What makes a good teacher?

I have just read a report from The Chronicle of Higher Education called “What Finland Can Teach The Stanford School of Education”.

I felt impelled to write my reply to this article which presents teacher education in Finland as exemplary and the situation in the U.S. (and by implication other countries such as my own, the U.K.) as lagging far behind, taking poor students who are given little quality support and teaching and who make slow progress (academically).

The basis of this argument, it seems to me, is that teachers are produced through some form of training. That if we adopt the Finnish model of teacher training we will rectify the (supposed) disaster of current education practice where there are a large number of not particularly academically gifted people teaching our children poorly and thus getting poor results.

I have been a teacher for over thirty years and am now a consultant.I have seen hundreds of teachers throughout  my career and know that the art of teaching, getting through to children, inspiring them, is something that does not follow from academic prowess of the teacher.

I have developed into (I’m told) a very good teacher of mathematics at primary level. I did not do any formal mathematics after the age of sixteen where I took my G.C.E. (as it was called then) and then left the subject, which I considered boring and not linked to anything in my life. I only returned to the subject after I qualified as a teacher  following an  average degree in Politics.

My teacher training was a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (P.G.C.E.) from the then Brighton Polytechnic. I enjoyed my year of trying to pretend to be a teacher and emerged as a qualified practitioner.

It was really the first few years of my career that I learnt how to teach. I got a lot of things wrong, the kids had a field day with a “rookie” teacher. I shouted much more than I ever should have. I considered on more than one occasion leaving the profession and doing something else. But along the way I got support from colleagues who said to me “don’t let them get to you, believe in yourself, stick to it and you’ll discover the teacher that you can be.”

I did stick to it and slowly the teacher emerged. I found that many things that I developed were not taught in a college or university. I learnt to”read” a class, to understand their moods on different days and also to understand my own and how this reflected in my teaching.

I was told, after a few years, that I had to specialise in a “core” subject. I decided on mathematics because, in teaching it, I had begun to understand so many things that had never been explained to me as a pupil. Slowly,the beauty of the subject, the excitement of how,as human beings, we have developed something as abstract and yet so powerful,as mathematics, got to me. In the process I found that I began to communicate my excitement to the children and was often surprised by their ability to understand a problem and come up with a really interesting solution.

The conclusion of this autobiographical meander into my past is to say that I do not hold with the theory that teachers are made in some great Ivy League institution like Stanford and that these highly qualified people will reinvigorate the profession and make us all more like Finland. I believe, as some very learned educationists like Professor Yong Zhao does, that there are many many innovative and brilliant teachers in the classrooms of the U.S.A., Canada, Britain, Australia etc., who have a innate capacity to inspire their students and understand what is needed in the changed world of the 21st century. Many of these teachers do not have first class qualifications but have the key within them to inspire, motivate and mentor. I believe that these skills are developed through practice and cannot be taught.

So does it matter that Stanford University is not producing the huge numbers of highly qualified teachers who will change everything for the better? In my opinion no. A small institution down the road may have sent out an academically average performing student to take her first steps into the world of teaching who may well prove to be a genius at it and inspire so many throughout her career.

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