What makes great teaching?

Great teaching combines effective instruction with continuous improvement.

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the words you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools…

Rudyard Kipling, 1892


“English Teacher Joe Kirby has taken me to task in his blog ‘Pragmatic Education’… I take particularly seriously the concerns teachers such as Joe Kirby have about the teaching practices which our current examination system encourages.
He, and many others, are deeply worried about what he calls, ‘the enacted school curriculum: what actually gets taught in classrooms.’… Kirby’s challenge to us in government is clear.”

Secretary of State Michael Gove, May 2013, Brighton College

Just as is it an illusion to see an allusion to your words by a Secretary of State as a triumph, perhaps to see it as Blind Pew delivering the lethal black spot, a disastrous, fatal ultimatum, or an official pronouncement of a verdict of guilt, might be an imposter.


There is no lever a government in Whitehall can pull to improve the quality of teaching in classrooms. Instead, the challenge I want to focus on in this blog post is clarifying at a grass-roots level what it is that makes great teaching. As headteacher and blogger Tom Sherrington says:

What makes a great teacher? was a popular post. I suppose that’s not surprising; people are intrigued to know what the answer might be. Am I a great teacher? Can I be a great teacher? What would it take for me to feel that this applies to me? We all want to know. I’m the same’. 

Similarly, headteacher and blogger John Tomsett strikes a similar chord:

‘We need to break the glass ceiling which surrounds great teaching so that we all aspire to it and see it as achievable. We need to foster a growth culture which is founded upon the belief that all of us can improve.’ The challenge from teachers, headteachers and education bloggers is clear: how can we as a teaching profession improve the quality of our teaching?

Anecdotally, I’ve felt frustrated recently about my teaching practice. Last year, with a cycle of weekly observations, coaching conversations, regular observations of other teachers and a weekly journal evaluating my impact on learning, I was on a steep learning curve. This year, without such frequent observations or as much time to observe others, I’m on a flattening plateau.


The research shows that this plateau in teaching is not just anecdotal, but fairly widespread. Head of English Alex Quigley has written for the Guardian on this topic here on the autopilot phenomenon. Evidence from Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005), is that after the first couple of years teacher quality reaches a plateau. Teacher experience beyond this point has a negligible impact upon student attainment. Wiliam cites sobering research to show that across 90,000 students, on average a student with a twenty-year veteran teacher will not learn much more literacy than from a novice teacher.

I think we are relatively clear on what makes a good teacher. Research shows that effective teaching accelerates students’ academic achievement. Students in the classroom of the most effective teachers make double the amount of progress of average teachers in a year.


Sir Michael Wilshaw puts it simply: ‘what’s good is what works’. His speech at the RSA on ‘what is a good teacher?’ contained some sensible ideas based on good teachers he’d worked with: ‘firstly, planning was everything for them’; ‘secondly, they were incredibly reflective teachers … teaching was a learning experience for them’; ‘thirdly, they were very perceptive people who understood the dynamic of the classroom’; ‘fourthly, they understood that nothing is taught unless it’s learned. They measured their success, therefore, on whether children were learning and making progress’; ‘they were resilient, fierce characters; fierce, not in a repressive or bullying way, but tough on standards, authoritative, not authoritarian’; ‘if you are going to be successful as a teacher, head of department or headteacher, you’ve got to be a high profile, highly visible person who has the physical and emotional energy to walk the walk and not just talk the talk’. These seem to me like sound ideas founded on a solid understanding of what schools are like and what it takes to be a good teacher.

So how can we get from good to great? The question of what distinguishes great teachers from good teachers is one I’ve been asking of headteachers, bloggers, pupils and researchers recently.


In fact, yesterday I took my Year 7 class to The Globe Theatre to see The Tempest, which we’d been studying in class, and asked them throughout the day what they thought made a great teacher. The best response I got was from Grace: ‘An inspiring teacher inspires us, of course!’ When I asked, ‘inspires you to what?’ Grace replied, ‘to love the subject!’ Quite perceptive, I thought. One of my Year 10 students (by which time they’ve been taught by over 50 teachers) who I most trust, Tamoy, wrote me a reply: ‘Great teachers get students to not only learn to love the subject more, but also give them the drive and courage to pursue that subject, even if they had doubts beforehand.’ Incidentally, both these students have a parent who’s a teacher – I often find those who do have the most empathy and insight into teaching!

