The good teacher

No two teachers are the same, nor should they be. We must encourage teachers to focus less on following rigid lesson plans and more on playing to their strengths.

One size does not fit all when it comes to being a successful teacher. While the best teachers share the same goals, they certainly do not deliver lessons in the same way. That is why Ofsted does not take a formulaic approach to inspecting classroom teaching.

Teaching is a noble profession that has the power to change lives, particularly for those disadvantaged young people who need it most. That is what motivated me first to work in inner-city schools and then to take the job as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector.

Throughout my career, I have known many, many teachers who work hard to give children the best chance in life. However, when I think back to my time at Mossbourne Academy [a community academy based in Hackney, London], two teachers in particular spring to mind. They were very different, but both were incredibly successful in the classroom.

The reason they were both successful was that they developed a style of teaching with which they were comfortable and that they knew worked. Despite their different personalities and approaches, both of these successful teachers understood that there were key things they had to do consistently. As a result, children enjoyed their lessons, were engaged, learnt a great deal and made good progress.

Planning was everything, but these teachers were not slaves to their lesson plans. For each lesson, they would know what they were going to do, what resources they were going to deploy and roughly how long each activity would take. But they also understood that planning should not be too detailed or too rigid. It was a framework and support, but they adapted what they did at key moments in the lesson, for example when something was not working or when the mood of the class changed.

The worst lessons are those in which the teacher ploughs through the plan irrespective of how well or badly the lesson is going. Ofsted will not necessarily require a lesson plan during an observation, but an inspector will want to see a planned lesson. If the plan needs to be adjusted halfway through, that is fine.

Being reflective is essential. These two teachers were able to adapt their lesson plan when things were not going well. At the end of the lesson, or at the end of the day, they would go back to the lesson plan and change it. Because they were reflective people, they knew that they did not have the answers to everything and were prepared to learn from others. This meant that they talked a lot about their teaching, were willing to go into other teachers’ classrooms and were always happy for others to come into theirs. They acknowledged that no matter how well qualified they were, teaching was a learning experience.

They were also perceptive people who understood the dynamics of a classroom. Teachers must pick up on the fact that the pace of a lesson has dropped, that students have become disengaged or that their attention has waned. They must be quick to notice when the classroom hubbub has reached an unacceptable level and ‘Jack the lad’ is messing about at the back. At the same time, they must be able to spot when a young person is finding work difficult and needs more help.

These teachers understood the maxim that ‘nothing is taught unless it is learnt’. They measured their success on whether children were learning and making progress, and because they were successful teachers, their pupils made rapid progress. They were great at picking out the inattentive child to ensure that each one understood the importance of keeping up and paying attention. They were both fierce on standards, too. They were authoritative without being authoritarian. They made sure that youngsters knew who was in charge and who was setting the boundaries for acceptable behaviour.

Finally, both of these teachers were resilient people who withstood the slings and arrows – and the occasional paper dart – unflinchingly. They never let failure get the better of them. They learnt from it and came back stronger, tougher and better.

A flexible model

So, I think we should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, such as a three-part lesson, or insisting that there should be a balance between teacher-led activities and independent learning. Whether we see pupils working on an extended piece of writing or reading or on the structured reinforcement of a mathematical operation, we are satisfied as long as the children are engaged and learning.

A formulaic approach pushed out by a school or prescribed in an inspection evaluation schedule would trap many teachers in a stifling mould that discourages them from using their imagination, initiative and common sense. There is no ‘Ofsted template’ for a good lesson, and we certainly do not want to see teaching designed to impress inspectors. We want to see teaching designed to ensure that children are learning and making progress. After all, that is what good teachers do naturally every day.

Our new inspection framework emphasises teaching more than anything else, and there will be a clear correlation between the judgements on teaching and the overall effectiveness of the school. We will also be looking at more lessons. So, to be clear, Ofsted will judge the quality of teaching in relation to the quality of learning and whether children and young people across the age and ability range are making the necessary progress.

All good teachers share the same goal: to give children and young people the best chance in life. However, the way in which they reach that goal will depend on what works for them and their pupils. We need to celebrate diversity, ingenuity and imagination in the way we teach. Just as no two children, classrooms or schools are the same, no two teachers are the same, and Ofsted will not expect them to be.

Sir Michael Wilshaw is Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills.