June 23 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


How to make good teaching a class act

Beth Dickson says that educating children is complex, so let’s not make it tougher for teachers

DID you know that the most important factor in improving children’s learning in school is how good their teachers are? While this may seem obvious, it’s a reality that has two significant consequences.

First, it means that teachers should be respected. Often you will see and hear headlines which run teachers down, implying that their job is easy and that anyone could do it a lot better than the people in the profession.

If you just think about that for two seconds you will see how barmy a view that is.

Teachers need to be well-educated; they need to learn through experience; they have to work with anywhere between 20-33 children for five or six hours a day; they have to prepare for ­lessons; implement them and assess them.

They have to establish good working relationships with their pupils. And even when relationships are good, talking to that many people during a day is exhausting. If the relationships break down, then teachers have to expend more energy in trying to put them right.

Teaching is a very complex activity. And while teachers age, their pupils are forever young.

So what teachers do not need to hear is politicians or journalists blaming them for issues society is only too ready to overlook, such as poverty and family break-up.

I was in a classroom recently where a little girl spent the entire time looking out of the window. She wasn’t causing any trouble but she wasn’t engaging in the lesson which was quite interesting.

Normally that’s something I’d take a student to task for but when I inquired about the child, it turned out she had only arrived that day.

Her dad had walked out on her mum who had moved her to a new school. If you are going to throw brickbats at teachers, you need to tell me how you would teach maths to a child in that ­situation as well as the other 29 who needed different sorts of attention (there was a series of actions in place to ensure the child settled in—it wasn’t as if her new school had abandoned her, it was her dad who had done that).

Christianity, and its Catholic heritage, respects teachers. Jesus, as a teacher, could explain difficult things in a simple way; he had time for people who were at the bottom of the pile; he was patient with people while they were making mistakes and kind to those who had failed, encouraging them to keep going.

Saints such as John Bosco, and ­traditions such as Catholic schooling in Scotland, have continued that example.

Secondly, respect for teachers should translate into respectable levels of pay and conditions.

Pope Francis made that point recently in an address to a society of Italian ­educationalists. He went on to speak of teachers in Argentina who are so poorly paid they have to take a second job to make ends meet (incidentally, that can be true in the USA as well).

Thankfully, it’s not the case in Scotland. Although there is always room for sensible conversations about pay in any country. In Scotland, perhaps conditions are more of an issue at the moment.

A change to current conditions is that the Scottish Government is introducing testing for children in Primary 1, 4, 7 and at the end of S3. This is being done to enable the government to find out how learning is developing across the country.


Politicians are concerned that ­Scotland is falling behind in ­international league tables where it sits in the middle of the rankings. Research has shown that when this well-intentioned policy has been ­implemented in countries such as the US and England, three things happen.

One: the curriculum narrows because teachers concentrate only on those ­subjects the children need to know to pass the test.

Two: teachers become anxious about how they will be viewed if the results for some of the pupils in their class are poor.

Three: children become anxious, especially if the test is considered in school to be a ‘Big Thing’—a patch of my niece’s hair fell out as she prepared for a test in a school in England when she was about eight.

What is interesting about these ­reactions to testing is that both teachers and pupils feel anxiety. If teachers are anxious, then that will communicate itself to pupils and vice-versa, so close is the relationship between teachers and pupils.

So, instead of giving teachers more tasks to do when their teaching and administrative work is already heavy, and putting both teachers and pupils under pressure with tests, what could be done to give energy and life to both sides of the relationship?

At the University of Glasgow, we have been asking classroom teachers to join with student teachers and their ­university mentors to discuss aspects of the student’s learning.

Because mentors keep asking students questions about why they have chosen a particular approach to teaching, ­classroom teachers begin to ask ­themselves questions about why they take particular approaches.

Because classroom teachers have so much more experience than students—they have mastered the basics of teaching—they are able to give much more considered and thoughtful answers.

Classroom teachers who weren’t sure what it was going to be like sitting down with someone from the university, ­suddenly found themselves with lots to say as well as lots to think about in a new way. They told us they found it really refreshing and interesting to think about what they were doing from a more experienced career-stage.

The General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) is working with growing numbers of teachers who are enquiring into their own practice to improve it. Some of them will use standardised tests to get a feel for where their pupils are; then they will introduce some new ideas; then they will test again to see whether they can see an improvement.

This is a good use of testing because it’s being done as part of normal pupil learning and the results are used to help the pupils, not to rank them or label children as failures.

It’s also a great way for teachers to continue to learn. They can find up to date information because their GTCS membership gives them access to the latest research on education.

Then they can work out what could be useful in their classroom, introduce it and see whether it works for their pupils.

Thus they are liberated from routines with which they and their children have become thoroughly bored and may end up causing stress and burnout.

And if teachers are learning, the ­beneficiaries are the pupils. Children are more likely to be happy learners if their teachers are also happy learners.

A national, structured, mandatory programme of continued ­professional learning would enable Scotland to become a great ­education system.

It’s a recipe for generating two of the main aims of Curriculum for ­Excellence: successful learners and ­confident individuals.

Although Curriculum for Excellence has come in for a great deal of criticism, it would be a pity to overhaul it without making a concerted attempt to generate energy in one of the few areas in which Scotland is currently weak (not because we do it badly but because we don’t recognise fully its significance), and which could make such a vast

improvement on the one factor we know that improves pupil attainment: teacher quality.

Teachers deserve respect from society as a whole and from individuals within it. If you have teachers in your families and churches, make sure they know how respected they are. Let’s wish them Happy Holidays.

God knows they’ll need them.


Dr Beth Dickson is a senior lecturer in teacher learning at the University of Glasgow

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