The headteachers I’ve encountered have also tackled the question of great teaching. Tom Sherrington lists five things that the great teachers he knows have in common:

1) They are drivers

2) They nurture student-teacher relationships

3) They take joy in going off piste … but take exams really seriously

4) They celebrate the intrinsic reward and motivating power of learning and achieving; explain complex concepts in ways that make sense; they ask good questions and give really good feedback

5) They are principled about people, about learning and work with integrity


He also lists twelve steps to a great teacher reputation:

1. Teach great lessons consistently

2. Build positive relationships

3. Give effective feedback

4. Know your subject and use that to good effect.

5. Lay a path to successful outcomes for your students

6. Embrace a total G&T Philosophy

7. Express yourself

8. Give time generously to students who need you.

9. Engage with parents

10. Get involved in the school community

11. Maintain high professional standards

12. Show initiative; offer solutions; be collaborative; be your own CPD champion

He also details ten aspects he feels are important to great lessons:

1. Probing  2. Rigour 3.Challenge 4. Differentiation 5. Journeys 6. Explaining  7. Agility 8. Awe 9. Possibilities 10. Joy.

His ideas certainly have traction: these articles have over 1,000 shares on Twitter between them and his blog has had 150,000 views in the last year. Another headteacher with a prolific online profile, John Tomsett, ‘we need to focus on the impact of specific elements of our practice upon student learning’. I pressed him on this on his blog: ‘in your experience, what specific teaching practices make the biggest impact on student learning?’ He replied: ‘Hi Joe. I think the quality of feedback, questioning, direct instruction, and teacher/student expectations are amongst the most specific teaching practices which make the biggest impact on student learning’.


The one thing 

The trouble I find with the listing approach employed above by Sir Michael, John and Tom is this: anyone can list, but everyone’s list will differ. Instead, here’s another approach. After working at the Gallup Research Organisation for 17 years, amassing thousands of interviews with the world’s best managers and leaders, Marcus Buckingham wrote books that have sold millions of copies. One of his books is titled: ‘The one thing you need to know … about great managing and great leading’. His drive was to answer the imperative: ‘get me to the core’; ‘get me to the heart of the matter’. Despite, or perhaps because of, the significant subtlety and complexity in these roles, there is a clamour for powerful simplicity. So he asks, if you dig into a subject deeply enough, what do you find? Is there one deep controlling insight or organising principle that underpins sustained success, the greatest possible impact over the longest period of time? He has three tests for such an insight: it must apply across a wide range of situations; it should show you how to get the greatest return on your time and energy invested; and it must guide action by pointing to precise things you can do to create better outcomes. Buckingham sets the bar high for a solution to the question: what’s the one thing you need to know about great teaching?

Three Contenders

1. ‘Great teachers are effective instructors.’ 


When I asked great education bloggers Tom Bennett and Andrew Old their thoughts on this in 140 characters, their responses were typically direct. ‘Giving a damn about your subject; rigorous behaviour boundaries; high expectations of them all; tenacity’, said Tom; ‘It’s basically the ability to explain well; everything else is just administration’, Andrew said. Kris Boulton, KSA’s Deputy Head of Maths said: ‘explaining in such a way that no one can fail to understand’.  Alex Quigley fleshed this out: ‘explaining, questioning and feedback: the holy trinity of great teaching’. The e-book that 40 teachers have contributed to this summer included ‘explanations, questioning, practice and feedback’ as the four pillars of effective instruction, and research from John Hattie and Siefried Engelmann, two of the world’s most successful educational researchers, corroborates this.


As Tom Bennett points out, great teaching in a secondary school is subject-specific. Tessa Matthews concurs: ‘what makes a great teacher is excellent subject knowledge.’ A great analogy here is that in their subjects, most teachers play draughts; great teachers play chess. Deep strategic subject knowledge of how the movements of the pieces combine is crucial to effective instruction.


