Much has been researched, written and debated about what it means to be a ‘good’ teacher. Conversations in Australia continue around quality teaching and teacher quality and the way we educate our teachers. Governments at national and state levels have specifically designed and established teacher accreditation regimes to produce ‘good’ teachers.
But despite the proliferation of public debate and political action around these issues, I was aware that the voices of students and their perspectives and experiences of being taught had been largely overlooked.
As part of a wider research project exploring the nature of exemplary history teaching, I interviewed groups of young people at four different high schools about their experiences of learning, and sought their insights and understanding into what good teaching looks like to them.
The students interviewed demonstrated a high degree of insight and understanding about the nature of teachers work and shared a strong, articulate vision about what students consider good teaching to mean. And although the students in the study were all from a variety of school backgrounds – government, independent, urban and regional – there was a clear consensus amongst the students about the aspects of teaching that were regarded as most important to them.
They valued the relationship they had with their teacher most of all. But they also recognised and were engaged by the different teaching methods their teachers used and they appreciated and were inspired by the deep knowledge their teacher had of their subject.
Students from all schools in the study told me that their relationships with their teachers were by far the most important factor for affecting their engagement in learning. For students at the independent school Greenview College, they felt encouraged and empowered to learn with their teacher Penny, who makes an effort to get to know them as individuals.
At the start of each school year Penny writes each of her students a letter to introduce herself, and asks students to write to her in return. Penny uses the insights and understanding gained about her students to then better tailor learning experiences to their interests and passions. Penny also surveys her students regularly during the school year with one student telling me “she asks us how we like to learn and through that feedback, you can tell she took that on.”
Students make a connection between their teachers getting to know them, listening to them and the quality of their engagement in learning.
It is a connection that is especially pronounced at Bayview High School, a public school in a regional area of NSW, where challenges such as low student attendance, violence and anti-social behaviour create additional barriers to student engagement. Within this teaching context, teacher Jane achieves both high levels of engagement and above average academic results from her students, a key reason for which is the strength of the relationships and the community she establishes in her classroom. Jane’s students tell me that learning in her classroom is different because:
Lisa: It’s like a family.
Rachel: Yeah, she [Jane] is our family.
Lisa: I actually want to be here.
Rachel: It is pretty much my favourite class.
Lisa: Honestly, I skip every single class except this one.
Jade: It’s like a safe place.
Here, student’s voices are providing insight into the significance of relationships in establishing the possibilities for student engagement in learning, and reminding us that before students begin to learn they need to be welcomed to a classroom in which they feel safe and to which they belong. For students, a good teacher is someone who works to create this kind of classroom.
Students in all the schools had very clear ideas about the type of classroom practices that they found most engaging and effective. None of the teachers in the study made regular use of textbooks, something that all the students interviewed made mention of as a positive aspect of their practice. The students told me that they got the most out of teaching practices that were creative and offered a variety of learning experiences, with students at one school saying it was great that “no two lessons were the same”.
For students in one outer-urban government high school, they felt energised and enthused by their teacher Dan who made innovative use of technology alongside teaching strategies such as role play with his history classes. One of Dan’s students told me:
We are young and we like things that excite us and make us happy, and [Dan] is exactly the type of teacher you want….you get excited! Like ‘Oh my God I’m going to [Dan’s] class!’….you really get excited to go in there, you go there and always have fun.
But far from valuing pedagogies that preference ‘fun’ over ‘learning’, students saw the best teachers as those who used engaging and innovative pedagogies to, as one student expressed it, “get us out of our comfort zone.” For these students, a good teacher was one who offered a variety of learning experiences that were both enjoyable and challenging.
All the teachers in the study were specialists in History, with an expert level of subject matter knowledge, and this expertise was both noticed and valued by their students. The students I spoke to frequently made reference to the way in which their teachers’ expert knowledge allowed them to engage in particular teaching strategies or in the way teachers made their own passion for history visible to the students. Importantly, students see teacher knowledge as visible to them through the way it translates into particular learning experiences.
For students at the independent boys’ school Churchill College, they find the enthusiasm of their history-buff teacher Max to be infectious:
Rick: You can tell he has a real passion for the subject. He actually said one class he was reading [a history book] the night before. You can tell he is really interested in the subject and that drives him.
James: Yeah, it makes you want to be just as interested.
Students really value being taught by subject specialists, particularly when a teacher demonstrates and shares their passion for learning with their students, and even learns alongside them.
Talking to students about their teachers and seeking their thoughts about teaching can be a source of rich and meaningful data about students’ understanding and experiences of classroom learning in particular contexts. Whilst these conversations with students represent a mere starting point for considering the role of students in conversations about their education, they show us that when they are included, students can offer informed and meaningful feedback about what good teaching means to them. It is also a reminder that secondary school students, who may be taught by up to six different teachers on any given day, have real knowledge and insight into contemporary teaching practices and are able to provide meaningful commentary and feedback on these as informed agents.
We can learn much from what our students have to say about teachers and teaching and should not shy away from including them more often in these conversations.
Claire Golledge is undertaking a PhD in Education, using multiple case study methodology to examine the classroom practices of exemplary history teachers. Claire has taught History and Legal Studies in NSW secondary schools, and is a current post-graduate Teaching Fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sydney University.
Claire is presenting at the AARE 2018 Conference on Monday 3rd Dec on “I skip every class except this one”: the value of student voice in conversations around ‘good’ teaching.