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What makes a teacher an expert teacher?


23 March 2011

Professor John Loughran
Professor John Loughran

By Professor John Loughran

One of the problems with expert teachers is that they can make teaching look easy, yet nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that expert teachers make a conscious effort to ensure that their teaching intentions are in accord with the learning expectations they have for their students.

The casual observer does not necessarily recognise the skill in how a teacher, for instance, responds to a thoughtful question from a normally quiet student and how that may be very different from the ‘standard response’ to a commonly inquisitive or talkative student. Expert teachers are aware of what they are doing; they monitor and adjust their teaching behaviours to bring out the best in their students.

One of the reasons that teaching is a complex business is because it revolves around decision making. Teachers are constantly making decisions about a range of ideas, issues and events: content, student behaviour, homework, catering for different learning styles, assessment and so on.

Teachers do not all think the same way about the same things. Their individual experiences shape their understanding of the teaching role and how it should be played out in practice. Teachers’ personal perspectives shape not only what they do and how they do it but also the choices they make and why. Because teaching is heavily reliant on decision making, everything that happens in a classroom demands informed choices. Expert teachers know what they are doing and why because they carefully consider how to structure their teaching in ways that will have a positive influence on their students’ learning.

For example, if a teacher asks a question and responds positively only to those answers that are correct, then students who are unsure or have different answers or want to ask a question in return will be less likely to speak up. The expert teacher knows how to ensure that students honestly speak up and say what they think so that the invitation to learning is open to everyone. The way an expert teacher reacts in such a situation may not be immediately noticeable. This necessity for subtlety is perhaps one reason why expertise in teaching is not so well recognized or understood by those unfamiliar with the real demands of the role.

Because teaching comprises so many competing demands, these choices make teaching itself problematic. However, ‘problematic’ should not be viewed with negative connotations. Understanding teaching as problematic means that teaching is dilemma-based and, because by definition dilemmas are managed (not necessarily solved), it means that teachers are continually making judgments about what they consider to be appropriate in a given situation at a given time.

That does not mean that the same action would lead to the same result in a different context or at another time, or that another teacher should do the same thing when confronted by a similar situation. Rather it means that a teacher’s professional judgment is paramount in responding to students’ needs and concerns – and that is why understanding teaching as problematic matters.

As a beginning teacher, it can be quite common to seek “the answers” about what to do and the best way to do it. That is only natural. But as familiarity with the process of teaching develops, as confidence in one’s ability to manage grows, as the diversity of learners’ needs and approaches to learning become increasingly apparent, seeing teaching as problematic rather than rule-driven is almost inevitable.

Because of the apparent “messiness of teaching” and the importance of individuals accepting responsibility for directing their own professional learning, for some, the desire for a much simpler solution – and a sense of control - is strong. However, it is through mapping the terrain of teaching, being challenged by and engaged in it, that professional learning abounds. It is in accepting that teaching is problematic, and working with that conceptualisation that teachers learn how to adapt, adjust and construct their practice and build their expertise.

Expertise in teaching involves much more than the simple accumulation of technical skills and tips and tricks about how teaching is done. Although technical competence is an important base from which expertise in teaching grows, it is important to recognise that teaching is an educative process and it cannot simply be measured against a list of competencies. Recognising expert teachers matters, highlighting that expertise is crucial, and rewarding it is central to better understanding and valuing the profession.

Professor John Loughran is the Dean of the Faculty of Education of Monash University.