Creating the conditions for great teachers to thrive

A previous post, What makes a great teacher?, was a popular post. I suppose that’s not surprising; people are intrigued to know what the answer might be. Am I a great teacher? Can I be a great teacher? What would it take for me to feel that this applies to me? We all want to know. I’m the same. But as a Headteacher, I have to ask myself another set of questions:

  • Where teachers are already ‘great teachers’, am I doing enough to reward and motivate them? Are we helping them to be great teachers or are we putting obstacles in the way?
  • Where teachers are on the way or have the potential to be really great teachers am I doing enough to encourage them, to guide them, to motivate them?
  • I also have to ask if there are teachers who would need significant support and guidance to approach the level ‘great’ suggests. Am I doing enough for them too?

I’m not going to use this post to describe the full gamut of accountability systems we deploy or the CPD opportunities that we offer. Here, I’m interested in the spirit of a school; the ethos and culture that need to pervade a school so that ‘great teachers’ thrive and all teachers continually strive to emulate them. What are the prevailing conditions needed to enable a rich array of teacher-talent to develop and flourish!? (And in doing this, I’m not saying that I’ve cracked it in my school; but I am working on it!)

I think it comes down to a few key principles and this is an attempt to capture the essence:

Purpose: All organisations are essentially collections of individuals with their own personal values and goals. The role of leaders is to try to create the maximum alignment for those values and goals so that everyone pulls in the same direction to the greatest extent. Really strong teachers tend to have strong views about education, about teaching and learning and about relationships with students; they have an intrinsic sense of purpose. However, it doesn’t work for them or the school if they are fighting against the flow; you want them with you, not against you. This requires either a clear, inspiring vision that they buy into, or, more probably, it requires a process that involves them in shaping the vision in the first place. It’s demotivating in the extreme to be asked to work towards goals you don’t believe in; in fact it doesn’t work at all. So, the question is: am I doing enough to forge a sense of common purpose amongst the key drivers in my school? Are we as closely aligned in our goals as we can be? (See the force-field analogy)

Challenge: Talented people thrive in a high-demand environment. Great teachers who drive students towards ever higher standards, expect standards to be high all around them. They are usually demanding of themselves and of others; rightly so. This means you have to expect the challenge to be a two-way process; you push me; I’ll push you and we’ll do a better job. That means we need mechanisms that actively seek out opinions and ideas that would lead to improvement. It is also means that we should do all we can to sustain a culture where rigour, high quality and doing things properly pervades. It is acceptable to be very demanding of people if they too can be demanding of you. (Does the converse need spelling out?)

Autonomy: Fundamentally, if we think we’re doing a decent job (and if we’re not), we like to be left alone. Autonomy is the thing teachers crave. I know what I’m doing, let me get on with it. Don’t tell me what to do because I’ve already got enough ideas of my own… It is the great joy of teaching; the freedom to experiment, to perform, to follow your whims, to be yourself…. and those great teachers are no different. Any process that restricts, inhibits, limits, deflects, blocks, restrains… for no reason other than a perceived need for conformity and uniformity or purely to satisfy an accountability measure…. is likely to frustrate great teachers. Conversely, if they feel at liberty to make choices, to do their own thing, to go way off piste whenever they want to….they’ll be flourishing. Real autonomy isn’t automatic; it emerges from a culture where there is a high level of confidence, professional respect and mutual trust. Question: where are we along the control-autonomy axis? How much more freedom could I give teachers within the context of my school?

Growth: Great teachers are learners; they want to move forward. Usually, they have mastered the key skills in teaching and are looking to refine their practice or explore innovations of various forms. They want the space and time to grow professionally. However, this has to be seen in the context where all teachers are working collaboratively, forming larger groups where the levels of expertise will vary. This is the challenge; can I provide the range of growth opportunities needed to move the very best forward, without them getting unduly bogged down in ‘whole staff INSET’ that they don’t really need. Is this a case of harnessing their talent to help support the development of others or of providing CPD opportunities more orientated towards individual research and innovation? How far have I gone in tailoring CPD for each individual? Or is there still a bit of ‘egg sucking’ that still needs to be eliminated?

Recognition: This is a key motivating factor but we are not talking simply about financial reward. Maximising pay is important but salary increments never do justice to the additional value really great teachers deliver. It is also often the case that very strong teachers are self-effacing, don’t want a fuss made and don’t court public affirmation. What matters is often simply that their work is recognised, acknowledged, appreciated, and not taken for granted. Beyond the rigmarole of formal lesson observations and examination postmortems, there needs to be a culture where excellence is acknowledged on an individual basis and celebrated publicly. This isn’t to create divisions – it is to identify where we have role models, to have exemplars for others to follow and, crucially, to ensure that the exponents of great teaching get the recognition they deserve. If you have a lot of teachers like this, then you need to apply this to them all. Do I do enough in this area? No… but I must and will do more!

