What makes a good teacher?

In just over two months, I’ll be starting the first part of my 2-year teacher training course. This part is an intense six-week summer school to help us learn how to be good teachers before we’re released into the wild (our placement schools) in September. That got me thinking – what actually makes a good teacher? When you think about it, it’s very hard to define. A teacher is so many roles rolled into one; Colin Richards suggests for a teacher to fit the government’s expectations of them, they need ‘the omni-competence of Leonardo da Vinci, the diplomatic expertise of Kofi Annan, […] the grim determination of Alex Ferguson [and] the omniscience of God’ (Learning to Teach in the Primary School, 2010). Although he admits to being over the top here, Richards raises a valid point that a successful teacher needs to have lots of different skills! He also suggests teaching can be characterised as a science, a craft, or an art (or a mixture of all three), making it even more unclear which particular skills a good teacher should have. I think it’s really hard to pinpoint what exactly makes a good teacher, but seeing one in action certainly makes it easier. Maybe you can remember a teacher from your school days who genuinely cared and went the extra mile, or was just great at explaining things! Even then, though, two teachers with very different teaching styles can be equally effective (or equally ineffective), which complicates things even more. However, I’d argue that the best example of a good teacher is a guy who lived around 2000 years ago called Jesus, for three main reasons: He modelled the good principles He wanted His ‘students’ to live by, He used Vygotsky’s theories wayyy before they’d even been invented to help Him impart knowledge effectively, and He made all the necessary sacrifices to get the job done.

Although people disagree on whether Jesus is the Son of God or not, most people would agree that the principles Jesus taught were good. He says the greatest two commandments are to ‘Love the Lord your God with [everything you have, and to] love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-39). He extends this second one further, saying you should even ‘love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44) – not a wishy-washy or romantic sort of love either; a powerful, enduring love that perseveres even when it’s difficult. What makes His words so powerful, though, is that He backed up these good principles He taught with His actions and modelled the life he wanted His ‘students’ to lead. He frequently gave up His time for them, He healed lots of them, and the very reason He came to earth was His love for them – and us! More on that later… But the point is that teachers should ‘demonstrate the positive values, attitudes and behaviour they expect from [their] children’ through their own actions (Learning to Teach in the Primary School, 2010), something Jesus does excellently.

The second reason I think Jesus is the best teacher is that He basically invented the wheel before the inventor of the wheel invented it. In other words, He used an approach proposed by a theorist called Lev Vygotsky, who has been incredibly influential on teaching practice in the last few decades. One of his theories is that of the ZPD, or Zone of Proximal Development, which is the gap between what the learner can do now independently and what they can do with assistance. In this model, the teacher’s role is to meet the learner where they’re at and help them progress to the next stage. Jesus did that all the time: when He taught people, He used the sort of language they could understand. When talking to everyday people, He used parables which involved situations they could relate to so they could get what he was trying to say. He would also have spoken in an everyday dialect too, something older translations of the Bible with thee’s and thou’s in can make us forget. However, when talking to religious leaders He would quote from the Old Testament more often, showing His ability to meet people on their level to help them learn better.

Even by coming to earth, though, Jesus was applying the ZPD on a huge scale. God clothed Himself in human flesh and came to earth, leaving behind a place of perfection for a place of devastation. He came to where we are in our sin and shame to take us further than we could ever go by ourselves. He died on the cross, taking the punishment we should have paid for our sin (the wrong things we do that separate us from God). And that means sin can no longer hold us back from being close to Him, allowing us the opportunity to be in a personal relationship with our heavenly Father, the same God who created the universe and holds it all in His hands. Wow. And then He came back to life, backing up His claims with irrefutable evidence of His power! Amazing.

My third point follows on from this: Jesus was willing to make whatever sacrifice was necessary to get the job done. Like any good teacher, He had such an amazing love for His children that He would do anything it takes to help them succeed. Our job as teachers might be to help shape the children we teach into good young people while imparting knowledge to them, which will take some sacrifices sometimes; late nights marking, early mornings planning lessons, etc. But as we’ve just seen, Jesus’ job was to bridge the gap between God and man, something only He could do as only He was fully God and fully man. And as the task was so difficult, the sacrifice was so much greater: it involved giving up His life. However, He chose to do it anyway because He loves us so much.

