Great Teachers are Made, Not Born

It’s very popular in schools today to talk about ‘lifelong learning’ and its desirability in our pupils. We are meant to take approaches in teaching and learning that help students to develop the skills, the desire and the willingness to take responsibility for their own learning. We want them to see learning as a “pull” process, not a “push” process. We don’t want children to passively wait for us to put knowledge in to them – to do school TO them. Instead, we want their curiosity, their willingness to take knowledge from wherever they think is appropriate, based upon the skill of discernment towards sources.

Who need to be the ‘lead lifelong learners’? The teachers. As education leaders we need to be very clear – this is unlikely to just simply happen by chance, certainly on the levels and frequency we need to influence children directly or indirectly. So, ways to get teachers on a long term journey of learning and to get it outwardly visible to children should be critical parts of our focus. Commitment to invest time in learning is almost always an additional commitment over and above the standard work that a teacher does (teaching time load etc.), not something you’re going to pay people extra for and not something you can really chastise a teacher for not doing. So, it’s critical that these teachers be;
a) engaged with their work,
b) motivated and positive in their outlook,
c) believing that investing effort in their own learning will be acknowledged and recognised by the school/ organisation,
d) seeing commitment to learning as one of the factors applied when considering who gets promoted/ leadership opportunities, and
e) inspired by a positive mission and vision for what the school seeks to achieve that makes them feel confident that commitment to more learning is a reasonable expectation.

The Economist published an interesting article last year entitled – How to Make a Good Teacher: What Matters in Schools is Teachers. Fortunately, Teaching Can be Taught
(Click on the link above to read the article)

It concerned me that the article failed to give due importance to these leadership related factors or the link between teachers learning and striving to improve and the need for children to develop as lifelong learners.

Other concerns were that the article so easily accepts a starting assumption that ‘grades and scores’ achieved by children are the measure of effective teaching. In such circumstances, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that many teachers become motivated to teach to the tests. If others are going to judge them on the basis of children’s test results, then they will do what it takes to have the children produce the highest possible test results.

There was one issue that the article gets right. This is an acknowledgement that within any school, overall good or poor, there will be pockets of excellence and pockets of mediocrity. Thus, for a parent or a pupil there is a degree of chance in whether they are the recipients of great teaching or not depending on which teacher teaches them, however good the school overall. I continue to feel that other industries and especially service industries would not consider this to be an acceptable compromise – that the experience of different customers can be so very different in standards depending on the individual they interact with. I believe that education has to continue to shift to acceptance that schools and leadership have the right to determine standard expectations – to define what are the ‘givens’ and to expect that teachers will commit to strive to achieve that level of standardisation as a minimum.

Next, the commitment to support the teacher’s learning and skills development to achieve those standard minimums should belong to both the school and the teacher. I get concerned at the frequency in schools and teacher culture where there is a perception that the only party paying (financially or in time) for teachers’ attendance at training or learning events, or conferences, should always be at the cost of the school.

The article touches upon the issue that is often discussed – how are the ‘best’ candidates attracted in to the profession of teaching? This is ironic as it really goes against the title and key directions of the article. If we believe that teaching can be learned and teachers are developed rather than born, then where the candidates come from should be less of an issue. This reminds me of a personal experience. When I was at Shri Ram, we took the management contract to manage a school in the Maldives under a public-private partnership with the Maldives government, known as Ghyasuddin International School. When i went to visit, i met many teachers already working in the school whose own education may have not gone much beyond higher secondary. They were very nervous and apprehensive that the new management would simply replace them with imported teachers from India. I set out to strongly get across to them that if they were willing to put in the effort, commitment and flexibility to learn what we wanted them to learn to teach to the standards that we were looking for, they had no reason to fear.

I recently met the Principal of that school and was very happy to learn that so many of those teachers are still in the school, having been transformed in their teaching and standards through a shared and common commitment to invest time and effort in learning.

My final thought on the article – I agree wholeheartedly with the writer’s belief that openness to feedback is a key part of what enables a teacher to grow, to learn and raise their game continuously. Of course, it goes without saying that you can never be too good – every teacher must believe that there is always something in their skills toolkit that they can make better.

Educator Learning Resources

I’m always really keen to share when I come across learning and development resources for educators – especially when they’re free.

Here’s the latest news and it’s very interesting;

Microsoft Adds MOOCS to its Offerings for Educators

When an organisation as significant as Microsoft piles in to an arena, you know it’s going to make a difference. This is an initiative that’s going to be very interesting to follow to see how it evolves.

Mindfulness – For or Against?

“What did people get before stress was invented?”

