A good quality teacher is…..

A little naked geekiness- I’m looking forward to the end of summer so I can start the next cycle of my course on Societal Challenges. You know how you miss a good book when the story ends? I miss this course almost the day it ends because the students shape it so differently each year and I only teach it in the autumn term.

On this course I go through a range of issues and end with the one closest to my own niche- education. This year that coincided with the PISA results, so we talked a lot about quality and quality control in education. I don’t really want to poke around the undercarriage of the PISA juggernaut here but I would like to start the new year thinking about quality.

What is a good quality teacher?

…and while we’re at it:

Why do we fall in love?

and how do we remember careful details from our childhood yet forget the name of someone we met last week?

I’ve been doing some work on teacher identity and having just transcribed and coded a whole lot of conversations with students I’d like to proclaim the (glaringly obvious) fact that students are also very concerned with teacher identity when they describe quality teaching. It is in fact pretty high on their scale of what makes a good teacher- that the teacher is firmly grounded in who they are and what they’re good at.

I also recently borrowed some thinking from the medical field to analyse a study. It’s called Signal and Noise (let’s be cool and give it an acronym: S&N). Signal is the stuff that works in the right direction, the important things in a study, the particularly valuable bits. The Noise is what distracts from it, the stuff that’s anti-methodology…the noise 🙂 S&N is used to analyse several qualitative research studies at once by weighting them internally- this involves software, algorithms and the attendant legalese.

But the philosophy behind it is worthwhile to a non-research audience, which is why I’m blogging about it. You see, S&N is another way to critically appraise a research study, an alternative or a supplement to what is known as a systematic review. Systematic review is the usual way we analyse studies, we summarize all the available information on them, we create a hierarchy around the evidence they have and we critically analyse them according to a pre-set standard. ’Meta’ is the trendy word here. But the tricky thing with a meta perspective is that there’s sometimes stuff that’s secondary that just doesn’t quite make it in to the hierarchy.

With S&N we look at the whole study and not just it’s best bits. We look at which parts (cor)respond to the wider methodology, we weight the Noise that is anti-methodology and basically we evaluate based on how everything balances out. It’s not just the fingertips balancing spectacles at the tip of one’s nose but the magnifying glass with the dirt in the nails.

So teaching quality can be what it produces, which is the philosophy behind things like PISA, and rightfully so- knowledge is really of not much use if it can’t be applied well.

But teaching quality is also how we experience what we are being taught, and not just in real time and in questionnaire responses but in memory and lived experience. It’s the teachers who stay with us into adulthood. It’s the teachers we unexpectedly remember and with great fondness and respect. We all have them and we are all in awe of the thought that we sometimes are such teachers for our students. Awe because we know how special this role is and perhaps how little one can be explicitly trained for it.

52 Muffins

My own teaching style and quality? I’m hopeless with the nitty gritty of organisation, I hide my panic when I have to quote assessment frameworks or training jargon or worse yet…acronyms. I get polite, exasperated emails at work signalling my inefficiency in taking attendance on the new online software, my papers are always a joyful mess, I navigate my academic year on intuition, I remember all my students’ names, I baked 52 muffins for their final evaluation with me last week, I sent (all 52 of) them individual emails telling them what it was like working with them before they find out about the grade I’ve given them. My colleague next door is the polar opposite and many students love working with him, our colleague in the adjacent room is different to us both and the students have their special zone with her and hang on….no two teachers are alike.

I think a good quality teacher is the ethical self in full form. It’s the teacher who stands firmly on his or her feet and knows what they’re about and flourish in environments where they can develop their expertise, their intuition. Teachers who know the real difference between spontaneity and ‘winging it’..and are spontaneous.

They have voices that stretch well beyond the realms of their teacher training diplomas and don’t use their training as gripe sheets for how things need to be but create, adapt and modulate within their teaching contexts. They have teacher personalities as well as teacher identities.

Wouldn’t it be nice if societal and political judgements on good quality teaching caught up with us teachers?

*I’d like to invite you to share with me a non-dictionary, non-standardised, “home-cooked” (as Chuck Sandy says) example of what a good quality teacher is, based on you, your contexts and your experiences.

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