – they don’t work in isolation and are open to feedback from students and colleagues. They know that by sharing data, practice and experiences with others they will build their own capacity and the capacity of their colleagues.

Daring – they are willing to do things differently, to step outside their comfort zone. They are willing to ask the big questions without knowing the answers. They’re not afraid to fail because they know that’s often when learning occurs.

An expert – they understand that you’re not at the top of your game until you’ve got years and years of good theory and practice under your belt. Throughout their career, they hone their craft because they want to get better. In turn, they become the coaches and mentors for the next generation of teacher to build their profession.

These are a few of my thoughts; I’d be interested to hear some of yours. Let’s see if we can build up a more comprehensive picture of what makes a good teacher.

The human dimension of schooling

Last Thursday, our system hosted French Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès OP, the Vatican’s Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, who is responsible for Catholic educational institutions around the world. While speaking specifically to more than 1,000 leaders about the nature and purpose of Catholic education, I believe his analysis of the challenges schools face today, is not only relevant to Catholic schools but has universal application for all schools.

Archbishop Bruguès OP

Archbishop Bruguès OP

Archbishop Bruguès called on Catholic schools to adapt to pedagogical evolutions and even anticipate them, saying pedagogy ‘is by nature in constant evolution: one can no longer teach today in the same way as 40 or even 20 years ago’ and to aim ‘at excellence: excellence of knowledge, excellence of its pedagogy, excellence in transmission’.

The pursuit of innovation and excellence should be the aim of all schools as we work to reframe schooling to meet the needs of today’s learners. The digital world is dramatically reshaping the way we live and we need to respond creatively as educators if we are going to keep pace with our students and provide them with the knowledge and skills to navigate and contribute to the world.

This requires new skillsets for both learners and teachers and the Archbishop encouraged educators to engage both curiosity and reason in the way forward.

‘A Catholic school is essentially a school with a sense of curiosity, interested in all the various forms of knowledge and the multiple dimensions of human culture… one in which reason is given a privileged role in the quest for truth, the moral good and beauty…’ Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès OP, 2012.

The ability to incorporate human reason in navigating both digital and physical environments is essential to effectively prepare young people for the unknown challenges our world will face. We can harness the insatiable curiosity of our students, and aligned with innovative pedagogy, guide our students in the pursuit of knowledge about the world, about learning, and about ideas. This is achievable and should be a hallmark of all good schools.

Our own Bishop, Anthony Fisher OP, addressed our principals the following day and made the point that in a world marked by secularisation, consumerism, family dysfunction and values disorientation, many – even outside the church – recognise the challenge we have to transmit vision and values.

This is not a specifically Catholic challenge but applies to all schools in the modern world and lies right at the heart of learning and teaching. As educators, we need to approach our students with compassion and understanding of the diversity they bring into the classroom. When we know each of our students as individuals and tailor learning and teaching to meet their needs, we are valuing each student as a distinct person worthy of dignity, trust and respect.

Often the focus on schooling is around economic value, but as educators we need to shift our thinking to see the broader dimension of the human purpose of schooling. In modelling core values to students, educators – regardless of faith background – play a key role in forming the hearts and minds of the young people they teach and enabling them to thrive in an increasingly complex world.

Bishop Anthony expressed his desire that our young people be formed into young men and women of ‘principle, purpose and passion’. We need teachers with principle, purpose and passion, who in the doing and living out of these qualities will strengthen them in their students.

In today’s world learners need good teachers more than ever. Archbishop Bruguès nailed it when he said, ‘the time of teachers has a bright future’. Indeed it has.

Our biggest investment

I caught an interview on CNN with Bill Gates reflecting on what he would do to change the education system in America.  Gates said if he could change something about the system, he would ‘hire the best teachers’ and get them to learn from each other because the research on the influence of good teaching has ‘become our biggest investment’.

One of the biggest investments we can make is mentoring our beginning teachers.  It’s an investment that needs to be shared by universities and school systems alike.  It requires us to move away from ‘training teachers’ to taking them on a learning journey.