This was a joke I first heard some years ago, but always thought it certainly had a ring of truth about it. I find myself picturing a group of Neanderthal hunters who have spent a day and a half stalking a woolly mammoth. They begin to surround the animal. It’s jittery and restless as it senses danger. They have no body armour, little or no defence and only the most basic and rudimentary weapons. The hunters are starting to sweat, their heartbeats are raised. As they close in for the kill, suddenly the leader of the tribe calls all together, gets them to sit down in a circle and informs them to, “focus on your breathing, and be fully here, right now.” In the meantime, the woolly mammoth wanders away to safety.

In today’s equivalent ‘hunting’ environment, all employers would like their employees to be less stressed, to be able to focus well on their work, to not let conflicts derail their efforts and to work together in the most efficient ways as effective teams. In pursuit of these goals it’s inevitable that managers and leaders will search around for the next ‘silver bullet’. There is an all round sense that so much more could be achieved (so much more profit made), if we could just make the imperfect human beings somewhat less imperfect!

There is no doubt at all that when it comes to attempts by organisations to improve their people, the current flavour of the day is Mindfulness. You would be hard pushed to go through any magazine or leaderrship/ personal development shelf in a bookshop without seeing plenty of publications on the subject. It can sometimes seem like everyone’s talking about it. Now, you can call me an old cynic, but that alone is reason enough for me to feel the need for at least a bit of doubt and questioning. Is it all that it’s claimed to be? Is it really a panacea for workplace stress? Is it going to give us happier workers, more capable of tackling the pressures of their work to high standards? Some cynics would say, instead of advocating Mindfulness for employees to handle stress better, we should create less reasons for them to feel stressed in the first place (conflicting instructions, changes in deadlines, unfulfilled commitments and promises etc.)

At times when I read and hear about mindfulness I am reminded of the work of Mihalyi ‎Csikszentmihalyi on ‘Flow’, that I first read over 15 years ago. This is the idea that things become effortless when you’re working in the moment, engrossed in a task for which you have the requisite skills. It strikes me that flow and workplaces today are a challenge. Whilst an individual may reach flow states when working on a task alone, how many of us work alone for any length of time. Once you bring in all the ambiguities associated with interruptions, other people’s agendas and conflicting priorities it may become impossible to achieve any kind of flow state. Maybe this is really the root source of all that we call workplace stress. In which case, Mindfulness won’t make it go away, reduce it or solve the problems it contributes to inefficiency and under achievement. The best it can do is enable to stop and smell the flowers, maybe putting others’ actions, communication etc. in to a little better perspective.

I do buy some benefits, but not in some sort of cookey ‘flavour of the day’ kind of way. Maybe that’s just me. When the trendy set moved on from NLP, I’ve continued to explore it, to test and experiment with the many ideas encompassed within (that’s for another blog post on another day!). For example, I downloaded a mindfulness bell reminder to my mobile phone and tablet. It chimes at random times through the working day. When I hear it, it causes me to stop for a second, check what I am doing at the moment and ask myself the question whether I’m doing the right/ best thing at that time. If I’m not comfortable i shift to a new task. In that sense, i see it as a useful time management tool.

In the school group where I was in Delhi, a gong would sound over the tannoy system twice during the school day. It was a wonderful, soothing sound. The standard practice was that wherever you were, whatever you were doing, you stopped, focused on your breathing for a couple of seconds and then proceeded with your normal activities after it finished. We saw definite calming of the children, improvement of focus in lessons and less aggressive behaviour.

By my reckoning, those are benefits worth having.

So, I was interested to come across this article recently that shares some scientific discoveries about what is going on chemically when people practice mindfulness and conjectures about why those could be beneficial:

Harvard Business Review – Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain

There’s an interesting debate that goes on in most countries when it comes to workplace training and professional development. There are many who believe that whilst the organisation/ employer can legitimately ‘enforce’ training related to the technical skills of the job a person does, they draw the line when the training is about changing or influencing them as a person. The alternative argument is that work today is so entwined with the rest of our lives that it is necessary for us to strive to be the best we can be in all the roles in our lives – not just the workplace, because we cannot isolate one role or domain from the others. If we are unfulfilled and frustrated in aspects of our health, personal relationships or some other part of life we’re not going to be able to perform at our best in our workplace.

As I suggested earlier, not everyone is ready to jump on the Mindfulness bandwagon or to welcome it as a panacea for all workplace ills.

Here are two recent articles that focus on the doubts, on the potential negatives;

Huffington Post – Is Mindfulness Harmful?

Fast Company – The Downside to Mindfulness Practices at Work

Ultimately, the personal development ‘industry’ is there to make money. Telling the world that what you taught last year is still the best thing to be doing today doesn’t pay. So, we need to be discerning about ‘flavour of the month’ solutions. When we find things that work for us, individually or collectively to be “my best me”, I believe what’s more important is to build the practice in to our habits and keep it there for the longer term – not to pick it up, do it, benefit, but then drop the habit because something new and shiny comes across the radar. In that, I believe Mindfulness practices can be a useful part of our long term habits.

