Part 1: The Myth of the “Great Teacher”


First of all, I feel I have to clarify the title of this latest blog post.  I am not suggesting for a moment that great teachers are a myth.  Indeed, I have been fortunate enough to see a number of them in action with my own eyes.  What I am referring to is the myth that surrounds them, like they were “born to teach”, like they have a secret x-factor, and like ‘how’ they do what they do is somewhat submersed in mystery.

We all know of the ‘great teacher’ or (hopefully) ‘teachers’ in our schools, and if you don’t, you just have to ask the kids and they will tell you (small side note, being popular and being great can be very different!) Remember being at school? You knew them then as well.  In fact, I bet you can also re-count the bad ones.

But what is this ‘great’ tag we appoint to them?  What actually is it they are doing that makes them great? What is good and bad after all when it comes to teaching? And who defines it? and If we can define it, can we learn how to do it?

I think so.

The trouble is that teaching is an isolating profession, for some more than others.

As an example, at our school, our leadership team has put in place teacher learning triads.  We are expected to observe one another’s lessons periodically throughout the term.  It is clear that we are not necessarily watching the teaching as such, but more the learning that is taking place.  We provide feedback based on what elements the teacher has requested us to observe and not on random beliefs that we hold or incidental factors that arise in the lesson (as is the way with some teacher training placement ‘crits’).  It is done professionally and is very much non-threatening and non-judgemental.  Really it is.

These experiences both as teacher and observer have been inspiring, fun, eye-opening (in a good way) and educational and have definitely added an element of collegiality to our staff room.  We actually are all in it together.  And by that I mean we use our pedagogy framework as a teaching strategy.  Just like all successful teams we know our role, we know how to execute it, and we are all on the same page.  We know what ‘works’.    Students find the same types of approaches to teaching and learning in all areas of the school.  It also has to be said that even with a whole staff teaching strategy, creativity, individuality and innovation is encouraged and should never be compromised.  We are not trying to create teacher robots.

U.S. studies into teacher retention have shown that “a lack of professional support” is the single biggest factor in new teachers leaving the profession.  In other words, the feel like they are on their own.

This attrition could be explored further, but my intention for this post is to look at the star performers, the teachers who do for learning, what Michael Jordan did for the slam dunk.

“Students who are taught by the most effective teachers will learn in six months what those taught by an average teacher will take a year to learn.” Wiliam 2011.

This, by educational research guru Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam) is derived from evidence based research and is both interesting and alarming in equal measure.  Especially given that most teachers would probably fall into the ‘average’ category, wouldn’t they?

Picture the scene, “Ah Mary, it appears you have been assigned to Mr Jones’ class this year, feel free to leave at lunchtime each day as Mr Jones is our best teacher”.  “Hmm…Sally, Unfortunately you are with Mr Smith, he is average so you must stay for the whole day!”

Which class do you want to be in?

For the purposes of concentrating on teaching and learning I am purposely bypassing all of the personal qualities we would expect in a great teacher e.g. caring, passionate, knowledgeable, flexible etc. These are no less important but in fact provide the ingredients for success when you first walk in to the school rather than the recipe for it.

So what is it the “most effective” teachers are doing day in and day out?

Well the first bit of good news is; it’s no secret. The second is we can all do it.  What I am interested in is how can we take all of the educational research that is largely based on stereotypical classroom-type scenarios and modify it to have the most impact in PE in our gyms and playing fields

In order to blog somewhat succinctly, I will use this as the beginning of a series of posts to reveal my thoughts on what these ‘things’ are.  These will be largely based on the formative assessment research of Wiliam that we use as our core teaching strategy in our school, but modified for PE.  My approach to PhysEdagogy, if you like.

I have to credit Adam Howell (@thedumbjockmyth) for the deft phrase.  If you have not seen Adam’s “PhysEdagogy” series of interviews with great Physed-ers then you should check them out, they are wonderful.

I hope you can stay for the journey over the next few posts and share your thoughts with me.


4 thoughts on “Part 1: The Myth of the “Great Teacher”

  1. Hi Ross,
    Another interesting post that has be intrigued to read on.
    Great teachers are those that reflect on their practice and knowledge and continually strive for ways to improve and be ‘greater’.
    Your blog is a perfect example of the reflections of a great teacher striving to improve his knowledge and strengthen his practice.

    • Rachel,
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I hope the latest post gives a measure of how much value i’m getting from our T&L FP program. Keep commenting and sharing your thoughts with me!

  2. Ross, excellent blog post. I look forward to your series of blog posts. It sounds like you are in a good place and any time that teachers can come in and peer observe their colleagues makes for some very authentic PD in itself. Sounds like everyone is on the same page over there and I believe this to be critical, not only for morale, but also for generating a very positive learning environment for both teachers and students.

    We are lucky to have Dylan Wiliam coming to our school in Nanjing in September. I have read his work and am very excited to sit in and listen to what he has to say over the three days he’ll be at our school.

    I like that when teachers observe each other they listen and watch for the learning that is taking place. Added to this is the power in walking around and listening to only the conversations. Almost as if we could close our eyes and only listen to this can tell us so much about what is happening.

    We should be using Dylan’s research for PEPLC as it would be a very powerful resource for the learning that is to take place.

    Keep the blog posts coming Ross. Talk soon.

    • Andy,

      Thanks so much for your comments. The peer observation has been a terrific ride, i’m in with a grade 6 teacher and out principal who teaches spelling mastery so the different contexts to PE have been really informative and interesting. Glad to hear Dylan Wiliam is coming to school there, his T&L strategies are clever, evidence based and really work. I’m really interested in modifying a lot of what he offers for our PE gyms and playing fields. I hope we can talk more about this once you’ve had the chance to meet him. I hope to be referencing some of his research as part of our #peplc learning group for sure. Thanks again for the support and thoughtful comment mate.

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