How to develop great teachers

Research has shown that the secret to stellar grades and thriving students is teachers. We often seek to raise teaching standards by attracting high-flying graduates to join the profession but that hasn’t proven to be successful anywhere in the world.

Teaching is a mass profession: it cannot grab all the top graduates, year after year. When poor teachers are fired, new ones are needed—and they will have been trained in the very same system that failed to make fine teachers out of their predecessors.

By contrast, the idea of improving the average teacher could revolutionise the entire profession. Around the world, few teachers are prepared well enough before being let loose on children. Even in countries where teachers qualify following a long, specialised course, there is no measurable effect on how well their graduates’ pupils end up being taught

Can we make ordinary teachers great?, just as sports coaches help athletes of all abilities to improve their personal best

What teachers fail to learn in universities and teacher-training colleges they rarely pick up on the job. They become better teachers in their first few years as they get to grips with real pupils in real classrooms, but after that improvements tail off. This is largely because schools don’t provide the necessary professional development opportunities.

This is true even across the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, where two-fifths of teachers say they have never had a chance to learn by sitting in on another teacher’s lessons; nor have they been asked to give feedback on their peers.If this is to change, teachers need to learn how to impart knowledge and prepare young minds to receive and retain it. Good teachers set clear goals, enforce high standards of behaviour and manage their lesson time wisely. They use tried-and-tested instructional techniques to ensure that all the brains are working all of the time, for example asking questions in the classroom with “cold calling” rather than relying on the same eager pupils to put up their hands.

Instilling these techniques is easier said than done. With teaching as with other complex skills, the route to mastery is not abstruse theory but intense, guided practice grounded in subject-matter knowledge and pedagogical methods.

Intense apprenticeship model for training new teachers

Trainees should spend more time in the classroom. The places where pupils do best, for example Finland, Singapore and Shanghai, put novice teachers through a demanding apprenticeship. In America high-performing charter schools teach trainees in the classroom and bring them on with coaching and feedback. Teacher-training institutions need to be more rigorous and hands on. Medical schools could be an inspiration, where almost a century ago calibre of doctors was raised by introducing systematic curriculums and providing clinical experience. It is essential that teacher-training colleges start to provide more practical experience, collect and analyze data on how their graduates perform in the classroom.  They would then have to improve to survive and graduate.

Develop a shared vocabulary of teaching skills and competencies

A lot of research and frameworks already exists on teacher skills and standards. Several countries (like the UK here ) have also defined teacher standards and have methods to conduct evaluations and certify teachers.

However, school leaders need to define more precise expectations with clear rubrics and ensure that the standards (or vocabulary) are clearly understood. One example framework for this is Marshall’s teacher rubric, which denotes graded and observable skills and competencies.

Hone ability to observe and coach

One major factor in the success of the process is its orientation – Performance evaluation? Learning from a colleague? Both?

The best head teachers hold novices’ hands by giving them specific high-quality feedback, support, coaching and mentoring. It is critical to create a culture of  transparency, openness, mutual trust and practice-sharing. 

There are three different paradigms of observations and each has its own purpose:

  1. The observer as a coach
  2. The observer as a learner
  3. The observer as an assessor

Once the objective is clear the approach for observations change significantly. For instance as a coach

The lesson one observes is but the end-result of a process. Hence, effective coaching on and/or valid assessment of a lesson should start before the to-be-observed lesson actually occurs! This entails that the observer and the observee should actually meet to discuss the to-be-observed lesson at least a day or two before it is actually implemented.

and if it is an observation to evaluate performance:

Ensure that lesson observations are conducted by two subject-experts : Any evaluative process of a teacher’s performance, especially when it is related to their professional appraisal and/or a pay-rise, should control for subjective bias as much as possible. The reliability of the process can be enhanced by having two experts ; from an affective point of view, it would be better if the observee could pick one of the observers.

Several other important elements in making lesson observations more meaningful are listed in How to make the most out of lesson observations

This (long) youtube video is also quite informative on thinking about how to make best use of lesson observations

Specific and focused follow through

Any follow-up ought to focus only on one or two major areas of development at time, to ensure follow on effort can be channelled towards improvement via training & practice.The follow-up process may include:

  • Teacher-led research on the to-be addressed issue(s)
  • Some sort of coursework which encapsulates the finding of such research and envisages/documents the application of those findings in the teacher’s classroom practice;
  • Collaborative planning and/or teaching with an expert;
  • Subsequent observations focused on the target area of competence;
  • Learning discussions with peers

In case of subject specific knowledge or skills, separate evaluations and training maybe required by subject specific experts.

Pay for expertise

Money may less important than you might think. Teachers in top-of-the-class Finland, for example, earn about the OECD average (see chart). But ensuring that the best stay in the classroom will probably, in most places, mean paying more. People who thrive in front of pupils should not have to become managers to earn a pay rise.

Improving the quality of the average teacher would raise the profession’s prestige, setting up a virtuous cycle in which more talented graduates clamoured to join it. But the biggest gains will come from preparing new teachers better, and upgrading the ones already in classrooms. The lesson is clear; it now just needs to be taught.

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