So as we’ve seen, Jesus wasn’t just a good teacher – He saved the world! And actually Jesus doesn’t leave us the option of seeing Him just as a good teacher. If He wasn’t the Son of God, yet claimed He was, He would actually be an awful teacher who is either incredibly arrogant, a liar, or a crazy man. However, He backed up His claims with His actions, showing God’s power flowing through Him by healing the sick and ultimately by coming back to life after dying on the cross. So as well as being the best teacher ever, demonstrating excellent teaching practice that any trainee teacher could learn a lot from, He is our Saviour, giving His life to set us free from sin and allow us to be close to God again. He’s done all the hard work, all we have to do is believe and accept the sacrifice that He has made! Brilliant. (Now all I need is to find someone to do all my marking and lesson plans for me…)

Duolingo: a model of an effective pedagogy?

Since receiving an offer to join a teacher training course after I graduate (woohoo!) I’ve been doing some things to prepare for it. As well as working hard at uni to get my degree, I’ve been reading up on some teaching theory and improving my subject knowledge ready for when I start teaching – and trust me, with teaching primary, there’s lots of subjects to familiarise myself with! Recently I’ve started to learn Spanish to improve my ability in languages, and to do that I’ve used a free website called duolingo.com that my housemate told me about, which is well good! [By the way, my favourite phrase so far is ‘los zapatos y los calcetines’, which means ‘the shoes and the socks’… it’s SO much fun to say!] Anyway, today I asked myself the question ‘why have I been able to learn so much so quickly?’ and when I thought about it I realised it’s because Duolingo puts into practice lots of the good teaching techniques I’ve been reading about! Let me explain…

  • When I learn something new, it situates it in its wider context. When learning about prepositions, for example (in, on, under, etc.) it gives me example sentences which contain vocab from topics like ‘colours’, ‘animals’, and ‘food’ that I’d learnt earlier on. This makes sure I don’t forget stuff I learnt a while ago, and also reminds me that it’s all part of one big picture rather than discrete topics that never interlink.
  • It provides a structure that ‘scaffolds’ my learning, showing me what I can currently do and helping me get to the next stage (hello Vygotsky!). Although it lets me choose what topic to do next, I can’t do topics x, y and z before a, b and c, which is an effective way of directing my learning while still enabling me to take ownership of it.
  • It makes me DO stuff with my new knowledge by making me answer a series of short questions. These questions help me improve my listening, speaking, reading AND writing, ensuring I’m developing all the necessary skills to be a linguist as well as receiving the raw knowledge. This ‘multimodality’ also gives me more opportunities to succeed (e.g. if I’m not so good at the writing, but I’m good at the other 3 skills, I won’t feel like a failure and I’ll stay motivated).
  • Through these short questions it continually assesses me to check my progress, so I know how well I’m doing and what I need to improve on (which also helps me take more responsibility for my own learning) and also so it knows what I know so it can ask more appropriate questions.
  • It implements effective behaviour management strategies! It makes learning fun in the first place, making it less likely for me to misbehave, and gives me a clear system of positive reinforcement, using rewards and incentives to encourage me to work hard and giving me clear goals to aim for. On the flip side, it consistently implements a ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ rule, making it clear that there are consequences for disobedience (well, in this case it’s for getting the wrong answer… but I think my analogy still fits!).
  • Finally, it fosters ‘metacognitive awareness’ (i.e. it makes me think about how I learn) so I can then learn more effectively.

Great! So if Duolingo’s so good, maybe we don’t need teachers! Oh, umm, actually that’s not true. There are some really important teachery things that Duolingo can’t do:

  • It can’t model the positive characteristics it wants its ‘pupils’ to have. It is only able to impart subject knowledge and can’t help the people it teaches to develop positive values, attitudes, or behaviour, which is an integral part of teaching.
  • It can’t provide cross-curricular links to situate the subject in a broader frame of knowledge.
  • It gives you the option to ‘quit’…
  • It can’t really manage my behaviour! If I don’t want to learn Spanish on a particular day, there’s absolutely nothing Duolingo can do to stop me.
  • While it provides the opportunity for collaborative learning, it doesn’t enforce it, meaning I might never learn good team-working and communication skills or develop the ability to relate well with people from diverse backgrounds.
  • Also, if there’s a slight technical hitch Duolingo can’t improvise like a real teacher can; it’s game over, and no learning at all can take place!

So while Duolingo does model some really good teaching strategies, it would need to drastically improve elements of its practice to achieve Qualified Teacher Status 😉