What is a good teacher?

In the wake of the Education Select Committee’s report on Great Teachers’ this week, Ndidi Okezie, Teach First ambassador and Assistant Principal at Burlington Danes Academy in West London, asks ‘What is a good teacher?’

Things have changed. That was the first clear thought I had after encountering a – let’s call it lively – GCSE class back in 2003. I walked away from my first lesson dazed and shocked because the automatic respect that I had expected to find as the adult and teacher was not forthcoming. Instead, I was greeted by looks of defiance that challenged me to try and impart knowledge, if I so dared…

That moment is a key one for any new teacher. Training, tactics and literature flash across your mind, but the reality is that you have a decision to make and I believe that the outcome signals whether you have a key characteristic of being a good teacher. Although the experience had shown me that my expectations regarding respect and behavior were misplaced, I did not lower them. In fact from that moment on, I knew I had to raise them.

I realised and accepted that part of my role was to model and establish the values and norms of behavior that were no longer an automatic given. Teachers often experience what I call the ‘fronting’ mirage, where students who do actually want to learn deep (deep) down, will not allow you to see that need or desire immediately. Instead they act out and misbehave.

It is not that good teachers do not encounter bad behavior but, regardless, they do not expect it to be a part of their classroom experience. And so in that moment, when a student acts out or challenges them in a negative way, the response is swift and firm but there is always that visible element of surprise and shock, with comments along the lines of “that behavior is beneath you” or “I really expect so much more of you than that”. As a teacher you need to expect all students to engage in learning, to do their best and be respectful. When they do not it is unacceptable. Regardless of how much these standards are tested, a good teacher’s expectations remain high, resolute and earnest, and so invariably their pupils will rise to them.

I understand why so often we gather to debate whether social context is (or even whether it should be) relevant in our schools, and whether teachers should in fact be all things to all children. I understand that there is a heavy load on teachers. Teaching today is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Yet the most prevalent mistake I feel people make when trying to understand the context of learning today is to try to compare it to when we were at school or to how we grew up. Things have changed. One week in an inner city school will reveal this immediately.

The social context that children live and learn in does of course play a role and external pressures are manifest in our schools every day. There are thousands of our children languishing in schools, brimming with ability, potential and the desire to excel, but they are too often ignored as staff try to combat the more volatile issues that creep in.

Are these issues that teachers should be trying to tackle? To be frank, no. There are other agencies, structures and institutions that need to be having their own debate and stepping forward to work more collaboratively with schools.

In almost a decade of teaching I have had the privilege of seeing and experiencing young people that have beaten seemingly insurmountable odds, battling issues that are heartbreaking. For many children it takes great courage and fortitude to be a successful student. The issues that pull on them, vying for their time and attention, are vast and various, and all too often dangerous. If many of us tried to juggle these pressures we would be advised to take time off work and seek professional support. Yet time and time again, when you ask students what made the difference and helped them to overcome these difficulties, they will say it was a teacher. A stubborn and persistent teacher. A good teacher.

Of course there are barriers. However, a good school will not fixate on external problems to the degree that their hopes and expectations for the child diminishes. Instead, a good teacher is one that is able to navigate the varying degrees of unsettling influences on a child’s life, whilst still insisting that this does not excuse them from achieving educational success. External problems should not be used to justify limited aspirations or apathy. Indeed, often, the good teacher will be that voice that consistently says “I believe in you, in-spite of every obstacle in your way, even when that obstacle is you”.

Teaching can change lives. I have felt overwhelmed by the weight of this fact. When these moments come, I remind myself that I am blessed to be in this position and to have navigated my own way out of circumstances that have limited many others. That I now have an undeniable obligation, to pass on the things that helped me, ensuring that all my pupils are also empowered to excel.

The truth remains; teachers and schools can make or break their pupils. Often they are the deciding factor between whether a child achieves educational success or settles for average. Good teachers accept this reality and will tell you that they are intensely aware of the potential impact of every interaction.

