How do the best teachers get to be good? If you reject outright the platitude that good teachers are just born good, then we have a job to do: you know one when you see one, and you never forget a good one, but how exactly do you make more of them?
Inspirational teacher training is a long-term route to making schools and universities more inspiring places. On the poet WB Yeats’ view, after all, education is more the stoking of a fire than the filling of a pot. Fire spreads, so to speak. So how to set teachers’ minds alight?
Dr Janet Orchard (Bristol University) and I have spent the past year asking professional teacher trainers in Religious Education (a subject is under threat in schools at the moment, but that is another story) what they think makes a good teacher. Their answers focused on very specific and technical issues. They said that teachers need a clear sense of the purpose of their subject; a clear engagement with the curriculum-making processes and politics that influence it; the ability to blend and adapt different approaches to their subject; and an on-going habit of critical self-reflection on their own teaching. So far so good, you might say, so long as they care about their job and teach with passion.
Yet among academic philosophers of education there are more ambitious plans afoot. An emerging band of these philosophers are now turning classical and asking what Aristotle might have had to say on the matter. They use a deceptively quaint phrase to describe his version of the good teacher: practical wisdom. Can you honestly imagine such a pithy and magnanimous phrase gleaming forth from the mouth of a government minister for education?
Aristotle’s Practical Wisdom has, they say, three component parts. First there is episteme; theoretical knowledge and understanding of education itself. Second is techne; practical skill and technical competence in the classroom. Third is phronesis; the capacity to make judgements.
Judgement mattered to Aristotle, and so the ability of teachers to think for themselves matters here: should students not strive to be at least as curious and imaginative as the best of their teachers? Should teachers not, as they would have their students, question the status quo, and draw on the past not to recreate it, but to reinvent the future?
If you agree that to be educated is to think for yourself – long after you’ve forgotten what you learnt – then generating teachers who think must be part of improving education overall. To love infecting others with a love of ideas is indeed the privilege of a happy teacher. In this the good teacher is, if nothing else, not a professional studded and embellished with qualifications, but primarily a thinker who makes their own judgements.
If teachers are not thinking for themselves – about their lessons, their curriculum, their students, the priorities of their schools and universities, and the structures and policies which govern the idea of education at all levels – then who on earth is? Not those they teach, for a start. Rote learning and teaching-to-the-test have never been known for starting forest fires in the imagination. To make good teachers we must care about their autonomy, their enthusiasm, their resilience, and more prosaically – and perhaps impossibly – we might even have to care about their happiness: it is, in the end, their judgement that counts.
Aristotle would have us think again about how we engage with teaching as a profession, as an ideal and as a solution to educational failures. Teacher training matters, and intellectual arson matters, for fire does spread: If the teachers are not burning, it should not be surprising that their students aren’t either.
Dr Hugo Whately is a faculty member of The School of Life. He is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and researcher, and is currently teacher associate to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education which promotes critical reflection on beliefs and values.
The full report by Dr Janet Orchard and Dr Hugo Whately is available to read by clicking here.