From education to employment

What makes a brilliant teacher?

Toni Fazaeli is the chief executive of the IfL

Dual professionalism is one of the Institute for Learning’s (IfL) core values.

We believe that our members – teachers and trainers across further education and skills – strive for excellence in teaching and learning, and high levels of subject or vocational expertise, placing the interests and progression of learners at the very heart of their practice.

We know that practitioners make the biggest difference to learners’ experiences and success. As a professional body, IfL’s aim is to support our members by providing a range of services and benefits that will help them be well-qualified, confident and accomplished teachers and trainers, thirsty to build and update their understanding and expertise, to provide excellent teaching, training and learning.

Making a difference for learners is the reason why most teachers and trainers choose to do what they do, so it is natural that IfL should be very interested in what learners think about how they learn and the characteristics of a good teacher or trainer.

In October 2009, we had a number of in-depth discussions with representatives from the National Union of Students (NUS) and the National Learner Panel (NLP), who told us about how they learn and are helped to learn in colleges, work-based and other adult learning settings. Regardless of their age, level of study, type of study and settings where they learn, they mostly agreed about the need for teaching and what characterises a good teacher. I am pleased to share with you a summary of their views.

Universally, learners expect the highest standards and want to see their teachers’ professionalism demonstrated in practical ways through:

  • Knowledge of both the subject and their learners
  • Behaviour in terms of timekeeping and boundary setting
  • Appearance – well-presented and appropriate for a person of authority
  • Communication – the ability to present their workshop, lesson or workplace learning session skilfully and engagingly.

Learners say they believe that the best teachers are those for whom their career is a vocation, not just a job. They feel that the qualities of a professional teacher include:

  • Passion for their job and enthusiasm for the subject they are teaching. Teachers should enjoy their work and show it. They should be inspirational about their subject.
  • Creativity and inventiveness – using methods that encourage learners to think in different and interesting ways and explore avenues of learning that may not be obvious.
  • Fairness and flexibility – some learners say that their best learning experiences are with teachers who treat them all as equals from the outset, and adapt their mode of teaching for the diverse groups of learners with whom they work.
  • Stamina and energy – learners are inspired by those teachers who bring positivity and vibrancy into their teaching, and recognise this as a vital part of engaging with learners, particularly those who may previously have been disengaged from education.

Learners say that the professional teacher must be able to:

  • Personalise the planning process, taking into account learners’ individual needs, situations and circumstances, in order to achieve a much greater degree of success in inspiring enthusiasm and commitment from learners.
  • Set learning goals that are both realistic and aspirational, with their learners, to keep them motivated and challenged, learning practical things along with theory and gaining knowledge.
  • Use information and communication technology (ICT) effectively – learners think teachers should have a minimum of a level 2 qualification in ICT to fulfil their role effectively, at the very least being able to upload coursework data and display basic ICT awareness in front of their learners, ideally being inventive and creative with ICT to enhance the learning experience and inspiring individuals to use technology further and to their own advantage.
  • Encourage and act upon learner feedback, paying particular attention to feedback on how continuing professional development (CPD) is improving their teaching and training.

Learners say they feel the behavioural attitudes of a professional teacher include:

  • A willingness to engage with learners, actively listening to them as well as imparting knowledge.
  • A willingness to engage in their own CPD and constant improvement, striving to improve their presentation skills and ensuring that they are up to speed with the most modern ICT, as well as their subject and teaching methods.
  • A willingness to engage positively with their employer and wider educational context, so that their learners feel that their teachers or trainers are fully committed to them the minute they start teaching or even walk in the room, no matter what is going on behind the scenes. In fact, learners say they find it off-putting if their teachers complain about ‘management’ or ‘their employer’; learners lose confidence in the learning experience if they feel that the organisation is being undermined.

Learners have thoughtful and strong views on how providers can build their teachers’ potential by:

  • allowing sufficient time and funding for teachers’ or trainers’ CPD
  • ensuring teachers and trainers have access to relevant information about their learners in advance
  • ensuring teachers or trainers have specialist subject(s), and do not teach others unless they are equally passionate and knowledgeable about them
  • looking at learners’ success in the round, not just exam results, and praising teachers and trainers for learners’ broad achievements.

Learners also set out some very practical housekeeping expectations of teachers and trainers, including:

  • legible handwriting
  • turning up for sessions or appointments to review learning
  • turning up for sessions on time and being ready to teach or train or review learning as soon as learners arrive or phone
  • proper cover arrangements if a teacher or trainer is ill
  • starting and finishing sessions on time, not early or late
  • a clear speaking voice
  • well-presented appearance.

Learners set out a properly exacting set of attributes that really good teachers and trainers should have, and our wish is that every teacher and trainer is or will be brilliant across these areas.

We very much value the time and thought that the NUS and NLP representatives gave to sharing their views Many learners’ comments were included in the John Tomlinson Memorial Lecture I gave at the Annual Disability Conference in Sheffield in November 2009 about the importance of teaching. A transcript of my lecture, Why teaching matters, has now been published and is available to download in PDF format from NIACE’s website.

Toni Fazaeli is the chief executive of the IfL, the professional body for more than 200,000 teachers, trainers, tutors and student teachers across the Further Education and Skills sector

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