2. ‘Great teachers are leaders.’

After two decades of educational success in the toughest inner-city schools, Teach For America captured what they’d learned about their greatest teachers in the book ‘Teaching as Leadership: ‘We see highly effective teachers, whose students overcome inordinate challenges to achieve dramatic academic success, embodying the same principles employed by successful leaders in any challenging context’. From thousands of surveys, interviews and focus groups with their best teachers, the principles Teach For America suggest are setting big goals, planning purposefully and continually improving effectiveness.


One of the leadership analogies that I most like is this: ‘if you want to get people to build a raft, don’t get them to fetch logs; get them to yearn for the vast immensity of the sea.’ This strikes me as particularly pressing in teaching, where a lot of my instructions are the equivalent of log-fetching rather than inspiring a love of the subject.


Just as the greatest leaders create leaders, great teachers turn their students into teachers in lessons. Stephen Covey’s books have sold over 20 million copies, and as a teacher over the decades, he distilled its essence into this great principle: ‘the best way to get people to learn is to turn them into teachers.’ He goes on, ‘when you teach you simply learn better… those who teach what they are learning are, by far, the greatest students.’

3. ‘Great teachers keep improving.’

dweck  johnhattie lemov

When most teachers plateau, great teachers keep the learning curve steep. Carol Dwek explodes the myth of the naturally talented hero teacher, and says: ‘Great teachers are fascinated in the process of learning, and believe in the growth of the intellect’. Dylan William concurs: ‘Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better’. John Tomsett includes a striking comment: ‘Of all the excellent teachers that I’ve seen over the years, the best shared a common trait: they always thought they could do better, and they always thought their colleagues, even first year colleagues, could teach them something worthwhile.Alex Quigley suggests the route to improvement is deliberate practice, in contrast to unthinking habits on autopilot. John Hattie says that great teachers ‘strive to continually improve their impact’ on student attainment. Doug Lemov, whose organisation, Uncommon Schools, works in schools with poverty rates of 80 to 98%, suggests that ‘with practice you’ll get stronger results if you spend your time practising the most important things’. Great teachers love learning; they work at improving in everything they do, it all its vast complexity; they prioritise what’s critical; and they teach what they’ve learned about teaching to other teachers, accelerating their own and others’ development.


Steepen the learning curve

As Lemov realises, the focus must be on improving what’s vital for great teaching. For me, our focus should be ruthlessly and relentlessly on the critical non-negotiable priorities: student practice, effort and motivation in the subject, and feedback for improvement.

In a single sentence, great teaching combines effective instruction with continuous improvement. A consensus is gathering: by effective instruction, we mean subject-specific explanations, questioning, practice and feedback. Whether this one sentence passes the three tests for such an insight – whether it applies across a wide range of situations; whether it shows you how to get the greatest return on your time and energy invested; and whether it guides action by pointing to precise things you can do to create better outcomes – is down to you to decide.


Certainly, though, great teaching is only part of the jigsaw – it cannot happen without certain prerequisites. Other than mastery assessment, which I’ve already written about, I’m writing on those other pieces of the puzzle in upcoming blog posts: a great curriculum, great training, and great school leadership.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to What makes great teaching?

  1. carmen says:

    In her application essay to the Ph.D. program at Penn University Angela Duckworth wrote that her decade-long teaching experience in schools both as a teacher and consultant had given her “a distinctly different view of school reform” to the one she had started out with. She wrote: “The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves. Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging…To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”
    People who achieved great things, she noticed, often combined ‘a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles, whatever the odds and however long it might take.’ She decided to name this quality “grit” (yes, if you’re wondering, she did borrow the term from that old John Wayne movie ‘True Grit’). As with learning so too with teachers – the great teachers never stop trying to become great teachers. They don’t hang around waiting for someone to take of their CPD – they take care of it themselves (always have done and will do!); they don’t hang around waiting for 1:1 to occur – they use what they and the kids have got: creatively yet to one end alone to further learning.

