What makes a teacher outstanding?

Creating that buzz. Monkey Business Images/www.shutterstock.com

Parents eager for their children to get the best education possible often turn to lists and maps showing which local schools have been judged “outstanding” by school inspectors.

But there is a big problem in the way Ofsted, the schools inspectorate in England, decides which schools and teachers get an outstanding rating. In its guidelines for inspection, the role of emotion in this gold star standard of teaching is starkly absent. Trust, empathy, relationships, excitement and that element which is almost impossible to define, “buzz”, are crucial to outstanding teaching and learning. By failing to acknowledge these, we have ended up with an inspection system that fundamentally misses the point.

Initial findings from my own forthcoming research indicate just how difficult it is for both the students and staff who work in schools to pin down exactly what outstanding means. In interviews I conducted in England with over 50 teachers, students, governors, head teachers, principals, dinner ladies, support and school premises staff, unpicking a precise definition proved to be a problem.

But what they did tell me was that inspections are failing to recognise the crucial emotional aspects of what makes a teacher outstanding – aspects which do not feature at any point in Ofsted’s criteria.

They agreed that the emotional atmosphere in the classroom was just as important a part of being outstanding as what teachers did and what they know. Yet, while Ofsted focuses on “hard” aspects such as attainment, discipline and attendance, those people I interviewed also talked about outstanding in much softer, emotional terms.

Where is the love?

The lack of acknowledgement of the importance of relationships based on empathy is a major omission by Ofsted. Harvard scholar Hunter Gehlbach has highlighted on The Conversation that when teachers see similarities with their students – such as shared preferences, traits and values – both relationship and grades improve. I can certainly remember the lessons, and teachers, that had a buzz of activity, interactions, conversations and yes, learning.

Drilling down into what this mystical notion of buzz actually means is difficult. We can appreciate when “buzz” is present in a lesson, but the conditions for achieving this are not necessarily easy to copy or transfer from one class to another. Conditions which makes class 10A buzz could produce chaos in class 10B. This makes it almost impossible for inspectors to measure, so we need to think about a new way for inspectors to recognise those teachers that do bring emotion to the classroom.

The distance a student comes in their journey in learning is also an important part of what makes a teacher or lesson outstanding. But using their final test scores to measure this ignores the crucial soft elements that matter along the way. Ofsted requires an outstanding school to demonstrate “sustained progress which leads to outstanding achievement” – but the meaning of this is unclear. The students I have spoken to thought it meant high grades, but one teacher highlighted the example of helping a student with low self-esteem and confidence to achieve a pass. As far as inspectors are concerned, that would still be a low grade.

Ranking fever

The Conversation columnist Jacqueline Baxter writes that “educational accountability in England is an increasingly muddy system”. She goes on to suggest that the “whole system of accountability in education is worrying to say the least”.

Is Ofsted measuring the right things? Brian A Jackson/www.shutterstock.com

A central part of this worry is the rise of accountability through “performativity” in the public sector – the reliance on the use of “hard” data to rank performance. In a factory making cans of soft drinks, this ranks the amount of cans made per day. If a new machine is introduced which makes more cans in the same amount of time, then performativity is used to measure that increase in output.

In relation to cans of drink, these such of performative measures work. But the performance of schools is much less easy to measure. Examination grades at first appear to be the most obvious way to assess, and compare, how well school X and school Y are doing. Yet, the two schools might be in completely different areas, serving completely different people.

Education researcher Stephen Ball suggests that there is a “tyranny of numbers” in the education system. From examining Ofsted’s guidelines, and the government’s recurring narrative for schools to be outstanding, I believe that there is also a tyranny of words – with the word outstanding the most tyrannical.

To be fair to the schools inspectorate, there is a lot of common sense in their inspection framework, but the emotional nuances of what makes outstanding teaching are completely absent from the documentation. We must spare some sympathy for inspectors trying to identify the emotional conditions which lead to an outstanding grade: it will obviously be difficult to find metrics that measure fun, smiling and love.

Yet I believe it is time for Ofsted to reconsider how its inspections and ratings reflect the essential emotional elements which underpin what makes a school or a teacher outstanding.

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