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IH Journal Issues:

Getting to the Core: what is a good teacher?

By Christopher Holloway with Alex Bishop, Cathy Harris, Oliver Eynon, Keeley Swain, Jeff Hogan, Vicky Simon, Clayre Heenan, Kate Pickering, Alistair Wood, Kevin Kennedy, Coletta Paluzzi, Brigitte Cassar, Andy McNeish, Charlotte Cole, Christina Anastasiadis

Introduction: What does it mean to be a good teacher?

We talk a great deal about methodology and even, these days, about post-methodology, about technology, materials, approaches, and so on. But it seems to me we’ve stopped talking about the teachers, about those wonderful individuals who collectively form our profession, who allow us the scope to write about methodology and all the rest: we’ve stopped talking about the people. In the end it’s not about methods or techniques or approaches, it’s about people: their hopes, desires, needs, ambitions, preoccupations…

All the ideas in this article all come directly from a seminar in which I asked the senior staff of the Adults and Young Learners Departments of IH Madrid one single, simple question: What is the one thing that makes a good teacher?1 I’ve tried (hard) not to impose too many of my own views on this topic, the ideas are after all theirs, but I hope my colleagues will forgive me a certain amount of interpretation, especially when synthesizing the arguments and selecting the examples. Any errors or omissions are therefore mine alone.

What is the one thing you need to know about good teaching?

Trying to be as critical as possible to get to the core of good teaching and, from there, to draw some conclusions for future practice (training, recruitment, approach to management and so on) we asked one question: What is the ONE THING you need to know about good teaching? That is once you strip away all the clutter, once you eliminate all the things it can’t be – because a counter example can be found – what are we left with?  What is at the core of a good teacher?

We divided into small groups and I asked each to produce a poster summarizing their arguments and ideas. In this article we’ll look at each group’s conclusion in turn finishing with a synthesis of the key ideas as well as some conclusions for future practice. Comments in italics are taken verbatim from the transcript.

We began by discussing some factors which are frequently cited as important for good teaching:

Quality                        Reliability                    Accountability            Dynamic

Content Knowledge   Reflective practice      Innovation                   Relationships

Techniques                  Materials                     Committed

If you can think of a teacher who does not have these features or characteristics but that you would still define as a good teacher, then you’ve hit upon the crux of our method: if you can think of a good teacher who does not display the chosen characteristic, attribute or skill, then it cannot be the one thing at the core of the questions which we are looking for. For example, an early casualty of this enquiry was “materials”:

materials in a sense are not the core thing, they are very much a tool we use and the core thing is definitely something else…

Group 1: Motivation


Group 1 saw a number of interrelated factors emanating from the core factor of motivation. This group chose a visual representation of those elements of good teaching: technique, content knowledge, reliability, materials, quality, relationships and commitment, orbiting around the central idea of motivation as well as 3 concepts – Developing, Do and Dynamism. In their diagram, the different elements orbit at different distances. This seems to tell us something interesting about the relative importance of each. For example, materials seem to be relatively less important in this model than commitment, quality or content knowledge. The designers of this model state that it was unintentional. Nevertheless, the implication is there and may be interesting to explore further.

The issue of motivation can be attributable to internal as well as external forces. It raises the question of whether motivation is innate or influenced by external forces such as hygiene factors, in Herzberg’s terms: pay, working conditions etc. The group stated:

You can’t make people motivated, if somebody isn’t motivated … unless you’re talking about external things like pay, things like that which obviously can have an impact on motivation … I think there are things which we don’t really have an impact on.


with motivation you’ll also be dynamic, if you are dynamic in class, students tend to want to come

So this group sees the core of good teaching as a function of motivation which fosters dynamism in the classroom which in turn is engaging for the students. The lesson for those in teacher support roles is therefore clear: finding ways to increase teacher motivation is therefore critical.

It’s about finding the trigger that turns on that individual… what is it that that person is really, really interested in that you can start a discussion about that’s going to really engage that person? …if you can get that discussion, that topic somehow linked in with what you want to get across then you’re going to be much more successful in dealing with that than if you take a different approach

Group 2: Attitude








Attitude, unlike motivation, seems to come clearly from within the individual and is less affected by external forces. By which I mean that the attitude you bring to your teaching, if positive, will engender great teaching but, if negative, will reflect on all your classroom interactions and create bad teaching.

