The Famous Four

I recently read a very good piece by Carl Hendrick concerning the importance of personal relationships to pupil motivation and subsequent academic success. Claudio Ranieri was (reasonably enough) cast as a central figure when providing evidence to back up this assertion. His Leicester City team will win the Premier League this season, which is I suppose the equivalent of many of the lowest achieving pupils at the end of the Lower Sixth all winning Oxbridge places fewer than 12 months later. Yet this is the same Ranieri who was sacked by Greece from his previous job, following an ignominious defeat to the hapless Faroe Islands. This is the equivalent of a teacher with the weakest results in one School being forced to leave for just that reason, then having the ‘Oxbridge effect’ I mentioned earlier in his first year at a new School.

All we can glean from this is that football is an unpredictable sport. The very high currency of the goal (which differentiates football from many other sports) is a major factor, but the sport is littered with managers (and players) who were riotously successful with certain teams before becoming catastrophic failures with others (Graham Taylor, Terry Venables, George Graham, Paolo Di Canio to name just a few).

Teaching is, I think, more predictable than football, but I’ve noted teachers arriving at new Schools with saintly reputations from previous employ, only to be distinctly underwhelmed with them once they started at our place. Incidentally, this is also common to football, when the player who looked like a world-beater when he played against you suddenly signs for your team only to display all the hallmarks of a true Eyeore the second he pulls on your club shirt (Marco Gabbiadini, I *am* looking at you). The opposite is also true – we have at times taken a bit of a punt on certain individuals with less than stellar reputations, who have then flourished in their new surroundings.

Teaching may be more predictable, but it’s also a lot more complicated than football. The more one reads, the more courses one attends and the more one discusses and debates, the more it feels like there’s a real lack of consensus over ‘what works’. You can almost always find some research to back up your gut instinct over how it’s done, and most teachers seem to operate that way round ie decide the best approach and then look to see if anyone agrees. Just as I tend to prefer chefs who only put two or three ingredients on a plate, I respect teachers who adopt a relatively simplistic approach to education. Make sure you know your material (and plenty more besides) inside out and then communicate that material with a sense of clarity that allows the subject material to occupy centre stage (not the ‘engagement activities’ designed to act like the glass of water slipping the bitter pill of content down unnoticed).

So much, so simple. If we all did this, wouldn’t our outcomes be good, and the same? Well, no, because there are two other factors (at least) which have similar importance. The first is charisma and the second is intuition. If we assume that subject expertise can be guaranteed by appointing subject experts (would that this were true in practice, but at least it’s measurable) and that clarity of communication for all teachers will improve practice, it is the second pair of factors that can raise the merely acceptable teacher to levels of greatness.

When the charismatic individual talks, people listen. Topics which have hitherto held no interest for you suddenly become fascinating. When this person talks to a room full of people, they are talking to you as an individual. You don’t take your eyes off them for a moment for fear of missing something. They are a wonderful storyteller, they listen to you intently and take a genuine interest in what you say. When you talk to them, you want to appear knowledgeable and you are disappointed when you can’t find the right words. Their praise is not sprinkled like confetti but when given it really means something. People compete for this praise and for the individual’s attention. I don’t think great teachers are born, but I think with charisma, you’ve either got it or you haven’t.

Intuition is similar – why is it that some people just seem to *know* the best approach to take when there are many factors supporting option A and just as many supporting the polar opposite option B? Of course, in teaching, there’s usually options all the way down to ‘Q’ and only one of them can be correct. These are the people who will choose option A on Monday, which turns out to be correct and then option B on Tuesday, even though the scenario is virtually identical. They will then be proved right again. Of course experienced does help here, but I don’t think it’s enough on its own. I’ve worked with some teachers for whom intuition was only a very distant relative; when given the choice of ice cream or a dog turd for dessert (metaphorically), these people would choose the ‘steamed pudding’ on every occasion. Mike Brearley famously said that ‘people are like plants: some need fertiliser and others need pruning’. This applies to teaching too, but it’s not always the runaway vines that need pruning and sometimes it’s unwise to add fertiliser to even the most recalcitrant perennial.

Some pupils will make any teacher look competent, and other classes can make even the finest practitioners look more Christian Gross than Mario Pochettino, but a combination of expertise, communication skills, charisma and intuition is pretty potent.

Let me know if you ever meet someone matching this description, won’t you?

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5 thoughts on “The Famous Four

  1. It would help, I believe, if teachers stopped trying to be great, and that was not sold as an aim. Really good is enough. Actually, more than enough.

    The cult of “great” teaching leads to teachers trying to find excitement for every lesson, and make each topic an inspiration, which usually leads to some good and quite a lot of bad. It leads to desiring to be student-centred, because that’s inspirational, whereas traditional is never going to sound like it will deliver the sought after magic. Meanwhile really good teachers just keep plodding along delivering sound lessons, around sound objectives, day after day.

    When the charismatic individual talks, people listen.

    Well yes. But do they learn?

    I’ve been to inspirational talks where the moment I leave the room I am no wiser than when I entered. The person speaking has brilliantly sold me a message, but no facts, and no method to achieve what I need to achieve. Your own paragraph in fact is what is worst about charismatic teachers — it sounds so good, how could you not fall for it? But the nuts and bolts of teaching aren’t mentioned.

    Being a charismatic teacher is exhausting. They have to deliver that energy hour after hour, day after day. They inevitably burn up (or do a Dan Meyer and leave the classroom, so he can be inspirational once a week without having to deliver all day every day in front of kids who are long since over your schtick). It’s not practical, and not helpful to seek to be charismatic.

    And save me from charismatic head teachers. They’re the worst.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, but I think you may have missed the point slightly. I speak of charisma being something you either have or you don’t, so there’s no point trying to be charismatic if it’s just not you. Learning is invisible, certainly, but it’s far more likely that pupils will learn from a teacher they listen to. I do think all teachers should strive to be the best they can be, and I agree with a broadly traditional approach (note my scepticism around engagement activities). I think there are certain aspects of excellent/effective teaching (I’m deliberately not using the word great) which depend on the inherent personality of the individual. This is the ‘x factor’ that so very few of us possess.

  2. My nomination for a Famous Four teacher would be one of my lecturers at Adelaide University, Chaucer scholar Tom Burton. He injected his charisma into lectures on & performances of Chaucer, and intuition into each widely different tutorial. I also had three high school teachers in French, English & Mediaeval History who were similarly blessed with these four qualities.

    • You are a lucky man, Jonathan. Brian Robson taught me English for my penultimate year of Prep School and fired my love of radio and poetry, largely by firing my imagination. I filled the gaps that he opened up.

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