Explainer: What makes a good teacher

Most of us have encountered at least one great teacher during our lives But while we might know a great teacher when we see one our understanding of the skills and attributes of these professionals remains limited? Students setting out how to learn how to teach already hold beliefs about how teaching is conducted developed through their own school experiences. These preconceptions are informed by what we could call an apprenticeship of observation. By watching it teachers throughout our own schooling we’ve picked up ideas about what does and doesn’t work. The problem is that at school we only ever see what goes on from a student’s perspective. That is what’s happening on the one side of the teacher’s desk. But there’s also a lot more to good teaching that goes on behind the scenes. Planning, assessing, reporting and considering the many and varied needs of young people in classrooms. So what is it that defines a great teacher? There’s a concept in educational psychology called the zone of proximal development It comes from the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and it’s the space between what the learner can do without help and what they can do with it. A great teacher knows and understands their learners well enough to shape the learning to fit the zone of proximal development (ZPD). They do this by gathering evidence of learning from their students Learning in the zone of proximal development means that the learning is hard enough to be challenging But not so hard that the learner feels defeated and tempted to give up The tricky thing is that the ZPD isn’t the same for everyone in any class. The great teacher nurtures resilience and persistence So students don’t give up if the task is too challenging or become disengaged because the task is too easy. Working in this way might mean breaking a concept down into smaller chunks to help students struggling to understand or allowing students to quickly demonstrate their mastery of a concept in order to work ahead of some of their classmates. But you can’t do that unless you really know your learners. Great teachers know their students well and hold high expectations of them. And they’re committed to creating the ideal conditions for learning for real understanding for every child in their class every day.

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