Teacher Professional Development

Again, grabbing a brief chance to share some interesting self development material for teachers. In this case, some material put together specifically as advice for new teachers. However, I believe there are valuable insights here for all experience levels.

There are links here to 8 videos covering a variety of important topics for a fresh new teacher.

New teacher Guides

After you’ve watched these 8 videos I recommend clicking on the link in the top right of the page to go to TeachingChannel.com’s homepage. There you’ll find listings to many more videos covering all sorts of topics. It reminds me of the old ‘Teachers TV’ in the UK that made superb short films for teacher professional development until it was shut down due to withdrawal of government funding.

How Shanghai Schools Got to Number One

Here’s an interesting article from Thomas Friedman in today’s New York Times recounting his experiences from visiting a high performing Shanghai School;

New York Times Article

Oh, how this article will disappoint many. How some educators around the world will beat their chests about how PISA isn’t the only measure of greatness in schools or an education system. Oh, how many will hate the fact that the conclusions are that they don’t suffer from the complacency and the ‘plague of mediocrity’ that blights so many education systems. Instead, there’s no ‘magic sauce’. Instead they take some fundamental things that we all know make a difference and they work harder at them, more determinedly and with a mindset that says – you can’t get too good at these things and there’s always scope for improvement.

Wow, hard work and a never ending pursuit of excellence in fundamental areas might come back in to fashion!!

What Motivates Top Teachers?

Washington Post Survey Results

Whilst we need to be careful about drawing too many conclusions in the Indian scenario from an American survey, there are some interesting results from a survey supported and arranged by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As I have long suspected, the most important motivator for retaining top teachers was supportive leadership. Now, it’s hard to know what ‘supportive’ means here, but I read it to mean leaders who are high on leadership, low on ‘management’. This leads to one of my biggest concerns here in India – that we have so few institutes or organisations that are providing high quality professional development opportunities for school leaders or potential leaders of the future.

The B & M gates Foundation is strongly committed to developingf pilot projects in the US related to development of performance cultures by bringing in performance linked remuneration. The trouble is – how are you going to define performance? If it’s only driven by student academic results on tests, then there are massive risks and downside.

Teachers will pretty much all argue for more money for remuneration. However, when it comes to issues of differentiation many become uncomfortable. I can see big concerns with any environment within which teachers see themselves as being ‘in competition’ to get a bigger slice of the pie. This would undermine teamwork and cooperation. The survey recognised that teachers also understand the importance of this placing some importance on the time, space and opportunity to collaborate.

There could even be merit in a ‘team teaching approach’ that links rewards for a group of teachers who work with a set of students according to a variety of parameters related to the achievements of those students – not just academic, but also discipline, co-curricular involvement and achievement, community involvement etc.

What Makes a Truly Great Teacher?

many people might say that if we can figure out a definitive answer to this question, then everything else in education will be just plain simple. However, the reality is that there are still widely divergent views out there.

The problem gets even more challenging when you seek to ‘measure’ teacher performance. This invariably leads to comparing teachers based on nothing but academic assessments of children. Most people are agreed that this is weak as it fails to reflect the far bigger realm of a teacher’s role. Also, it raises issues about testing children simply to check on teacher quality, and also whether the nature of the assessments deployed are really effective as measures of either children’s learning or teachers’ teaching.

There are those who subscribe to the ‘you’ve either got it or you haven’t’ school of thought, suggesting the requisite skills are innate and it’s more nature than nurture. At the nurture end of the scale are those who believe that anyone can become a great teacher.

Personally, i believe it’s not actually a continuum, but rather certain innate tendencies or character traits acquired throughout life make it easier or harder for people to become great teachers. I don’t believe that being a great teacher can ever be ‘effortless’. There has to always be a questioning, conscious element – ways in which the individual reflects on their own practice continually and then calibrates and tweaks their practice to meet the needs of each individual child they are working with.

When you see teaching in this way, there is no ‘end of the road’. there is no point at which you can ever say – “I’ve got it all. There’s nothing else for me to learn.” The life of a true educator is that of a lifelong learner and seeker of incremental growth.

Here is a fascinating article on the subject of different perspectives on the aspects of a teacher that can make the biggest differences in their performance. It’s a little long, but really very thought provoking and well-worth the read.

It’s followed by a BBC article which reports on a scheme that suggests that if you can address the ‘soft skills’ aspects of teacher sensitivity, empathy etc. then you will have better teachers.

I would love to hear the views of teachers, parents and students. I would only request that if you decide to give examples, please don’t use names (to avoid embarrassment);

Building better teachers

BBC Article

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