As Assistant Principal at an inner London school, I measure successful schooling by asking whether each child been equipped with the skill set, tenacity and aptitude to access opportunities, formulate and actualise positive goals and dreams for the rest of their lives? When I consider whether a teacher is ‘good’ I ask whether they recognise the duty they have to all the school’s pupils, to not only educate them but also to celebrate, challenge and inspire them to be more than what they can see around them.

We are all teachers. Gone are the days when we can just pretend that inadequate education is someone else’s problem. If we agree that it is time for a change, surely we can see that the solution requires all of our hands, working in partnership to create environments and infrastructures that ensures that all of our children will be educated in schools bursting with good teachers.

Ndidi also took part in a debate on the same topic at the RSA, the first of a new series of Education Matters events organised by Teach First and the RSA.

  • Yvonne Martin

    So clearly put from the heart. Thank you.

  • Anita

    A passionate and thought-provoking article, challenging us all to examine our role in education. Educating our youth is the collective responsibility of society and not solely teachers. It is this collective responsibility that can make a good teacher, a great teacher!

  • Charlinapier

    This is inspiring and so true, particularly the bit about no young person wanting to fail. I have always held onto the FACT that every young person (in fact any person) wants to feel success and self pride and it is our job to help them get that really good feeling! Also, I definitely think it is time teachers, parents, “society” stop saying things like “…in my day…” as I am not sure what that achieves. Things change.

  • Amckinnon27

    Meh- the message here is somewhat mixed. Good teachers inspire students. Check. Good teachers don’t give up on them even when they give up on themselves. Check. All of us in society have an obligation to help support students and education. Check. And yes, also- the challenges our students face should not be used as excuses for either their failure or our own as educators. This is true.

    However, it would be a HUGE mistake to assume that teachers do not also have to deal with those “volatile issues” that are creeping in. Times most certainly have changed and part of that is recognizing that the social context has changed. Teachers MUST take this into account and adjust. We can no longer assume that students are safe, fed, loved and supported outside of schools. To ignore this and simple demand excellence is to stick your head in the sand. You may think you’re doing what is necessary for the child, but in reality you are failing them.

    Just as “all of our hands” have to be involved in supporting education, so too does every teacher need to be present and aware and available for each student and their individual challenges. Yes, gone are the days where we can say a “poor education is someone else’s problem,” but so are the days when teachers can assume that there is some agency that can help them with that. Teachers have to partner with social agencies- have to be ready to refer students, identify those in need and openly acknowledge what the student is facing. What was once going above and beyond is now a requirement of working with youth.

    True- social issues shouldn’t take the focus of educating, but they should most definitely be accounted for and used to help re-frame the educative process. We have to acknowledge and adapt. Failure to do so is irresponsible and illogical.

    You can DEMAND high performance all you want, but if you don’t find a way to help the student who doesn’t have a safe place to sleep, you’re just as guilty as the teacher who decided to ignore them entirely. You want the kid to stop falling asleep in class, ask yourself why that’s the only place he feels comfortable doing so.

  • Silly Billy

    I struggled to find anything of consequence or depth in this article.

    Very much of the age, this.

    Superficial claptrap.

  • Teachme

    Teaching is a hugely overwhelming task! As a new teacher (beginning my career in a tough public school) I too experienced this shock of not receiving automatic respect and then having to grapple with a multitude of external factors that impacted on my students and their success at school. This article holds a lot of truth, teachers, if they are to survive and make any kind of difference, need to adopt this attitude. They cannot, however be responsible for finding their student a safe place to sleep (as previously suggested), or enough food to eat. If you tried to take on all these these issues, you’d simply be overwhelmed by the task. It’s not like Dangerous Minds, get real people, it’s not possible to give your whole life to each and every class, year after year. But you can adopt the positive attitude suggested in this article and do the best you can do.