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Masters of the Teaching Universe

Question: Who were your three greatest teachers?

Imagine them in your head. Go on, look away from the screen for a minute or two, put yourself back in their classroom and really imagine them.  No, two isn’t good enough – everyone can get two in a few seconds –push to find that third teacher who was really great.

Got them?  Now think, how similar are they?

I’ve asked that question to hundreds of people and invariably they admit the three teachers in their mind are very different.  Usually one is very strict, another one very relaxed and the tricky third is often to do with being ‘passionate about the subject’ or providing specific help when the person faced a tough situation.

The point of the exercise is to show that great teaching isn’t uniform, but it is recognisable. Though all teachers are different people know the impact they made on them and that certain qualities translate into great teaching.  The new ‘Master Teaching Standards’replacing several previous sets of standards for experienced teachers – reflects this flexibility and instead of giving set tasks teachers must do it talks about what will be seen in the classroom and, crucially, what will be seen in the pupils of a master teacher.

Some changes are not drastic, they merely rephrase Labour’s penchant for ‘organisational speak’ meaning phrases such as:  “Have an extensive knowledge and well-informed understanding of the assessment requirements and arrangements for the subjects/curriculum areas they teach, including those related to public examinations and qualification”  now become “have deep and extensive knowledge of their subject area”.

However, there is more than just a re-writing exercise going on here.  There’s a critical and welcome shift towards emphasising the impact on student learning of a Master Teacher’s behaviour.  For example, where previously a teacher was expected to inspire pupils, the requirement is now defined in terms of what this will mean for the pupil “(they will) not only remember what they have been taught…and are able to deeply this knowledge critically…but they themselves are inspired to go beyond strict curricular demands.”

No longer will it be good enough simply to take a ‘tick-list’ approach to standards based on ‘what the teacher did’, there is a concerted effort to think about what is seen in the classroom, how the classroom feels and a much greater expectation of professionalism and rigour than was ever expected for Post-Threshold standards previously. This is no bad thing.

When I ask people the Three Teachers Question they consistently say all their teachers – however disparate – cared about their learning in a way that was obvious.  Through different ways the teachers communicated that learning was so worthwhile it made their young self want to learn. Adding this requirement is just one example of how the standards are more attuned to what great teaching really is about.

Naturally there are issues about the implementation of the standards – how they well be assessed, what it means for the AST role and how they should be incorporated into the autonomy of the academy framework. But they meet two requirements that any education change should be –  Firstly, the document is clear and well-written, this matters because complex lengthy documents get ignored in the day-to-day madness of school life. Secondly, the standards put student learning at the heart of what is being looked for. If we could get every educational change to do that the system would truly start to succeed.


  1. Avatar
    Alasdair Smith says:

    I think Laura is too generous. She makes a very good point about good teaching not being uniform (please can we get away from the ‘outstanding’ hypebole). But these standards re-hash the old version with a new ‘craft’ angle that adds nothing new.

    The obvious problem here is that when Laura asks us to think of our three greatest teachers she forgets that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. One of my best teachers was despised by other pupils and openly denigrated by other members of staff. His unorthodox style happened to connect with me. The other point to contend with is that very few of our ‘best teachers’ will have been good because they took any notice of central government standards!

    The whole ‘standards’ agenda is set within OFSTED, PRP & league table frameworks. These distort outcomes, creating pressures to ‘game’ the system. The new standards will inevitably be reduced to a tick box culture because that is the wider culture in education.

    Real professional standards needs to be set and monitored within democratically accountably professional bodies. Finland has consistently high quality of teaching and learning without OFSTED, PRP or league tables.

    Amid all the hype about transforming schools, the research shows that the improving the quality of teaching amongst the existing cohort of teachers would have the biggest effect for the lowest cost. Forget academies, Free schools and other structural change; Forget Teach First and new teaching standards. Concentrate on professional development of existing teachers. It is cheaper and packs a bigger punch than any other reform, including reducing class size.

    There will be no new money for CPD with these new standards, so they will be so much waste paper, like the previous versions. Teachers will need to wrestle back control of the profession if we are to ensure higher standards.

  2. Avatar
    laura_admin says:

    Alasdair – thanks for the comments.

    I agree that CPD for existing teachers is paramount. There’s no point focusing on the small percentage of teachers who enter the system each year and forgetting the other 95% of people are riding the crest of their careers.

    One major problem is that we don’t know *how* to most effectively support and train mid-career teachers. Research is almost exclusively focused on new entrants and initiatives for those teaching are so difficult to put in place due to the extensive time pressures already placed on a teacher’s day.

    Teachers do need to gain back control of the profession and create a framework for career-long development, as per the health sector [though that is a far from perfect system]. But one wonders how this will happen?

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