As soon as students enrol in education courses, they should be placed with teacher mentors and given every opportunity to practice the craft and to learn from experienced teachers. Malcolm Gladwell in his book the Outliers: The Story of Success found the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.  Teachers learn to do the work by doing the work.

You can’t blame the universities because it requires a complete overhaul of the model and I’m not sure whether we are all on the same page yet.  Linda Darling-Hammond writes in The Flat World and Education that in Singapore, teacher education programs were overhauled in 2001 to increase teachers’ pedagogical knowledge and skills, on top of their content preparation.  Darling-Hammond states that practicum training was expanded and located in a new ‘school partnership’ model that engaged schools more proactively in supporting trainees.

Darling-Hammond points out that all the successful teacher education programs she studied develop new teachers who can teach with assurance and skill of more experienced, thoughtful veterans. The programs that are effective do this by creating a tightly coherent set of learning experiences, grounded in a strong, research-based vision of good teaching, and represented both in coursework and clinical placements where candidates can see good teaching modelled and enacted.

The New York Times  reported on a new model of teacher education at the Relay Graduate School of Education which has no courses only 60 modules, each focused on a different teaching technique. According to the article, there is no campus, because it is old-think to believe a building makes a school. Instead, the graduate students will be mentored primarily at the schools where they teach. And there are no lectures and direct instruction does not take longer than 15 or 20 minutes at a time. After that, students discuss ideas with one another or reflect on their own.

This year, we began a partnership with the Catholic Schools Office Broken Bay diocese and Auckland University to start a mentoring program for beginning and experienced principals.  The program focuses on public coaching and feedback designed to embed and sustain their skill set. The first cohort consisted of five beginning principals and ten experienced principals who entered into an intensive professional learning program which includes participation in workshops, in school and shadow visits, practising in teams and homework.

The more mentors we have in schools, the smoother the transition for beginning teachers and the quicker they move from routine expertise to adapative expertise.

Teachers at the centre

Is student-centred learning a given when we are talking about schooling in today’s world?  Our system’s theory of action has the student at the centre but in recent times, I have begun to rethink whether the teacher should be at the centre.  Without good teachers and leaders at the centre, can you improve the learning outcomes of every student?

A few weeks back I caught a TED talk by Geoff Mulgan about a new model of school called the ‘Studio School’, which aims to reach disengaged teenagers who didn’t see any relationship between what they learnt at school and future jobs. The key features of ‘Studio Schools’ include smaller class size, curriculum centred on real life practical experiences, coaches in addition to teachers and timetables much more like a work environment in a business. The underlying principle of this model of schooling is based on the idea that a large portion of teenagers learn best by working in teams and by undertaking real-world activities. The result was that student performance improved significantly.

The Studio School is one example of the innovations taking place in education today, centred of course around the learner.  But good teaching is the other ingredient in this and I wonder whether we are over-compensating for the deficiencies of an industrial model by not focusing enough on the quality of teaching and the role of the teacher.

We have tangible examples where investment in learning at every stage of a teacher’s careers is having an impact on the quality of learning.  Linda Darling-Hammond states that in Singapore, teacher education is a serious investment throughout a career. Darling-Hammond writes in The Flat World and Education ‘to get the best teachers, students from the top one- third of each graduating high school class are recruited into a fully paid 4-year undergraduate teacher education program, and immediately put on the ministry’s payroll. When they enter teaching, they earn as much as or more than beginning engineers, accountants, lawyers and doctors who are in civil service…during the course of their preparation, there is a focus on learning to use problem-based and inquiry learning, on developing collaboration, and on addressing a range of learning styles in the classroom.’

Countries that have invested in improving teacher quality have seen the largest gains in student achievement according to a recent article by William J. Bushaw and Shane J. Lopez in the Phi Delta Kappan Journal. Their finding was based on the conclusion reached by educators who participated in the International Summit on the Teaching profession hosted by the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan and data from the latest PDK/Gallop poll which surveyed over 1,000 people about their views on public education.

Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley in The Fourth Way: The Inspirational Future for Educational Change also concur that high quality learning is dependent on highly qualified teachers and teaching. Finland controls teacher quality at the point of entry. They get high-quality teachers and know how to keep them by giving teachers’ professional status, support and considerable autonomy.

