The habits of a great teacher

This article was written for SecEd magazine’s NQT special edition and was first published in June 2015. You can read the original here and read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here.  You can download the free NQT pull-out in PDF format here.


Your NQT year is a bit like learning to drive: throughout your training you have a constant critic at your side offering advice (or possibly a staffroom full of them), and you are encouraged to endlessly reflect, adjust and – by so doing – secure incremental improvements. You might literally be in the driving seat, but sometimes it can feel like you are just along for the ride, following someone else’s roadmap.

But now that you are at the end of it, now that you have passed your test so to speak, you are finally free to do it your way. You are a qualified, fully-fledged teacher with all the professional autonomy that goes with it. But be cautious…

Often, when people pass their driving tests, they begin undoing all their hard work, unlearning all the skills they acquired under the tutelage of their instructor. They stop holding the wheel at ten-to-two, stop changing down through the gears, and stop mirror-signal-manoeuvring.

Be careful not to let your NQT year fall into the same trap: don’t undo all the hard work you did as an NQT and do not ever stop reflecting and improving. Now is not the time to start acquiring bad habits, cutting corners, and letting standards slide. Now is the time to add light and water to your blossoming career; now is the time to grow into the expert teacher you know you are capable of being by consolidating and building upon what you have already learnt.

Expert teachers

So what are you striving towards? What exactly does it mean to be an expert teacher? David Berliner researched the nature of expertise in teaching and devised eight characteristics. Below, I share a selection of these characteristics and add some practical tips of my own to help you develop them.

First, expert teachers develop automaticity for the regular routines and actions they perform in the classroom. In other words, whereas new teachers might take several hours to plan a lesson, an expert teacher could plan the lesson more effectively in just a matter of minutes.

Berliner says expert teachers can be as much as 50 times faster at planning lessons than an NQT. There is no shortcut to this, automaticity comes with time and experience – but the more you practise, the better you will become. So practise your regular classroom routines over and over until you perfect them and can perform them without much active thought.

Then concentrate your energies on the actions that will have the biggest impact on student learning. For example, the less time you spend on planning lessons, the more time you can spend on marking and giving feedback, or on developing quality classroom resources that you can use time and again.

Second, when solving problems, expert teachers are more sensitive to the demands of the task and to the social context. In other words, when asked to plan a lesson, expert teachers tend to want to know more information about the classroom in which they will be teaching and about the starting points and backgrounds of the students they will be teaching than do NQTs.

So get to know the context in which you will be teaching – do your research at the start of the new term, time spent on this will pay dividends throughout the year: know your students’ starting points and backgrounds and use that information to inform your planning and teaching. Again, the more you develop automaticity, the more time you will have to look deeper at all the contextual factors (such as your students’ home lives, interests, and preferred ways of learning) that might inform your teaching.

Third, expert teachers are more flexible in their approach than NQTs. Experts are more likely than new teachers to find solutions that are tailored to the particular circumstances rather than use a “one-size-fits-all” approach. They are also more likely to adapt their style and tone as a lesson progresses, whereas new teachers tend to project the same emotions throughout a lesson.

Experience will breed greater comfort in the sense that, with practice, you will grow comfortable in your own skin as a teacher and become more willing to be yourself in the classroom, making emotional connections with your students without fear of compromising your authority. You will become less of an automaton and more human, adapting your style to suit the context.

Finally, although new and experienced teachers do not differ in the amount of knowledge they have, they do differ in the way they organise that knowledge. As such, as you grow with experience, you will learn how students respond to the subject content you teach them – what they tend to find easy and difficult, what they tend to need help with, and what they can do independently. This will inform the way you teach that content in the future. You will get better at pre-empting student responses and so will plan for them.

Expert teaching

If that is what it means to be an expert teacher, what does expert teaching look like? Well, it will probably come as no surprise to learn that there is no silver bullet, no secret formula to teaching expert lessons – what works is what’s best. The best thing to do, therefore, is to get to know your students by regularly assessing them and then to plan for progress by teaching lessons that provide opportunities for all your students to fill gaps in their knowledge.

