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Expert panel: what makes a good teacher

Teach instead of tell, and know your students. There are ways you can become a better teacher. Shutterstock

Amid debates about teacher quality and training, and with the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group soon to report on teacher education, we asked a panel of experts just what makes a good teacher.

David Zyngier, Monash University

From my research on student engagement, a good teacher practises CORE pedagogy where the teaching Connects with the children’s background, students have Ownership of what is being taught, Responds to the students’ needs and Empowers students to see that education can make a difference to their lives. When this is combined with Pedagogical Reciprocity - that is teachers and students learning with and from each other - teaching and learning is at its best for all children, but especially those from disadvantaged and minority communities.

  • Good teachers have a thorough and up-to-date knowledge of their subjects and a deep understanding of how students learn particular subjects. Effective teaching demands that the teacher be knowledgeable in the subject area. The teachers must have a detailed understanding of what is being taught.

  • The best teachers work to improve their ability to teach. They read and explore the techniques used by others in a never-ending effort to better themselves and their skill.

  • They have an appreciation of how learning typically proceeds in a subject and of the kinds of misunderstandings learners commonly develop. Teachers know their students well: their individual interests, backgrounds, motivations and learning styles. Schools should insist on the mastery of foundational skills, such as reading and numeracy, and also work to encourage high levels of critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and teamwork.

  • They encourage students to accept responsibility for their own learning and teach them how to continue learning throughout life. Students’ abilities and needs are different. To effectively teach all students, the teacher must understand this. The teaching and interactions with students must reflect the needs of each, with the understanding of each as an individual.

John Loughran, Monash University

Teach instead of tell

The stereotype of teaching is of someone standing up in front of a class talking. Unfortunately, because of that image, teaching is too often misinterpreted as being about the simple delivery of information. So when politicians feel the urge to fix education, they typically focus on the information delivered to students.

A typical refrain is that our education rankings would be better if we fixed the curriculum and delivered the right information.

One way of teaching does not sit comfortably with theories of learning such as multiple intelligences and all that we know about the range of learning styles in every classroom. It is clear that educational practices must go beyond simplistic views of telling as teaching and listening as learning if we are to genuinely pursue quality in schooling.

So how can a teacher manage the competing demands of 25 or so different student learners in a classroom? When doctors work to diagnose a patient’s illness, they begin to develop an overview of the major symptoms, sort through information and ideas to analyse the situation and begin to consider multiple possibilities and likely responses to the situation simultaneously. Why would we imagine that teachers are any different? Maybe it is because, when watching teaching, we do not see the thinking that teachers are engaged in as they diagnose and respond to their learners’ needs.

If telling as teaching dominates, then there is only one response. Sadly, those learners who find it hard to grasp what they are told and to retain it will struggle to succeed. However, thoughtful, well-informed, flexible and adaptive professional teachers develop multiple approaches to supporting their students’ learning.

When teachers are confronted by students’ learning issues, they are offered opportunities to broaden their knowledge base for diagnosis. Importantly, they also begin to consider alternative ways to address the situation; that is, they find an appropriate approach for the given situation.

If quality teaching is understood as continually building knowledge, skills and ability in the complex work of diagnosing and appropriately responding to diverse learning needs, then expert teachers are those that are able to put that learning into practice in different subjects, with multiple learners, in the same space and at the same time.

Andrew Martin, University of New South Wales

Teacher-Student Relationships

My main area of research is student motivation and engagement. Motivation is students’ inclination, interest, energy and enthusiasm to learn and achieve. Engagement refers to the behaviours (such as persistence and effort) that emanate from this motivation.

Increasingly, our research is demonstrating the substantial role that teacher-student relationships play in facilitating students’ motivation and engagement. Put simply, the extent to which students are receptive to anything a teacher may say or do to motivate and engage them will rely heavily on the relationship the teacher has developed with the students.

In our research program we have found that good teacher-student relationships are significantly associated with students’ self-confidence, valuing of school, positive goals, learning focus, planning, educational aspirations, class participation and persistence. We have also found good teacher-student relationships are associated with lower anxiety, fear of failure, and disengagement.

Indeed, our research has suggested that the role of teacher-student relationships is independent of the role that parents and caregivers play in impacting students’ academic motivation and engagement. Teachers are not a seven-hour Band-Aid that is undone once a child gets home from school: the teacher’s influence is unique and ongoing.

Now here’s the catch: teachers can’t set aside 4-6 weeks at the start of every academic year getting to know every child in the classroom. The curriculum and associated accountabilities march on and teachers cannot afford to fall behind.

Thus, the challenge is for teachers to embed relationships into the everyday course of their pedagogy – from day one. This is no easy task.

The other challenge is that teacher-student relationships are multi-faceted. In fact, there are three key facets to teacher-student relationships:

  • The interpersonal relationship (the student connecting with WHO the teacher is as a person);

  • The substantive relationship (the student connecting with WHAT the teacher is saying and the tasks assigned by the teacher); and,

  • The pedagogical relationship (the student connecting with HOW the teacher communicates the subject matter and assigns the tasks to be accomplished).

We refer to this type of relational instruction as “connective instruction”. In fact, we liken a great lesson to a great musical composition: it takes a great singer (WHO), a great song (WHAT) and great singing (HOW).

When a student connects with the teacher and teaching on all three dimensions, there is truly a great teacher-student relationship happening in the learning context. That is when students are most likely to be motivated and engaged.

Robyn Ewing, University of Sydney

In my view “good” teaching is not about a set of techniques that can be applied like recipes. As world-renowned author and educator Parker Palmer says, “we teach who we are” – our own identity is central to our ability to connect with our students and to help them learn a particular concept, idea, discipline or subject. We have to be passionate learners ourselves and understand that teaching is an art that we can always develop and refine.

Good teachers need to be able to develop strong relationships with their students as individuals. This is a tall order in a class of 20 or 30 students, but it is only with an understanding of each child’s interests, needs, understandings, abilities and learning styles that teachers can best draw on their various teaching and learning strategies to ensure each learner is motivated and engaged in class.

Good teachers are mentors as well as co-learners with their students. They have to have the capacity to inspire students to learn and stretch their abilities.

At the same time good teachers are keen to learn from their students. Their own love for learning ensures they constantly reflect on their teaching. They make sure their own learning continues throughout their career.

Good teachers understand that a child’s social and emotional well-being is critical for them to learn. They also know that arts experiences and processes are central to who we are as human beings and can encourage creative learning. Good teachers embed arts-rich learning opportunities across the curriculum to enhance their learners’ opportunities to develop their imaginations and creative potential.

Research demonstrates that such learning experiences will enhance children’s academic, social and spiritual achievements.

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