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Thank a Teacher Day: How do you define a great teacher?

Thank a Teacher Day is an important moment in the calendar but rarely does a day go by when I’m not grateful for the fantastic staff I worked with during the pandemic.

On 26 March this year, I left my school, Maple Primary School, in St Albans, to begin a year’s secondment as the national president of the NAHT headteachers’ union.

Having been the head teacher of Maple for more than 20 years, it was quite an emotional moment when I said goodbye.  

Now, seven weeks into my secondment, one of the aspects of school-based headship I am missing most is the privilege of working with the fine group of teachers that I was so fortunate to lead.

Thank a Teacher Day: championing the work of school staff

One of the benefits of being national president, however, is the chance to champion the work of staff in all schools, wherever they may be in the country.

I’m tired of hearing, for instance, that the “best” staff, work in the “best” schools. This is nonsense, of course. “Best” is too often shorthand for schools that do not sit in disadvantaged parts of the UK. In fact, some of the best practice can be found in schools serving disadvantaged areas. We should remember that on a day like today.

When Covid forced children to be home-schooled for long periods last year, the way the teachers adapted to and managed all the unique challenges of implementing successful distance and online learning was highly commendable. There is no doubt that this vital work helped to shield large numbers of children from the worst effects of the pandemic.

As we embark on the next stage of the recovery mission in education, we should remember that the biggest single factor in improving outcomes for pupils is improving the quality, agency and professionalism of staff. Nothing makes a bigger impact than that. You’ll see that case made powerfully and forcefully in NAHT’s education recovery blueprint.

In addition, if we want to keep talented and dedicated teachers in the profession for their entire working lives – as we surely must if we are to address the current recruitment and retention crisis – we must keep on valuing and developing staff, from day one onwards.

Characteristics common to great teachers

Many – although not all – of the teachers at my school joined as NQTs. To be there at the beginning of their journey, and to watch them grow in confidence and develop into highly capable practitioners in the space of a few years, was immensely satisfying.  

The vast majority of the teachers I appointed developed into successful professionals, taking on additional responsibilities. Many are now leaders in their own right, coordinating individual areas of the school’s work, supporting other teachers in local schools and, in some cases, gaining promotions to managerial positions, at Maple and at other schools.

There was no typical Maple teacher, just as there is no typical teacher in any school, anywhere. But I’d wager that there are some characteristics that are common to every truly wonderful teacher in every staffroom.

In my experience, teachers are team players who are very encouraging of each other and the support staff, who are also highly valued members of the school community

Teachers work extremely hard, although I often had cause to remind the ones I’ve managed that their careers are a marathon and not a sprint.

Teachers have a passion for their skills and are always looking to refine and improve their practice and extend their subject knowledge.

Teachers care for and value their pupils, and want the very best for every single child in their class, in academic and pastoral terms. 

Teachers have a sense of humour. They’d be lost without it sometimes. Often, I would hear roars of laughter coming from the staffroom at Maple. Inevitably, some of that hilarity came at my expense!

These are the qualities that come to mind when I think about all teachers. Not just the “best” ones. Not just the ones who work in exalted locations. 

Although I am very much enjoying my secondment as NAHT’s national president, I really do miss my teaching staff. I feel so grateful for the years I have spent working with them, and for the way they have enriched my career and my life.


Tim Bowen is currently serving as NAHT president. This blog was originally published in TES on Wednesday 23 June.

First published 25 June 2021