Making The Grade: Can You Learn To Be A Better Teacher

Finding a great educationist is a challenging task. For me, the best among my mentors were those who shared funny anecdotes to lighten the mood during class. Mr Fleet, a witty Scouser, used to incorporate amusing stories about his wife, his car, and his one-time meeting with Jeremy Isaacs in economics classes. Similarly, Mr Johnson, my English teacher, impacted my future career by providing me with reading materials such as Private Eye and A Confederacy of Dunces. Mr Powell, who excelled in mathematics, demanded our attention by scratching his fingernails on the blackboard and wielding a yard ruler like a rapier. Teachers like these made class exciting for me and provided the best education I could ask for.

However, natural-born teachers are not common, and secondary schools cannot rely on exceptional talents alone. The education system and teacher expectations have evolved over the years, with increased scrutiny and new technologies such as league tables, Ofsted reports, academies, and websites such as The UK government aims to send 50% of students to university, which has led to higher teacher standards and the employment of advanced skills teachers by many schools. The good teacher’s role was emphasized by Professor John Hattie of the University of Auckland, whose meta-study of more than 50,000 other studies proved that "Excellence in teaching is the single most powerful influence on achievement." Teacher training and development remain a vital focus for educationalists, politicians, and educationists like Doug Lemov.

In America, Doug Lemov, a teacher, wrote a book titled "Teach Like a Champion," which outlines the techniques he employed to boost student achievement in his network of 14 charter schools. The book acts as a manual for educators using the methods that he derived after evaluating various techniques of the most successful teachers in his schools. He believes inspired teachers are vital, and he aims to improve professional learning and development by showcasing great teaching skills. Today, his book is causing ripples across schools in the UK.

Paul Meredith, a science teacher at a secondary school in Brighton, is using techniques from the book Teach Like a Champion. He invited The Observer into his classroom to observe him using the techniques with his class of 12- to 13-year-olds. The students come into the classroom and take their seats on their stools. Meredith stands tall at the front of the class, commanding their attention with his posture and gaze until they are silent, using his own technique to quieten them without shouting. Today’s lesson is about convection, and the class is watching purple wisps of chemical being moved around a square-shaped tube of water heated by a Bunsen burner.

Meredith engages the class in questioning, using a combination of "Right is right," "No opt out," and "Cold calling," where a student is randomly chosen to answer a question, thus forcing the whole class to think and prepare an answer, instead of only relying on students who have raised their hands. If a student does not know the answer, another student who does will explain, and the first student must repeat the correct answer. This technique eliminates the incentive to give up without trying, thus creating sustained attention and effort as the "behavioural norm" in the classroom.

The questioning continues until the students have reasoned themselves to an understanding of the principle of convection. By the end of the class, the students have remained focused and prepared to be called upon for answers. They leave the class with a deeper understanding of the topic.

Teach Like a Champion is a book that documents and collates techniques that have already been used by teachers. It fills a space in the teacher’s toolkit, giving them practical action steps to demonstrate raised expectations for their students. Many of the techniques discussed in the book are already a part of teacher training in British schools.

Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on a Path to College, written by Doug Lemov and published by Wiley for £19, is now available.

For Paul Meredith, a secondary school science teacher in Portslade, the nine-month PGCE doesn’t fully prepare teachers for the reality of the classroom. Starting your career with a Newly Qualified Teacher year can feel overwhelming. The daily expectations in terms of workload can hardly be overstated. That said, Portslade Community College is a forward-thinking school that focuses on teaching and learning. Paul is able to exchange resources, ideas and techniques with his colleagues. While the workload can feel intense, Paul is most concerned about the fact that Doug Lemov’s teaching method seems overly aggressive. Lemov’s approach would not be approved by Ofsted as passive learning, known as "chalk and talk." "Student-centered active learning" places British education more in step with industry demands for young people who can think and problem solve as well as memorise facts and figures.

Based at Wellington College, Berkshire, Delyth Draper has 14 years of teaching experience. She’s a passionate teacher who knows the value of inspiring students to become lifelong learners. Building up a rapport with students is crucial, as is learning from your peers. Delyth found Doug Lemov’s book inspiring, and decided to put his techniques into practice. Using "the hook" to draw students in, Delyth showed a clip from David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants to demonstrate how the wild wasp orchid mimics being a female wasp for the benefit of a male’s pollination. Delyth also liked Lemov’s "without apology" idea, where reframing the content of a lesson in a more interesting way can inspire greater engagement. Finally, checking for understanding in the classroom means that everyone is more involved in their learning.

For Louise Gregory, who teaches history and psychology at a mixed comprehensive school in Enfield, being self-critical as a teacher is key. You cannot simply wheel out the same lesson plan year after year. Rather, education’s focus has shifted towards teaching students skills like analysis and evaluation. With the changing demands of the curriculum, teachers have to improvise to create a learning environment that promotes critical thinking and facilitates long-term retention of knowledge.

There are several techniques in Lemov’s book that British teachers may already be familiar with. While the book contains helpful advice, executing some of the techniques may require a delicate touch, such as the "take a stand" method which involves asking students to express their opinions. Some teachers may feel uncomfortable implementing this approach, fearing that it could be perceived as humiliating or unfair to certain students.

Many of the techniques mentioned in the book are related to an autocratic style of teaching which places emphasis on constantly asking questions. However, there are fewer ideas on how to improve group dynamics, which is often more important in modern teaching. British educational resources often focus on creating a dynamic learning environment instead. British teachers typically avoid using a question-and-answer style of teaching for the entire lesson since it could lead to disengagement from students.

Roisin McNeil, who teaches chemistry in East Sussex, experienced difficulty in managing curriculum planning and assessment alongside establishing expectations and rules during the initial phase of teaching. Lemov stresses the importance of positive behavior management. Acknowledging even the smallest positive behaviors, such as having the book open and a pencil ready, could encourage positive behavior from students.

One of the strengths of Lemov’s book is that it makes explicit what is often implicit in teaching. McNeil was previously taught some of these techniques by other teachers, but they were not documented anywhere. One effective approach that McNeil learned from a deputy head is called "threshold," which involves standing at the door to greet students as they enter the classroom. This helps to establish authority and gauge their mood.

Natasha Nair, who teaches at Netley Primary School, believes that teachers are always looking for ways to improve. She agrees with Lemov’s philosophy that every second in the classroom counts, that children should become independent learners and be confident in expressing their views. However, Nair disagrees with some teaching approaches she observed during her American exchange program, where teachers used outdated methods, relied heavily on textbooks, and utilized a one-size-fits-all teaching approach.

Nair believes that schools should not over-emphasize the attainment of "outstanding" Ofsted criteria and instead focus on providing a warm and supportive environment for students. She notes that it is often a teacher’s personality rather than their teaching techniques that lead to great teaching. For instance, one teacher she observed was musically inclined and would incorporate songs and rhymes to help children remember their lessons.


  • stanleybyrne

    Stanley Byrne is a 26-year-old education blogger and teacher. He has degrees in education and political science from the University of Notre Dame and has worked in various teaching and research positions since he graduated in 2014. He is the author of a number of educational blog posts and has written for Huffington Post, The Guardian, and Salon.