From education to employment

What makes for an outstanding teacher? A key question for teachers and their managers

Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd


Surely all teachers would like to be outstanding – whether Ofsted is on the scene or not. Yet so much of the end result – student attainment and satisfaction – is actually beyond the control of teachers. So what should an outstanding teacher actually be accountable for?

In this short article I offer my personal views, based on personal experience teaching, then managing and training teachers.

And for me, it boils down to what I’m calling ‘The Rule of 4’: four key teaching components, crucial to success, owned by teachers, for which they should be accountable.

They are:

  1. Classroom Management
  2. Relationship Management
  3. Session Management
  4. Self Management

Each component is probably worth an article in itself. However my intention here is to explain these 4 components, highlight why they are crucial to learner success, and to emphasise that all four are clearly under the ownership of each and every teacher.

1. Classroom Management

Every teaching space – the classroom – should be set up for learning. It should provide a safe and stimulating environment, where the general ‘look and feel’ of the environment should be welcoming and relaxed, yet set to stimulate study and engagement.

This could include:

  • A clean, tidy and safe environment; ideally left so by the previous occupants – if not, provide a quick clear up before starting
  • Seating arrangements – perhaps cabaret style to encourage small group discussion
  • Wall displays – perhaps with key learning requirements summarised, or stimulating visuals or text – such as puzzles, quotations or visuals
  • Perhaps a screen show on the whiteboard – a puzzle, or quiz, something to grab the learners’ attention, especially as they are arriving
  • Perhaps music – possibly chosen by the learners themselves – in rota, or as a reward…
  • Tutor meet and greet as the learners arrive – perhaps with a humorous ritual for each learner as their personalised greeting

2. Relationship Management

Many learners work at their best because of the positive relationship they have with their tutor – so it is crucial for every teacher to invest in building and maintaining a positive relationship with all their learners. This should or could include:

  • Learning, knowing and using their names – and pronouncing and spelling them correctly
  • Knowing a little about each, as a point of interest. (General point: you don’t have to be interested – even pretend to be interested – in what they are interested in. You need to be interested in their being interested…)
  • Acknowledging their positive contributions; praise, positive feedback, recognition
  • Valuing each of them as individuals (which is why you always need to separate the individual from the issue; tackling the issue allows you to always value the individual)
  • Building rapport with each learner through rapport; this can be done in a myriad of ways, but essentially it is matching, sensitively, their preferred patterns, so long as they are positive, such as their use of words, tone, and pace
  • Picking up on what they have said and playing it back – showing you have both been listening to them, and valuing their contribution. For example: “As Errol said earlier…”, or “Billie asked an important question earlier…”
  • Appreciating their world and circumstances – their hopes, fears, struggles. Starting from where they are, rather than where you are, and/or where you want them to be (be the first to move towards them, rather than insist on them moving towards you)
  • Working out, where possible, how they think and learn – and responding to such preferences (at least initially)
  • Working out their motivators, ambitions and drivers – and responding positively to them

3. Session Management

This will often be your class session – but it could equally be a workshop, group or 1-1 tutorial. The main point here is to remember always that any session has two agenda: content (the what), and process (the how). A good tutor prepares both equally well. “What do I want to cover?” “How do I want to cover it?” (In today’s world of tight and constrained syllabi, the tutor often has more flexibility over the how than the what – and it is often the ‘how’ that works well with learners – especially if they find the ‘what’ dull or difficult. In my view, there is no such thing as a boring session. Learners may find the content boring – but the process should never be…

So good session management should include:


  • Work out the KUA for each session for each learner:
    • K: what does the learner need to know?
    • U: what does the learner need to understand (in terms of its significance, relevance or importance)?
    • A: how does the learner need to apply it, to show the learning and the learner’s utility?
  • Converting content into messages; being clear what messages or points the learners need, in terms of KUA
  • Build content around messages, so the build adds value – through explanations, examples and extensions.


  • Provide variety, but variety that engages…not variety for variety’s sake
  • Break the session down into shorter chunks, and make each chunk carry no more than 3 messages
  • Use questions more than statements
  • Don’t make them wrong. Yes, there will be times they get an answer wrong, but instead of just saying ‘no, that’s wrong’, see if you can get them to explain their answer, as a way of understanding their thinking. If you make someone wrong publicly in class, there is little likelihood that they will take the risk of offering another answer…
  • Differentiate the process so the content delivery is most suited to the relevant needs, preferences and level of each learner
  • Celebrate and reward achievement – for individuals and the group as a whole

I have produced a book of 88 energisers, attention grabbers and icebreakers. Let me know if you’d like a copy. I’ve also produced some free ‘infotainments’ (slides which entertain and provide information) under the heading ‘Slideas’. They’re free to download from the TES Resources site just search ‘Slideas’.

4. Self Management

For me, there are two key requirements under this heading: stay positive at all times, and be a positive role model.

Stay positive:

  • Leave any worries, anxieties, anger or upsets outside the classroom; learners deserve and should demand your best from you, and you cannot deliver your best if you carry ‘baggage’ into the session
  • Even if you are having a hard time with the class, or members in it, every new day – so every new class – is an opportunity to ‘go again’, to give yourself – and them – another chance. Not every learner ‘pops’ at the same time…and it gives you the opportunity to try something new
  • If you’re struggling, ask yourself “what would an outstanding teacher do here?” – then do it

Role model:

  • Things you expect from your learners you should deliver yourself: be punctual; finish on time; be courteous and polite at all times; be prepared; bring your materials with you; get your punctuation, grammar and spelling right
  • As a follow on from the above, avoid double standards: if it says “no drink allowed in the classroom, except water”, do not bring in your coffee from the staffroom. If you won’t let a learner leave the class early for their good reason, don’t then finish the class early for your good reason. If you don’t expect to be interrupted, then don’t interrupt them.

For me, the rule of 4 acts almost as a checklist of good practice for every teacher. Everything on the four lists is doable – every teacher should be able to own some action on each bullet point, to bring it about. I’d be very worried, as a manager, if any teacher told me they couldn’t. Yes, there are still limitations; the classroom furniture might be fixed, for example; but there is always – always – something a great teacher can do. It just requires some commitment to make a difference, and some imagination to put the commitment into good practice.

Were I the Principal of any FE College, I would want to offer a version of the Rule of 4 to all teachers, as the code of good practice. And any teacher that consistently delivered such a code would, for me, be safe as an employee – irrespective of the final student results….

Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd

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