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"The best teachers love their subject and have excellent subject knowledge"

Posted on: 21 Dec 2016
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

With DfE revealing research questioning the importance of subject-specialism in teachers, ISC Chairman Barnaby Lenon looks at good teachers' love for their subjects, as well as other factors that make the best educators.

This blog is in response to an article in TES which reported DfE research showing 'limited evidence' that subject specialist teachers can help improve pupil outcomes.


The best teachers are liked by their pupils. This tends to mean that they can keep good order, they teach with a sense of drive and ambition, and they are - beneath the surface maybe - kind and approachable.


The best teachers love their subject and have excellent subject knowledge (the two go together). It is the reason that some schools are happy to appoint an excellent graduate in a subject like physics even if they don’t have a teaching qualification. They are classified as ‘unqualified’, even though they may possess the most important qualities needed to teach well. Good subject knowledge matters not only because at the top of the ability range you need to be able to stretch pupils but also because teachers with good knowledge tend to make lessons for younger children more interesting. They have more substance to be interesting about.


Teachers need to have the right personality. Teaching is partly acting and acting ability helps greatly. The Harris Federation gives trainees sessions with a voice and body language coach to help them be a powerful presence in the classroom. Above all you need to be able to control a class, because without good discipline nothing worthwhile can be achieved. So that means good teachers are those whom pupils will respect - and slightly fear if necessary. They are completely in control of what’s going on around them. Pupils know the teacher will notice if they are misbehaving or if their work is incomplete or copied from another child and will take action - punish the child, perhaps, or require the work to be redone.


But the best teachers are not disciplinarians. They are a velvet hand in an iron glove. Pupils come to know, over time, that they are warm and generous. But they are not to be messed with. Discipline had to come first.


There are other personality traits that matter too. Good teachers are very hard working, putting a huge effort into preparing lessons, marking work and giving extra time to children who need it. They are generous with their time. They are able to manage stress. They are passionate about their school and their pupils, keen for all to do well. They are driven by the moral imperative of teaching – the opportunity to transform lives.


They are highly organised, because switching in a few seconds from one class to another, keeping track of individuals, remembering which extra duties they are down for, managing record-keeping and databases - all this requires good organisation.


Teachers need to have certain classroom skills. This is why all ‘unqualified’ teachers need some training, both before they start and throughout their two years of teaching. They need to be shown how to deliver a lesson with pace and interest, how best to ensure good behaviour, how to make use of pupil data, how to mark work and record those marks, how to write reports, how best to teach tricky concepts, how to ask questions of pupils in the most effective way, how to identify and teach pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.


Finally, they need to have high expectations of their pupils. This is a characteristic of all the best teachers. They are determined that every pupil will master their subject. This attitude sets the scene for everything which follows. Pupils who produce unsatisfactory work must be made to redo it until they achieve a good level. Pupils will be regularly tested to see whether they have understood and learnt the work; those who do badly will be retested. Excellent teachers believe that it is pupil effort and teaching quality which determine how well a child does, not the ability of the child. The less able children will get there in the end.

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About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of ISC.

Barnaby taught at Sherborne School and Eton College for 12 years, was deputy head of Highgate School, head of Trinity School Croydon and head of Harrow (12 years). He has been a governor of twenty-two schools. He is chairman of governors of the London Academy of Excellence, a free school which opened in 2012 in Newham, east London. He is chairman of the Independent Schools Council, a trustee of the Yellow Submarine charity, a director of the New Schools Network and a member of the Advisory Council of Parents and Teachers for Excellence. He has recently published two books: ‘Much Promise: successful schools in England’ and ‘Other People’s Children: what happens to the academically least successful 50%?’