How To Be An Inspirational Teacher

  • How To Be An Inspirational Teacher

* What do exceptional teachers get right?

* What do students say about the teachers who inspire them the most?

* Can other teachers learn from the attitudes and behaviours of outstanding teachers?

These are central questions for every school and all educators; and the good news is that they have now been explicitly addressed in new research from CfBT Education Trust, in partnership with the Universities of Oxford and Worcester. The study focuses on a group of 17 teachers identified by their headteachers as ‘inspirational’, and uses a variety of data sources: the teachers were interviewed; university researchers studied their behaviour through observation, particularly in lessons; and there was a substantial student voice component. The researchers also interviewed headteachers and colleagues of the target group.

Interviews with the teachers revealed that they had clear views about the characteristics required to be ‘inspiring’; emphasising questions of attitude rather than technical skill. The two factors mentioned most often as being essential were enthusiasm for teaching and learning and having positive relationships with students:

“I put enthusiasm as one of the top [factors] because I do genuinely think if you’re enthusiastic about your job, that means that your whole profession will become better [...] You’ve got to love what you do, and if you don’t like what you do, you’re probably not going to be good at it.”

(Male secondary teacher, 6-10 yrs’ experience)

Inspiration at work

Through observation the researchers confirmed that these individuals were indeed expert at building a positive classroom climate. It’s not just about attitude, however – they also had finely tuned technical skills in classroom management. While the teachers themselves had described pedagogical excellence largely in social-emotional terms, the observers were struck by their high levels of classroom craft. The key areas where exceptional pedagogical skills were demonstrated included:

* implementing clear instruction

* good behaviour management skills

* efficient use of learning time

* skilful use of questioning and feedback.

The inspiring teachers’ classes were highly interactive, with strong emphasis placed on questioning and feedback to support learning. In particular, positive feedback was used by all the teachers observed, both in whole-class discussions and on an individual basis. Most used probing questions while circulating to check students’ understanding and to support communication between learners.

One interesting area of the research related to differentiation and how educators seek to meet individual needs. The researchers were surprised that the target group made relatively little use of formal differentiation by task. Regardless of the context – mixed ability or in sets – the teachers typically created an inclusive set of activities for all students; differentiation was provided by the skilful use of questioning to ascertain individual misconceptions and the one-to-one and group level interaction between the teacher and students when activities were taking place.

In line with current thinking, all lessons included a clear objective that was shared with the class, but teachers often went beyond simply stating it, instead seeking ways of enabling students to fully understand it. Techniques for this included students defining key words in the objective statement; explaining its relevance or importance; or connecting it to skills, strategies and content covered in previous lessons. For example, the start of a female KS3 modern foreign language teacher’s lesson was described as follows:

At the start of the lesson, the objective is already written on the board in Spanish: ‘Hablar de mi colegio con muchos detalles’.

Students are asked to translate the objective, and the teacher calls on volunteers to share their translations. A key word in the objective is written in red, while the rest is in black. In English, the teacher asks, “Why did I put that [muchos] in red?”

A student suggests that this is because they need to use a lot of detail. The teacher asks why the objective is important. Student responses relate to being successful in the speaking examination.

The Bigger Picture

There can be a tendency to equate great teaching with the great lesson. The teachers observed, however, went beyond this. All of the teachers located the observed lesson within a larger framework of learning, typically linking the content or objectives to broader learning goals. Most frequently, teachers made connections between the lesson content and upcoming formal assessment, often framing this by explaining how the task at hand related to assessment standards and performance.

The teacher circulates to each group as they continue working to find different ways to draw 2m x 10m paths using 1m x 2m rectangles. She prompts students to reflect on their work and encourages them to communicate with each other:

“Is there any other way?”

“How many have you found?”

“Have you discussed this way with your group?”

“Are you sure that’s all?”

(Female secondary teacher (KS3 Maths), 6-10 years’ experience.)

The teachers were highly organised but also agile and adept at improvisation as required. There was clear evidence of well-understood and internalised routines enabling classes to work smoothly; the inspiring teachers were masters of their classrooms and their management of the environment fostered independence and self-regulation amongst their students. Teachers gave ownership and responsibility for the classroom space and resources to students, and often distributed leadership roles among their pupils:

One of the boys in the class appears to have particularly strong skills – he writes a great deal in response to each prompt, using complex sentence structure and advanced vocabulary. He finishes early, and the teacher encourages him to sit with struggling students and prompt them to assist with their writing. He models teacher behaviour, helping his peers to express their own ideas by asking them a lot of questions. It seems clear that he has been given this ‘teacher’s assistant’ role before.

(Male secondary teacher, 0-5 yrs’ experience.)

The student voice aspect of the research was revealing; learners re-emphasised many of the factors already identified through interviews with teachers and observations – around positivity, enthusiasm, structure and classroom management.

“The teacher makes the lesson interesting. I don’t usually find this lesson boring because she has many different ideas for what we can do in class.”

(Female student, KS3 English).

“A lesson is enjoyable if there can be a bit of fun but work at the same time, so a bit of a laugh to start the day, especially on a Monday morning!”

(Female student, KS3 Geography).

Based on this study it seems that inspiring teachers show a high degree of engagement with their students, they are effective, organised and knowledgeable practitioners who exhibit a continued passion for teaching and for promoting the well-being of students. They are highly professional, confident and reflective practitioners. Despite external challenges, nearly all want to continue in their teaching careers, they genuinely like students, they enjoy teaching, and they show resilience in a stressful and fast-changing environment. Their classes revealed a strong emphasis on making learning enjoyable and engaging, activating students’ own motivation, and providing classroom experiences that were typically varied, imaginative and fun. Most importantly, perhaps, it’s clear that the attributes and skills of ‘inspiring’ teachers are not inherent, nor restricted to a privileged few. They can be modelled and learnt – making ‘being inspirational’ a tangible objective within reach of any educator.

The summary and full reports are available to download for free at

Student voices

Learners in this study strongly believed their inspiring teachers:

* had high expectations of their pupils

* created a positive, supportive and reassuring classroom climate

* were approachable, fair and helpful

* transmitted their enjoyment of learning to pupils

* had clear instructional goals and well-structured lessons

* promoted positive learning experiences.

About the author

Tony McAleavy is the research and development director for CfBT Education Trust – one of the world’s leading not-for-profit education consultancy organisations.