What makes an effective teacher? Can an effective teacher really be summarised through a few bullet points? A number of research reports have been published which discuss the ‘composition’ of an effective teacher.

What does effective mean?

Effective can quite simply be defined as ‘getting the job done’, so an effective teacher is one who can engage with the full range of expected activities, for example, planning the lesson, preparing the resources, facilitating the learning experience and determining whether the learning experience was of benefit through assessment and feedback. Arguably more time is devoted to the initial stages than the latter – for example, it may take three hours to plan a one-hour lesson. Indeed, the lesson may well be very effective, yet what has been the cost to the teacher? If each lesson takes three hours to prepare and there are four lessons in the day, the teacher would need to find sixty hours per week in order to plan before the actual teaching, assessment and other assorted elements of the school week. Although each lesson may be ‘effective’, a balance needs to be sought: to prevent exhaustion the teacher needs to develop an efficient approach to their work. Indeed, although research often discusses what makes an effective teacher, little credit is given to efficiency, as cutting corners is often seen as bad practice.

In an attempt to redefine efficiency: as you progress with your teaching career, you will identify elements that work for you, activities that can be adapted, which in turn will result in higher productivity. This approach can be likened to a trainee chef cutting carrots: at first each slice will take time, with different-sized slices of carrot, resulting in some being over- or under-cooked, yet when a chef becomes practised, chopping a carrot looks effortless, with each slice being of a uniform size. A similar analogy can be made with learning to walk, drive a car, indeed any skills where practice makes perfect. Consequently, within your teaching career, becoming efficient, while balancing this with effectiveness, is something to strive for.

Taken to an extreme, a teacher may be very efficient at planning a lesson, perhaps only spending twenty minutes on this (approximating to seven hours of planning for a week), yet the lesson may not be effective: the lesson may be too simple or too complex, it may not cover the recommended objectives, and so on. This balance of efficiency and effectiveness can be summarised in relation to the Confucian philosophical approach, specifically the Doctrine of the Mean, dating back over two thousand years, which can be seen as: doing the right thing at the right time to achieve a desired outcome (Fung, 1976).

What do students think?

Several studies have asked learners what they think makes an effective teacher. From reviewing these studies, there are three key areas that appear as themes across the research:

  1. effective teachers are able to develop good learning relationships
  2. effective teachers have a good subject background, and
  3. effective teachers have good organisational skills.

Effective teachers are able to develop good learning relationships

Within this element there are three strands: understanding, communication and enjoyment. These three areas can overlap as will become evident below.

In relation to understanding, an effective teacher understands learners and their problems. Such examples in practice relate to a teacher who has an appropriate judgement and expectations of what a learner can do, while similarly encouraging the learner to raise their own expectations. Additionally, such understanding is demonstrated by being able to help learners with difficulties through spending time with them and focusing on their needs. Understanding is also demonstrated through being able to relate well with learners while treating them with respect similarly

The second strand, communication, is closely aligned to the third strand of enjoyment. Consider a time when you have enjoyed your teaching and the effect this has had on the learners you worked with, as opposed to a time when you have not enjoyed a lesson, perhaps continually checking the time to see when you could ‘escape’ and progress to a more fulfilling lesson. Given that, as teachers, our aim is to communicate increasingly more complex concepts in a manner that all learners will understand and actually engage with on a personal level, communication is central to our role. Indeed, consider any incidents of your teaching career so far where you have worked with a learner and seen their proverbial ‘eyes light up’ as they have understood a concept, a time when your communication was explicit in nature, clear to the learner and at an appropriate level to ensure their learning progressed. 

As discussed, communication relates closely to enjoyment: if you are working at your optimum level, you will not only communicate efficiently and effectively, you should also be enjoying the lesson unfolding somewhat seamlessly. In such a lesson, your learners should also reap the benefits, in turn enjoying the learning experience. There will however be times when a lesson may not be the most awe-inspiring; perhaps due to your confidence in the subject matter, or that the learners are not as inspired by the focus of the lesson. Consequently balancing the demands of the curriculum with the demands of the learners is an area to consider, as is echoed throughout this book. The aim is to find something inherent in the lesson which will captivate and engage the learners, often finding unique and novel ways to stimulate such learning. Ultimately, being able to communicate with learners on a number of levels is of paramount importance.

Yet what does this mean in practice? Simply defined, this may relate to working with the learners at class level (when communicating the core ideas of the lesson), group level (when leading a discussion) or individual level (providing one-to-one support). Alternately this may relate to the teacher cliché of being able to communicate the same idea or concept in a hundred different ways for a hundred different learners

Effective teachers have a good subject background

An effective teacher is unlikely to work to the best of their abilities without having a sense of enjoyment and enthusiasm for teaching: such enthusiasm is displayed through a teacher who has a strong subject background. Indeed, learners have reported that an effective teacher has a good knowledge of their subject (Check, 1986; Santrock, 2001) and that this knowledge enables the teacher to present stimulating work (Brown and McIntyre, 1993; Santrock, 2001).

Of course, the very nature of teaching means that the subject content will continue to be redefined over a teacher’s career, similarly very few teachers will be versed in the intricacies of their subject (or a range of subjects) before qualifying, or indeed for a few years after. However, a teacher’s commitment to ensuring the continual improvement of their knowledge and skills is paramount which in turn ensures that teaching is viewed as a profession and not just a job.

To this extent, there is little separating teaching and learning; teaching is a continual process of developing subject expertise, then being able to share this with learners so that they can develop their own knowledge and understanding. The process is never ending: new knowledge, newly defined changes to the curriculum, the role of learning technologies, among many other variables, continue to ensure that teachers will never become complacent. Such complacency is an important issue to address, given the discussion about profession: once a teacher becomes complacent, without the continual drive for ‘perfection’ through continually improving their knowledge and skills, can such a teacher be deemed a professional? As can often be the case, others can probably see what such a teacher is unable to: that there may be failings in their practice.

Effective teachers have good organisational skills

A teacher may be able to develop great learning relationships and be extremely well-versed in their subject, yet without organisation supporting these other elements, the teacher will not be effective. It is this last element that combines the others. Such organisation is demonstrated through well-prepared, clearly structured lessons (Check, 1986; Ruddick et al., 1996). Additionally, such lessons have a specific focus with an engaging content where there is a variety of pace and activity (Ruddick et al., 1996). Given the attributes relating to organisational skills, how do these transform to your specific planning? Indeed, this very much relates to the age range of the learners you are working with alongside the area of the curriculum you are covering. Certain subjects are clearly structured (for example, numeracy or literacy), while others have less refined structures (for example, history or music). What may be appropriate in one subject may not be appropriate in another, therefore it is worth reflecting on a lesson you delivered which has worked really well. 

So, after reading this, what do you think makes an effective teacher?