Confessions of Great Teachers

Posted on Jul 4, 2016 in Professional Blog

There is nothing more inspiring than a Great Teacher.

In a Great Teacher’s classroom, the air is charged. Minds are engaged, ideas are challenged, mistakes are celebrated, individuals are noticed. It’s quite magical. Questions beget questions. Discussions change course. It may be loud, quiet, calm, chaotic, organised, messy, serious or hilarious. It depends on the learners. In the presence of Great Teachers, children think hard, stand tall and smile with satisfaction at their own achievements.

As a principal, 5 minutes in the presence of a Great Teacher will sustain me all day. No matter what else happens in the vortex of administration, I can still feel a buzz at midnight that only comes from witnessing rich learning in the hands of a Great Teacher.

Here’s the catch. Great Teachers are not born. They are precious gems, formed and reformed throughout a career. They hone their craft through hard work, experience, reading, research, collaboration and reflection. Also – Great Teachers don’t wear crowns (although they should). Great Teachers are often unaware of their talents. They are usually plagued by self-doubt and exhaustion, yet steadfastly committed to improvement. That’s what makes them great.

As colleagues, friends and leaders, we must empower and affirm the Great Teachers in our midst. To do so, we must recognise their autonomy and trust their professionalism. We must understand that Great Teachers need freedom. They need freedom to be eccentric, creative, unique, outspoken, contrary, introspective, observant and wrong – because they are learners and humans, as well as teachers. And, we must be their champions and their mirrors. We must name what we see and cheer on their successes. We must identify their skills and applaud their impact on students’ lives.

How else will they have the energy and confidence to continue being great tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow?

Confessions of Great Teachers

(who constantly second-guess themselves, in a cycle of reflective improvement)

“You know, I don’t own a Himalayan Singing Bowl. I don’t really do mindfulness.”

We must assure Great Teachers that mindfulness is much more than guided meditation. Great Teachers already recognise the importance of social and emotional learning, as they are not teachers of curriculum, but teachers of humans. Great Teachers already help children to “be here, now” in a variety of ways. Any time they stop the class for a moment of stillness, a period of noticing or a deep, colourful breath – they are modelling mindfulness. Any time they invite one child to run a lap, another to find a quiet spot, or another to plunge their hands in a bucket of goo, they are teaching sensory integration and self-regulation. Mindfulness is an exciting field with an abundance of resources to enrich our schools. Certainly, the introduction of meditation and yoga can be very powerful. But do not let Great Teachers believe they are not “doing” mindfulness. Mindfulness means teaching the whole child by implementing a range of strategies for focus and attention, emotional awareness, self-management and ultimately, wellbeing. Be mindful of the mindfulness in Great Teachers’ classrooms, even if there are no tiny cymbals!

“You know, I still make kids line up and raise their hands to speak. That’s not very student-centred, is it?”

In a “hands-down classroom”, teachers actively break the cycle of IRE (initiate, respond, evaluate), to avoiding leading discussions and asking every question. It’s an exciting idea, which works well for some teachers. But it’s not the only way to run a student-centred classroom. Great Teachers already know that the person doing the thinking is the person doing the learning. In a class of 25, they already know who is likely to raise their hand immediately, without deep thinking, and who will never raise their hand because they need more processing time, more encouragement, or would prefer to write/draw their ideas. Great Teachers generally ask students to stand in lines and raise their hands, for organisational purposes, not as a means of retaining control. They may invite students to take the lead in multiple ways: asking questions to drive inquiry, choosing their own books/resources/areas of interest, writing on the board/blog, documenting learning in a manner of their choosing. Great Teachers will always abandon their lesson plans, to follow students down the rabbit hole of an inquiry, (making a lot more work for themselves in the process). They honour student voice by listening, watching, waiting, and responding to readiness. Great Teachers can certainly experiment with hands-down discussions, paddle-pop sticks for choosing a speaker, and flexible seating plans – but they must be assured that these are tools, not pedagogy in itself. Great Teachers put students at the centre of the learning, with or without their hands up.

“You know, I really prefer plastic counters for Maths. That’s not very Reggio, is it?”

There is a lovely misconception that unless it’s a pinecone, it’s not best practice in early years’ education. Great Teachers know that hands-on manipulation is essential for constructing deep understanding. They also know that resources tend to be most useful when they are open-ended, attractive to students (aesthetically and sensorily), and presented in an inviting way. Sometimes, natural items work perfectly, such as stones for counting, twigs for drawing in sand, rocks for hefting and leaves for patterning. Other times, the most flexible tools are coloured counters, weighted bears, commercial measuring cups and MAB blocks. It all depends on the intended learning. It is important that Great Teachers (and their students) have access to materials that inspire wonder, curiosity and discovery. And, it is important that Great Teachers have the freedom to choose the best material for this child, to explore this concept, in this moment. Natural or otherwise.

“You know, when nobody’s watching, I still use levelled readers/worksheets/phonics. That’s not true inquiry, is it?”

It can be! Inquiry is not a prescriptive set of strategies. It’s the process of engaging students as active thinkers, who wonder, ask questions, seek meaning, create, reflect and come to new understandings about themselves and the world around them. Certainly, worksheets and readers can be restrictive, repetitive and boring – the nemesis of curiosity. However, worksheets are nothing more than ink on a page – and Great Teachers use them discerningly, often creating powerful scaffolds, which help students record and connect ideas, analyse perspectives or draw conclusions. Similarly, Great Teachers do not prohibit students from exploring picture books or academic journals; however, reading groups that are informed by instructional levels can be hotbeds of inferential and evaluative thinking, student-led discussion and exciting discovery. It depends how they’re implemented. In addition, Great Teachers understand that phonemic awareness is the foundation of literacy, and phonics are the helpful building blocks. However, they do not take the whole class on a pain-staking, all in-step, march through the alphabet. They invite students to inquire into the workings of language, provoked by rich literature and purposeful play, finding authentic reasons to read and write, and teachable moments to explore a letter, phoneme, digraph, root or derivation. Never underestimate the power of conventional teaching methods in the hands of thoughtful, creative experts.

Every child needs a Great Teacher.
Every Great Teacher needs a champion, to really see their pedagogy when they doubt their own impact.

Great Teachers also need access to professional learning and communities of diverse colleagues, who offer new tools, perspectives, research and methodologies. Above all, Great Teachers need the freedom to add to their toolkits, pick and choose from new strategies, and implement ideas in their own time and with their own flair – for the ultimate goal of student learning.

Follow the links…
For a better explanation of inquiry, please head straight to Kath Murdoch and her new book!
For more about “no hands up” and formative assessment, see the work of Dylan William.
For wonderful mindfulness resources, visit Mindful Schools.


Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Frances Kendall

    Thanks, Sharon. I think that all teachers should be given a copy of this in beautiful writing and framed elegantly and set on a wall in their classroom

    • Pamela Davenport

      Shannon, this is inspirational..It makes me wonder when I taught the O’dwyer girls I came even close to this wonderful of teachers but I DID enjoy what I did.

  2. Ying Yu Wei

    This is beautifully articulate reflection on Great Teachers. Having seen you teach and how you comment on your student’s Seesaw reflections, how you model questioning, tells me I got to witness a Great Teacher these few years.

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