Whilst I agree with you that you can’t give a good attitude, you can’t give motivation, I think you can somehow align the things that they are motivated by, with elements of their job.

Also important to this group are: Awareness (of student needs and self), Desire (to learn), Caring (for students and quality) and Willingness (to share, to take on suggestions, to face challenges).

A good teacher needs awareness of their students’ needs – talking about why they are learning English, what are their strengths, what are their weaknesses. And they also need an awareness of themselves – what are their strengths, what are their weaknesses.

This group seems to have focused on a forward-looking, optimistic model of teaching. Indicative of this is the new word coined by the group “out-trenched”. By this they mean fighting against the entrenched attitudes of negativity.

…we need is willingness. A willingness to take on suggestions, a willingness to share our ideas with each other and any problems we might have, and a willingness to face challenges.

Group 3: Desire

Picking up one of the elements suggested by Group 2, Group 3 see Desire as the core concept.  In their model, Desire is at the heart of a cyclical process which describes the interactivity and reciprocity of Reflective Practice and Development (techniques, materials and innovation) through Quality & Accountability and Empowerment & Enabling (through building rapport for example). Their model also shows how the reflective/development side (or “head” in their model) merges and influences (and, in turn, is influenced by) the empowerment/accountability continuum (the “heart”). This model seems to get to the core of the conflict between relationship-oriented and materials/technique-oriented teachers (cf Lowe 2003).

An interest in your students might cause you to reflect on things that happen in the class which can cause you to develop …, a desire to develop will help you to develop techniques and be innovative in practice, develop your content knowledge, all this will lead to good quality teaching….teachers who have a desire to develop an interest in their students probably are much more professional and accountable.

The core of good teaching is the heart of good teaching: the heart is desire.



Group 4: Caring

Group 4’s core element was Caring which feeds into all the other elements mentioned in the box above. Caring seems to permeate all the other elements of teaching: about students, about our own performance (including professional development) and about the wider community. In their words:

we need a desire to learn and we need to care for our students and care about the quality of our teaching.

…caring is in everything that we do. All good teachers care about their job and many things: Putting their students first, caring about your students, caring about the learning

And it feeds through to everything so care about feedback on work, you care about your reputation as a good teacher

you can’t get good quality without caring about what you’re doing

if you don’t care, you’re not going to be worried about attending seminars and becoming a better teacher so you care about your level of expertise.

the core thing is that they’ll give good classes because they care that their students are learning

They see teaching as a vocation and raise the interesting question of what makes this a vocation. There seem to be specific pros and cons related with the traditional vocational model. On the one hand they tend to be low-paid but high responsibility (nurses, policemen…), but have high job security as well (lots are civil service posts, in fact) and many carry high esteem in society and the community. TEFL seems to require that teachers feel some of those aspects (low pay, high commitment) but does not always offer job security or social status in return. All the more important for DOSes and others to foster motivation and a positive attitude to the job. In the end…

I don’t think that we can really make anybody be a great teacher who doesn’t want to


An immediate conclusion perhaps is that selection of staff should value attitude and desire over experience or content knowledge. After all, everyone will gain experience and, through training, content knowledge but you can’t force teachers to have a good attitude.  Another upshot is that INSET could profitably focus on developing areas which pique the motivation and interest of the teachers rather than materials or technique focused. What is clear is that all the groups agreed, in broad terms, that good teaching starts with YOU, the teacher. Whatever your teaching context we all have to deal with people and in the end, it’s about that: a fundamental interest in people.

… it’s amazing what we do every day, the variety of interactions that we get is absolutely fantastic…we get this amazing window onto other people’s lives. 

Through motivation, attitude, desire and caring we can create a new model for our professional lives. We can encourage, enable and engage our staff and students by imbibing them with the inner flame (vocation?) which so strongly burns within us.

Postscript. As EFL managers we are all too often focused on the day to day reactive management of dealing with complaints (about materials etc), here we took an hour out of our lives to reflect and to out-trench. I encourage you all to out-trench too.

A comment on the session:

“…I thought [the] session was really good: simple, low-tech, but gave everyone a chance to think about positive things we value in ourselves and in our teachers rather than problems”

1 This question is extrapolated from the enquiry found in Buckingham 2005 “The One Thing You Need to Know”.

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