The New York Times featured Relay Graduate School of Education which has no campus, no lectures and graduate students mentored primarily at the schools they teach. The president of Relay, Norman Atkins, claims that vastly improving teacher education is critical in fixing the failure of America’s public education.

We know that good teachers always put their students at the centre and good teaching is what makes the difference.  Perhaps our theory of action requires a rethink or a tweek so that this relationship is clear.  This understanding puts to rest the proposition that you don’t need teachers in an online connected world.

Schools desperately need good teachers now more than ever. Invest in teachers and you’ll see dramatic improvements in student achievement.

No barriers to learning

Last night I attended the Brother John Taylor Memorial Prize, which recognises outstanding achievement in the NSW HSC by students who have some disability or have overcome major challenges in life. The Award is sponsored by the NSW Board of Studies.

It was a moving experience listening to the stories of the three recipients. It is hard to comprehend how they coped with disability and severe trauma. Their stories are ones of personal courage, relentless commitment to demonstrate their talents and a refusal to take the easy option at any stage.  Each has settled into tertiary study and one I am happy to say is in their first year of a teaching degree.

These students acknowledged the support and love of family, friends and the schools which they attended.  What struck me the most was that they each made special mention of, and expressed deep appreciation for their teachers.  They each believed that teachers made the difference and admitted they couldn’t have done what they did without their good teachers who challenged them, stretched them, supported them and were always there when they needed them.

I have written much about improving student achievement and providing a relevant and engaging learning experience for every student. Events like this reinforce  the centrality of good teachers in the learning process.  There are no barriers to learning when there are good teachers working in classrooms; we’re lucky to have them because they do make a difference!

Waiting for Superman

If the success of An Inconvenient Truth in raising our collective consciousness is anything to go by, then Waiting for Superman will challenge and hopefully change long-held assumptions about schooling.

Waiting for Superman is a documentary-film about the deteriorating state of America’s public education system.  It is an honest, confronting and challenging expose.  Essential viewing for system leaders, teachers, parents and politicians.

The documentary charts decades of failed policy agenda, escalating costs and continual decline in student achievemant and participation. It follows several students and chronicles their experiences – a human face to the raw statistics.

Despite this, there is a hope. The film makes the point that after all the failed attempts at improvement we now know what needs to be done and it’s not complex.

We need good teachers who are engaged in the practice of learning and teaching. And we need to be serious about under performance. Examples of the “rubber room” and the “lemon dance” (where at the end of each school year principals get together and agree on transferring the poor performing teachers to each other schools) makes me hang my head in shame that we allow this to continue to happen.

Waiting for Superman lays the blame at the feet of poor teachers, complacent and complicit unions, poor system leadership and myopic government policy. Responsibility lies with those who are accountable at every level in the school system.

The last minutes of the film will stick with me a long time. A professional in the field for over three decades laments the state of US schools and observes that he now knows why, “schools are for adults because the kids don’t matter”.

Watch the trailer below.

Personalised learning

How would students of last century have fared if their learning was personalised?  It is the question asked by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his article for The Atlantic.

Coates reflects on his own education in Baltimore in the 1980s and the fine line he and so many walked between drop-out and graduate.  As a journalist, able to personalise his work and see the connection to the world, Coates began wondering what schools were doing to make the connection.

The School of One program in the South Bronx is aiming to personalise maths by giving students the opportunity to work on various technologies based on their identified needs.  Lesson plans for each student are generated by School of One’s algorithm after a short test each day; teachers then get them via email.

While I applaud the program for its efforts to improve learning for its students, I believe it runs the risk of assuming that technology is personalised learning.

Using technology to improve test scores may get disadvantaged students through high-school and possibly into college but is there a deep understanding of maths or any subject for that matter?

Coates may not have used a laptop when he was at school but substitute this with a calculator and the experience could be the same.

For me, personalised learning depends wholly on the skill of teachers to know their learners, interpret data, respond to student questions and develop strategies where improvement is seen and learning understood.

Technology cannot assume the responsibilities of a good teacher.