Yesterday, I wrote a post explaining that important as the quality of teaching in a school is, there are other, more important things on which to concentrate. In response, Katharine Birbalsingh, head mistress of Michaela School tweeted this:

Did I miss a – possibly the – most important aspect of school improvement? Do children need to love their teacher? I think it’s great for children to feel inspired by their teachers’ enthusiasm for what they teach and would of course agree that if a child is prepared to work hard then that will be a significant marker of success in life. But, I have to confess to feeling slightly repelled at the notion that children most love their teachers.

Rather than getting bogged down in terminology, these aspects – love, respect, inspiration, call it what you will – are concerned with the quality of teaching. As such, I haven’t missed them, I’ve deliberately placed them fourth (or third, depending on whether you want to lump curriculum and assessment together) on my list of factors that make the greatest difference to children’s academic success. That means I think they’re important, just not as crucial as peer culture, curriculum and assessment.

Having visited Michaela a couple of times I would say that Katharine has worked wonders in creating a peer culture where hard work and academic success are highly prized by the students. She’s also overseen a consistent, coherent approach to the curriculum that ensure children are likely to be making excellent progress, and, just to be sure, Michaela have thought deeply about how best to assess what students have learned to be sure they are not fooling themselves. Next June will see their first Year 11 cohort sit their GCSEs and, all things being equal, I predict that they achieve well above the national average. As such, the school can – and should – turn its focus to the quality of teaching.

So what makes great teaching? And how much do relationships matter? The answer to the first question is addressed in the 2014 Sutton Trust report by Rob Coe and colleagues. In it, Coe suggests the two most important factors are:

1. (Pedagogical) content knowledge The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions. 

2. Quality of instruction Includes elements such as effective questioning and use of assessment by teachers. Specific practices, like reviewing previous learning, providing model responses for students, giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely and progressively introducing new learning (scaffolding) are also elements of high quality instruction.

At number 3 we get ‘classroom climate’ which includes the “quality of interactions between teachers and students, and teacher expectations: the need to create a classroom that is constantly demanding more, but still recognising students’ self-worth. It also involves attributing student success to effort rather than ability and valuing resilience to failure”. I’m not sure this is quite what Katharine means by ‘loving your teacher’ but it’s as class as we get in terms of the research base on what makes effective teaching.

I certainly have never felt love for any of my teachers. I liked and respected some of them, but always saw them as awkward, aloof figures who only ever impinged tangentially on my life. I thought my English teacher, Mr Birch, was terrific and can admit, without shame. to being inspired to love literature due to his enthusiasm, high expectations and expertise, but I never felt anything like love for him.

And I’m fairly sure none of the students I taught would have said they loved me. I kept in touch with a number I’ve taught over the years and, whenever I meet ex-students, they tend to express fondness for my classes. Some of them have told me that they see their current success as being in some small part due to my efforts. But I’d be mortified to think any of them felt love for me. My approach to teaching was something I heard Nick Rose call ‘tactical grumpiness’. I always enjoyed the theatricality of teaching and the role I tried to perfect was of being very hard to please. If I had to say which of the Strictly Come Dancing judges I most resembled it would Craig Revel-Horwood. When I did dish out praise, students knew they’d really impressed me, but many of them were happy enough with a terse nod. I remember overhearing two of my students talking about my reaction to their work. One student, was a bit upset at my taciturn acknowledge of her efforts. Her friend asked her what I’d said. She told her that I’d said it was “OK”. The friend laughed and said, Well he must have liked it then – hardly anyone gets an OK.

This isn’t to make myself out as special or superior. There have been very many occasions where my approach did not get the response I hoped for and I’m sure that many of my students would say I was a bit rubbish. The point is that it’s possible to be an effective teacher without being inspirational. And it’s possible to get children to love your subject without them loving you.

But what if I’m wrong? What if Katharine’s right that love is the most important thing? That leads to a much more pressing question: if it’s essential that children’ love their teacher, how do we train teachers to be able to get this response? Can it even be trained or is it just a feature of a certain sort of very charismatic teacher? I honestly don’t know the answers to those questions, but I do know that this is not the way to solve a recruitment and retention crisis. Rather than creating impossibly high bars for new teachers to measure themselves against and find themselves wanting, we’re far better off creating the conditions in our schools where merely good teachers can practise their craft.