  2. This is very interesting Joe. If asked for 140 characters I couldn’t do better than Alex: ‘explaining, questioning and feedback’. I agree with you regarding listing; it can dissipate the thinking. However I hope that the Great Lessons series isn’t viewed as a list – it wasn’t written as one; each post is really a different way of looking at one thing. For me, Explaining is probably the One but it has to be underpinned by a teacher with strong subject knowledge and the tools to interact with all of their students so that their learning is secured as a consequence. Curriculum and Leadership will make a difference but it’s significant that in the same school, with the same curriculum, one teacher can be great whilst their colleague next door can be dire. That suggests Training is probably the One of the other pieces. Thanks again…. you’ve raised the bar of the blog-world for sure.

  3. behrfacts says:

    I’m not a teaching expert but am equally intrigued as you and others about what makes great teaching. Perhaps it’s like many things human – you only know when you see it. My gut feeling is that it is about living and breathing the value of learning and related to the reason why parents invest in their children’s education (in the case of India, increasingly in private schools and/or through private tutoring). This is a stark choice in those parts of the world where a child reading a book is considered a waste of manual labour and a potential loss of food. So you may be a great teacher but frankly, who gives a damn. Ultimately teachers need to answer this question and not politicians or others who think they know the answer.

  4. Charles says:

    I agree with all this. As a school governor with some experience over the years, I recognise the plateau, as well as burn-out, and also the inevitable challenges, in a state school system, of accountability, measurable progress and so on, and also structural impediments, with which governors battle constantly – not enough money (revenue and capital), recruitment difficulties, tackling poor performance reasonably but speedily, industrial relations, time, “admin”, behaviour concerns, pastoral requirements, leadership/management not only at SLT level but also at middle leader level, and the challenge/pressure to “reform”, take the acaemy route etc..

    There’s always a tension between teaching and everything else that goes on in a school. As a governor I, and my colleagues, are concerned to ensure above all that nothing gets in the way of good and great teaching, and learning. So – better admin systems meaning less time on data entry, effective pastoral systems and behaviour policy and practice so teachers can be confident that behaviour getting in the way of teaching is dealt with, reducing costs where possible to focus as much of the budget as we can on teaching and learning, and giving teachers the space to continue learning. While at the same time being mindful of the ethos of the school, making time for a wide range of extra-curricula opportunities, ensuring that the needs of all students are met…it’s a balancing act.

    What in your view are the barriers to great teaching?

  5. krisboulton says:

    Something occurred to me earlier. Question: what if the idea of the ‘infinitely improving teacher’ is a myth? What if constant ‘development’ is a red herring? What if the plateau isn’t a plateau at all, but expertise?

    What if we flip the situation, á la Willingham – after but two years, a teacher can have the expertise and command of a twenty year veteran! Is this not desirable? In an ideal world would we not want to turn around the best possible teachers in the shortest possible time?

    Certainly we don’t want to close minds – we don’t want a situation where people arrogantly assert that they know everything, and there’s nothing left for them to learn. It could though be equally extreme to assert that teachers must perpetually learn at a similarly rate to when they first started. Is that really what we’d want: a situation sure it takes new teachers twenty years to achieve excellence?

    What if people are simply quickly mastering the main elements of teaching, as we should surely want them to! From there, the ongoing development may be marginal gains; worth pursuing, but not the dramatically steep learning curve of year 1.

    This may be a bit controversial – I’d love to hear what other people think.

  6. Nick Hart says:

    Reblogged this on Penn Wood CPD.

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  9. Emma says:

    Hi there,

    This is my first time visiting this blog and I am very impressed, it is clear that all contributers are incredibly passionate about teaching and persuing higher levels of excellence in the classroom.

    Joe/Kris, do you have a contact email address please as I would like to get in contact with you but would prefer to do this via email as opposed to via the blog.

    Many thanks,


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  14. Dylan Wiliam says:

    Harvard’s Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot described great teaching as “Ideas conveyed through relationships”. I can’t improve on that…

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