The best lessons do not exist in isolation, they are all about context, so it is better to think of a lesson as one learning episode in a long series. It does not necessarily need a neat beginning and end or to be in four parts, and it does not need to prescribe to a particular style of teaching. For example, every lesson does not need to include opportunities for group work or independent study. A lesson can be meaningfully spent with students reading or writing in silence so long as, in the wider context of the series, there is a variety of learning activities.

The best lessons are those in which students feel welcomed, valued, enthusiastic, engaged, eager to experiment and rewarded for hard work. The way to achieve this is to prize effort over attainment and focus on progress (learning) not outcomes.

In the best lessons, work is challenging but achievable. If the work is too easy, students will switch off; if the work is too hard, students will switch off. Work must be pitched in the “zone of proximal development” – hard but do-able with support. If something’s too easy, we rely on our memory instead of thinking (e.g. 1+1); if it is too hard, we run out of processing power (e.g. 56 x 49,237) and stop thinking.

The best lessons present students with desirable difficulties – artificial barriers that make information harder to encode (learn initially) but easier to retrieve later – which lead to deeper learning. We achieve desirable difficulties by: spacing learning apart with increasingly long gaps; interleaving topics rather than finishing one topic then moving onto another; testing frequently – using low-stakes quizzes at the start of topics/lessons to identify prior learning as well as knowledge gaps, and to “interrupt forgetting”; and making learning materials less clearly organised so that students have to think hard about the materials (e.g. using a difficult-to-read font).

The best lessons also encourage students to make connections between new and existing information – applying prior knowledge to new knowledge – in order to improve the speed and ease with which they retrieve information from their long-term memories and transfer it into their working memories (where they can use it). Prior knowledge helps us to “chunk” information together, saving precious space in our limited working memory, allowing us to process more information.

When planning great lessons, we should focus on what students will be made to think about rather than on what they will do. We might, for example, organise a lesson around a big question. We then need to repeat learning several times – at least three times according to Graham Nuthall – if it is to penetrate students’ long-term memories.

The best lessons make good use of low-stakes testing (or retrieval practice) such as multiple-choice quizzes because tests like these interrupt forgetting and reveal what has actually been learnt as well as what gaps exist.

The best lessons involve lots of classroom discussions – best achieved through artful questioning – because talking makes students think. Questions should only be used if they cause thinking and/or provide information for the teacher about what to do next. The most common model of teacher talk is IRE – initiation, response, evaluation. But it doesn’t work very well. A better model is ABC – agree/disagree with, build upon, and challenge – whereby students pass questions around the classroom. The Japanese call this “neriage” which means “to polish” – students polish each other’s answers, refining them, challenging each other’s thinking.

In the best lessons, there is a learning culture in which students produce high-quality work. You can also create an ethic of excellence like this by developing a sense of whole-class pride in the quality of learning and by ensuring that, once finished, assignments are made public – providing the work with a genuine audience.

In the best lessons, assessments – such as gallery critique – are used as the primary context for sharing knowledge and skills. To do this, you need to teach students how to give constructive feedback that is kind, helpful and specific, and you need to provide students with exemplars that show them what a great essay or experiment looks like.

Finally, the best lessons happen when you instil in students the belief that quality means rethinking, reworking, and polishing so that they feel celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board.

The best job in the world

Congratulations on passing your NQT year and welcome to the profession. Teaching is an honour and a joy. There can be few jobs more crucial to society and few careers that offer such rich rewards. You have the privilege of shaping young minds and watching your students grow into intelligent, responsible citizens.

Teaching is tough, of course, but it is tough because it matters; it is tough because you are doing something important, you are improving the world around you one person at a time.

A friend of mine is a nurse and when she is asked what she does for a living she replies (albeit tongue in cheek) “I save lives”. Take her lead: now that you have qualified, the next time you are asked what you do for a living, say “I change lives”. It’s hyperbole, yes, it’s gilding the lily, of course – but it is also fundamentally true.

Because you do. You do have the best job in the world and you do change lives. Each and every day. You do a job which many other people could and would not do. So enjoy it, you deserve it and you have earned it.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley





One response to “The habits of a great teacher

  1. Pingback: What does The Science of Learning report teach us? | M J Bromley's Blog·

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