Care: Finally, it is important to create a culture where teachers are looked after as people. Great teachers often have a touch of the ’tis but a scratch’ attitude. But, as in the Geese analogy, everyone needs to fall to the back of the pack from time to time or, if necessary, be nursed back to health before rejoining the flock. High performing people are not immune to stress or the usual array of health or personal set-backs. I’m a great believer that you get more from everyone by being conspicuously supportive with personal issues. Whether this is taking a flexible approach to part-time working, returning from maternity leave, enabling people to see children in their primary assembly or graduation, helping people to look after elderly parents or simply get to the bank.. it pays to be generous and flexible. I always say ‘family first’ because that is how I feel about my own. If you want people to give their all, they need to feel that the trade-off is worthwhile; the community spirit fostered by a strong family-first approach, nurtures loyalty, commitment and the determination to strive for success. Everyone benefits. I think we do pretty well here… but there is always more!

So, there we are: the conditions for great teachers to thrive: Purpose, Challenge, Automony, Growth, Recognition, Care.

Related Posts:

How do I know how good my teachers are?

Research as CPD: CPD as Research



  1. As an aspiring great teacher, this article helps me to appreciate how dependent I am for my success on those more senior to me. My HOD is particularly adept at clearing obstacles from our path in the department. I now realise this has been a key contributing factor to our development in recent times.

    I’m going to go to school and thank her.


  2. I really like this post and can definitely identify how some of these conditions are vital to me as a practitioner, particularly how crucial autonomy is for a rewarding job, and you don’t realise how much you need it until you no longer have it!

    I think that if you can sustain a healthy combination of these factors within the staff at your school; the only result can be progress and improvement (for students and staff!).


  3. Why oh why are these fairly basic prerequisites to developing an maintaining high quality teachers so commonly misunderstood or ignored by so many leadership teams around the country? It is an educational mystery that is begging to be solved…


  4. Why oh why are these fairly basic prerequisites to developing and maintaining high quality teachers so commonly misunderstood or ignored by so many leadership teams around the country? It is an educational mystery that is begging to be solved… I live in hope that certain head-teachers will stumble across this and amend their tragicomic ‘leadership’ accordingly.


  5. What school do you supervise, and can you PLEASE clone yourself? There are so many of us that are devalued, treated as drones, and shackled by “fidelity to curriculum.”


  6. Another brilliant post outlining the obvious. Value your staff and acknowledge their efforts, encourage autonomy and freedom to take risks. Support and challenge is intrinsically linked with everyone working towards a shared vision. These factors combined enable staff to be great teachers!


  7. Hello

    I have followed you on Twitter [as AnnLitchfield] and read your blog with interest for some time. This is incredibly cheeky – but could I please ask your advice on a work issue?


  8. I’ve been a teacher for over 30 years and this is the best article on education I have ever read. I wish this was required reading and mantra for every member of every SMT in every school in the UK! I have just taken early retirement from my school because I felt so demoralised, de-skilled and undervalued by the SMT, despite being passionate about my work, having great relationships with my pupils, being innovative and creative, getting excellent results, passing all inspections with aplomb and having a first class reputation among parents. Your article has helped me to see exactly why I felt so drained by the system I was in, which was the polar opposite to the one you aspire to. Thank you SO much for helping me feel that this wasn’t, as I was lead to believe, all my own fault.

    On a more positive note, I am now working as a private tutor and absolutely love teaching one to one. My boss (me) is a demon with very high expectations and demands of me but she allows me to teach in innovative and creative ways and will try to ensure she remembers all of the points you’ve made. Many, many thanks for your clear and insightful writing.


  9. Fantastic post. Rewarding and encouraging great teachers is key. If a teacher is not enjoying their job, that will reflect poorly on their work and will cause the students to suffer. And that simply just wouldn’t do!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


  10. I’ve just skim-read a few of your posts (this one, teaching to the top, what you are taking with you from KEGS) and I can’t believe how much you “speak-a-my-language” – and yet also stretch me and challenge me to consider new things. Where have you been all my life / 21-year teaching career?! 😀 But I’m trying to subscribe to your wordpress blog and it won’t let me (some problem with the ‘XML’) – any ideas?


  11. That’s the school Inwould have loved to serve! The fact that the reality in many secondary school appears to be so very different from your school might be this. Senior management teams expect to teach less and less as they climb the management ladder. Therefore it is not surprising that classroom teaching matters are not in the forefront of their minds although I fail to understand why it is not so. My ideas for helping to create conditions in which teachers feel valued and supported to be as creative as possible move along the following lines.
    All senior management including must teach in a classroom for a significant part of the week. I’d say that it is possible to take much of the paperwork and laptop scrutiny home and do it there. That would free up time for senior staff to commit to at least a half week or longer timetable. The timetable should slice through the full range of age and ability range. That would prove to the classroom based colleagues that TEACHING CHILDREN IS the most important activity happening day by day in the school. Management offices must be off limits during the teaching day.Laptops must be in drawers until after the end of the school day. If not teaching,senior managers must be WALKING THEIR SCHOOL. All teachers should be concentrating on the quality of classroom climate and be teaching themselves or directly supporting staff by going into rooms and SHOWING to the students that they will not allow anything to detract from the learning opportunity.
    As for the Head,Principle whatever status term they’ve invented recently MUST TEACH at least one period a day.
    My prediction would be that the issues that work against the introduction of CREATIVE TEACHING would be much higher on the school’s priorities. Phil Tootell


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