What makes a good teacher?

How do the top-ranked countries in education achieve outstanding school performance? What are the reasons behind the rise of their school performance? This was the discussion subject of a conference organized by the Permanent Delegation of Argentina to UNESCO in March. As teachers constitute one of the key elements behind students’ and schools’ performance, a large focus was put on discussing what makes a good teacher. Experts from around the world gathered to share their countries’ perspectives on how to train teachers, analyse their performance and motivate them.

Teacher training: what type and for how long?

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics defines a trained teacher as a “teacher who has fulfilled at least the minimum organized teacher-training requirements (pre-service or in-service) to teach a specific level of education according to the relevant national policy or law.” However, there is no universal agreement on what being a trained teacher means or what the minimum requirements to qualify as a teacher are.

Experience from top-ranked education systems, though, shows consistent patterns regarding teacher training and education. They all normalized pre-service training as a university course sanctioned by a degree, some of them even requiring having obtained classroom experience prior. Dr Huihua He, Associate Professor and Deputy Director, College of Education - Shanghai Normal University, indicated that it takes the completion of a four-year programme followed by one-year in-service training to become a qualified teacher. It is impossible to practice as a teacher in Shanghai without this certification.

She also underlined the importance of providing students with information and guidance on professional development. The university, to this end, integrated a “teacher professional development” course into other courses so that students have an understanding of the career ladder.

Should teachers be evaluated?

Another aspect of ensuring students are taught by good teachers is through evaluation. Ms Sonia Guerriero - Senior Programme Specialist, UNESCO – stated that teacher evaluation is necessary, as they need to keep their knowledge up to date on theory and practices as well as develop knowledge on new skills needed. Performance evaluations can be used to identify areas where teachers may need additional training.

However, there is an ongoing debate regarding what means can be used to determine a teacher’s performance. Is it through the evaluation of the students learning outcomes or through teacher evaluations?

There are several arguments against the use of students’ learning outcomes as the only means of teacher evaluation. Indeed, there are several factors that can affect students’ test scores outside of teachers’ performance, such as parental support, resources, curriculum content, and learning materials. Children’s economic and social background also play a role in their learning achievement.

Mr Hong Joon Chae – Director of the Education Budget Division, Ministry of Education, Republic of Korea – indicated that, in Korea, teachers in primary and secondary education are evaluated every year. This evaluation includes both a performance evaluation and an expertise evaluation to determine their knowledge on the subject they teach. It also includes an evaluation of the classroom climate and the teacher’s attitude.

Ms Guerriero debated that a more effective means of teacher evaluation would be to use classroom observation with mentoring and feedback by peers. Through observation, the focus can be placed on instructional practice, on-the-spot decision making, maintaining high-functioning and nurturing classrooms, content focus and depth of instruction. Evaluations can also include peer reviews of teaching through interviews and analysis of videotaped instruction. Indeed, teachers are not only there to share knowledge with their students but to also develop their skills.

Evaluation, especially through peer reviews, can also influence classroom practices, through informal in-service training. In Japan, for instance, there is a strong culture of seniority, with mentoring of younger teachers within schools. This includes evaluation of those young teachers’ performances by senior teachers, leading to teachers learning from and supporting each other.

Impact of incentives on teachers’ performance

Mr Chae underlined that, in Korea, teachers are very well paid. Indeed, teacher pay in Korea is higher than the average calculated based on OECD countries. Therefore, it is not a crucial variable for improving teachers’ performance. He noted that amongst surveyed teachers, autonomy in the classroom and professional development opportunities were indicated as affecting teachers’ performances.

This is also the case in Finland, where an important emphasis has been put on teachers’ autonomy. Indeed, Ms Jaana Palorjävi – Director, International Relations, Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland – explained that a lot of leeway is given to teachers in how to organize the school day, based on a skeleton framework provided to them.

It was also noted that teacher development programmes should focus on allowing teachers to go further than transmitting knowledge. Dr Makito Yurita – Senior Researcher, National Institute for School Teachers and Staff Development, Japan – described the teacher as a learner, a thinker and an enquirer. He also further explained that as teachers are not just preparing students for the job market but also preparing future citizens, they should be encouraged to participate in discussions on the goal of education.


Photos credits: Visu/, Juliya Shangarey/, ©UNESCO/Iason Athanasiadis, ©GEM Report/Eduardo Martino, Mykola Komarovskyy/ and hydebrink /