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Master and pupil: how to spot a highly effective teacher


Master and pupil: how to spot a highly effective teacher

Among the parade of forgettable teachers out there, there are some who possess these seven vital traits


Most of our school teachers are forgettable creatures. They fade into memory as unremarkable and sometimes even horrible. But you know the ones who stand out and you remember their names into old age.
This past weekend I had the privilege of addressing some of the most outstanding young people across SA who are considering teaching as a career. These youngsters are finishing school and entering university with the firm desire to be teachers. Named after the distinguished vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, the Jakes Gerwel Fellowship puts these super-smart future teachers through one of the best mentorship programmes in the world, enabling them to also learn the skills of leadership and entrepreneurship en route to the classroom.
Adapting the title from Stephen Covey’s work, I shared with these remarkable young people “the seven habits of highly effective teachers”, drawn from my own experiences in research and teaching over the years.
Perhaps the most obvious habit of highly effective teachers is that they are masters of their subject [1]. The science teacher knows much more science than appears in the textbook or that she learnt in her bachelor of science degree. What this implies is that the science teacher, in this example, is also a pupil, constantly updating herself on the latest developments in artificial intelligence or climate science. She accesses reputable websites and subscribes to the best science magazines. And she belongs to a professional organisation for science teachers where new methods of teaching or assessing science are constantly discussed.
A readily observable habit is that such teachers are deeply passionate about their teaching [2]. In front of the class the teacher radiates enthusiasm from the start of the lesson to the end. A history class comes alive as pupils are prepared over weeks to take rival positions around a negotiating table to discuss the terms of a political settlement to end apartheid. Every now and again the excited teacher throws a political spanner into the works – media reports of police violence against activists – that threaten to derail negotiations. You can feel the intellectual energy in the room as the pupils are challenged to think through complex political problems. Those pupils who become history teachers will often reference the passion of this remarkable educator.
Highly effective teachers know their pupils beyond the classroom [3]. They visit some of their pupils in their homes, get to know them at school camps and make an effort to participate in non-classroom activities such as music performances and sports events. The pupils notice and appreciate this broader interest in them as human beings and not simply as cognitive machines being prepared for the next test or examination. This is how trust develops between teachers and pupils and why some appear to work harder for that teacher’s subject than for those of his colleagues.
One habit that distinguishes effective teachers from the rest is that they are, to coin a phrase, reflective practitioners [4]. Such teachers constantly question their own practices: how could I have taught the Krebs cycle better? Maybe next time bring in the familiar face of the popular meteorologist from the local television station to teach the children how to read a weather map.
Such teachers seldom use the same lesson plan as the one they used in the previous year. They tweak an introduction to a lesson or refine an assessment protocol or replace a front-of-class demonstration on how to measure water purity with a field trip to a local river. These teachers know that effective learning is a direct result of effective teaching – and this requires reflection.
No teacher is effective if she simply follows the prescribed curriculum, something called CAPS (Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement). It is a prescriptive curriculum for dummies. Highly effective teachers would use any curriculum statement only as a broad guideline for their teaching. Such teachers are constantly alert to teaching moments in the broader society [5]. This is the teacher who brings into the classroom a critical discussion on the recent and rare eclipse of the moon. How does a lunar eclipse happen? How is a lunar eclipse different from a solar eclipse?  Why does the darkening or reddening of the moon happen?
Teachers who are highly effective are also incurable motivators of children [6]. In the course of teaching the subject they find ways of making Marie feel good about her progress in accountancy from 30% to 60%, and just mentions to the class, in passing, that Tshepo passed the tough Unisa music examinations. Pupils in such a class feel valued at both ends of the achievement scale – the naturally gifted arts pupil and the struggling but determined mathematics pupil.
And highly effective teachers teach with their lives [7]. They come to school early and leave late. They invest time and effort in every child. Such commitment is taxing but they never complain. Teaching with your life means that the teacher is exemplary – the consummate professional, at school on time and prepared for every lesson. This teacher does not dress like a hobo out of respect for the children and there is no reason whatsoever for a pupil to question his behaviour.
If you witness some of these habits in the teacher responsible for your child, please make time to look that educator in the eye and say “thank you” for teaching with your life. These highly effective teachers also need our affirmation.

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