How would you define a brilliant teacher?

Christopher Henley

Energetic and inspirational speaker Chris Henley has over 35 years experience in schools. Chris is the co-author of the highly successful book series "Art of being a Brilliant Teacher", and “The Decisive Element”.

Follow @DecisiveChris

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I am guessing many of us remember at least one teacher who really stood out from the others, someone who has made a real impact on our lives. I am often tempted to define a brilliant teacher as one who passes the thirty year test: when you catch up with them thirty years later, you want to go up and talk to them, because they made such a difference to your life. The thing about making a difference is that you can never unmake that difference. Once you are "that" teacher for a child, you will retain a special place in their hall of fame for ever.

If you work in a school, it is always salutary to have a wander round the corridors during lesson time. You can peer in through the window of one classroom and see a teacher with some of the most unbiddable and notorious kids in the school, but they are eating out of his or her hand. On another day, you can do the same exercise and see the same kids with a different teacher, and they are being listless and restless, prodding and poking each other and being silly and unruly. What is the difference?

In our book "The Art of Being a Brilliant Teacher" we try to identify the hallmarks of these 30 year teachers. What has the first teacher in our example got which the second one hasn't? Let's see if we can pinpoint three hallmarks.


Brilliant relationships

Brilliant relationships are the foundation stone for great behaviour for learning. In times gone by, fear of physical chastisement was used to instil discipline. Once caning was made illegal, there was still an assumption that you would do as you are told by the teacher, but the world has now changed. There is no automatic deference to authority nowadays. Whether you are a teacher, a police officer, or work in a prison, you have to earn that respect, and that means getting people to want to do what you want them to do. Building great relationships takes time, and when you change schools or classes, you have to start all over again. Find out what makes each child tick, what are they interested in, and arrange to have mini conversations as they arrive in your class or whenever you meet them out and about in school. Touch base with them about what matters to them. Find out who has got guinea pigs, who supports the local football team, who watches X Factor, or what computer games they play?

Be the teacher who listens. Kids who find school tough going say time and again why they don't like school: "I don't like the teachers. They don't listen." There is a stereotypical view of a teacher as a shouty, naggy, bossy, sanctimonious person who forces you to do something you wouldn't choose to do, probably don't want to do, and don't think you are very good at, and they threaten you with penalty or punishment if you don't do it. Be Mr or Ms Different. The teacher who "gets" the kids, who listens, who smiles, who has time for every child, who thanks kids, who always sees the best in every child, every lesson, every day, every week.

brill teacher 3

Brilliant lessons

Brilliant teachers teach lessons to die for. Many kids who don't like school and don't make the progress they could complain that lessons are boring. Sure, some of the things we are charged with teaching don't immediately leap off the page for young people. The fronted adverbial, irregular verbs in French or ox bow lakes are hardly the stuff of dreams, but brilliant teachers answer the question "Why?". Why do they have to learn this? Why should they bother?

These teachers spin a web of magic in every lesson, fizzing with their own enthusiasm for the learning objectives. They connect the learning to the kids' own world and they show the big picture so that they can see the point of what they are doing. The lessons are full of variety, with each lesson being made up of different activities. There is a huge element of fun and humour, with creative activities designed to engage the enthusiasm of the kids. No two lessons are the same, each one being crafted to perfection combining the different elements of the learning to make sure the kids want to engage and want to learn.

brill teacher 1 

Culture of Positivity

Perhaps most important of all, brilliant teachers create a culture of positivity where learners know that they are valued and appreciated. We are all good at talking ourselves down and saying things to ourselves which we wouldn't dare to say to other people. A brilliant teacher can change a child's life with one word. They can look deeply into a child's soul and say "I rate you. With my help you can do this. You are a good person with gifts and talents." Many children have grown up without anyone telling them that, and the effect can be dramatic and life-changing.

Praise focused on effort is a crucial tool in the teacher's armoury, and has been shown to be a much more powerful motivator than criticism for achieving the desired outcome, which is usually better work and better behaviour. Even better, keep in close contact with the folks at home and make sure that praise reaches the pockets of parents on a regular basis.

Brilliant teachers are not born, they work at improving their skills and learning from each other on a daily basis. Teaching is the greatest profession on earth because teachers make people, and teachers make every other profession. You can never stop learning. At the beginning of my career, I wasn't a brilliant teacher. By the end of it, people were kind enough to say I was.

Be very proud to be a teacher. You change lives for the better day by day.

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