Does  school autonomy support inspiring teachers?

What are the characteristics of an inspiring teacher?


A study of 36 inspiring teachers, in CFBT Education Trust schools, by researchers from Oxford and Worcester Universities,  found that many participating   teachers  are worried that  their autonomy had been reduced and their working conditions suffered as a result of  recent reforms.

The project involved teachers from CfBT Schools Trust schools, all nominated by their headteachers as particularly inspiring. By observing these teachers delivering lessons, and interviewing them, their colleagues and their students, the research identified characteristics of more effective teaching, including developing positive relationships; having good classroom management; creating a positive and supportive climate; providing formative feedback; delivering high quality learning experiences; and emphasising enjoyment in learning.

The main aim of the research was ‘ to provide robust new evidence about both inspiring teachers and inspiring teaching from different perspectives to increase understanding of these widely used but elusive and often poorly defined concepts.’ The research sought to address the following questions:

What do inspiring teachers say about their practice?

What do inspiring teachers do in their classrooms?

What are their students’ views and experiences?

The research found that many teachers were becoming disillusioned with work, reflecting disquiet at current education reforms seen  as badly reducing teacher autonomy and working conditions, increasing workloads and distracting from classroom work.

Many teachers drew attention to their worries in this area and expressed concern and disagreement with what they saw as external interference by central government. “The majority had strong and negative views about recent changes in the national curriculum, national assessment and examinations. They saw these changes as highly political and felt they had produced great confusion and work overload, and lacked clarity. The changes were seen to have shifted the focus from engaging students and innovating in teaching to managing change and achieving targets with too much focus on tests and examination results.”

“Teachers felt they had put in more time and that their past efforts in developing their resources and planning were being wasted, including having to replace expensive texts and materials because of curriculum and exam changes,” the research added.

But, encouragingly,  “ despite external challenges, nearly all want to continue in their teaching careers, they genuinely like  students and enjoy teaching, and they show resilience in the stressful and fast-changing educational  environment”.

The two characteristics most frequently mentioned by teachers with regard to inspiring teachers   were Enthusiasm for teaching and Positive  relationships with students. Both these two main features reflect the nature of teaching as an interactive and social activity that engages the emotions. They are followed by less commonly identified characteristics such as Flexibility, Relevant teaching, Safe and stimulating classroom climate, Positive classroom management, Reflectiveness and Innovative teaching.


Effective Collaboration and shared evidence based practice  have been flagged up by academics (Hargreaves Fullan et al) as key to improving teacher and student outcomes. So what does this research say about that?


‘The degree to which the school ethos is one that promotes positive and collaborative relationships  among teachers was also considered a very important factor, noted by approximately half of the  interviewees. The motivation from collaboration and the role of mentoring were also highlighted by some. Most teachers reported that their school had some type of professional development programme in place, such as breakfast training sessions, INSET days, etc. A number of teachers considered collaborative and personalised learning, with colleagues within their school, to be their preferred form of professional development. Teachers were asked about their professional development needs. The areas that they identified for further development were highly diverse but the three most common areas teachers wanted to improve were:

  • subject knowledge
  • differentiation
  • IT skills.’


As for as students are concerned  their overall ratings indicate that they strongly believe their teachers:

  • have high expectations for students, and positive relationships with them
  • create a positive, supportive and reassuring classroom climate
  • provide clear instructional goals and well-structured lessons
  • are approachable, fair and helpful
  • transmit their enjoyment of learning to students
  • promote positive learning experiences, attitudes, engagement and motivation.


The report concluded:

‘This project has sought to understand what is meant by inspiring practice by drawing on different sources of evidence. The main evidence is a triangulation based on teachers’ voices expressed through interviews, what we saw in the classroom (from both quantitative observation schedules and qualitative field notes) and students’ views (from a questionnaire survey).  Each source offers rich information and some unique contributions. Nonetheless there are strong  overlaps that add to the robustness of our conclusions. Figure 6.1, following, shows the overlap between these various sources and perspectives. The teachers showed strongly the characteristics of more effective teaching. In terms of inspiring practice at the core we can highlight:

  • positive relationships
  • good classroom/behaviour management
  • positive and supportive climate
  • formative feedback
  • high quality learning experiences
  • enjoyment.

These 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 and enjoy teaching, and they show resilience in the stressful and fast-changing educational environment. In observing their classes there was a strong emphasis on making learning enjoyable   engaging, activating students’ own motivation; classroom experiences were typically varied, imaginative and ‘fun’. These inspiring teachers value the support they receive from leaders and colleagues in their schools. They are keen to work with and support colleagues, often through their particular leadership roles in their schools. Overall, they are committed professionals who continue to learn and improve their own practice and seek out opportunities and networks for professional development aligned to their needs and interests. This report has sought to highlight what we can learn from their inspiring practice’.


Inspiring teachers:  perspectives and practices

Summary report

Professor Pam Sammons, Dr Alison Kington,  Ariel Lindorff-Vijayendran, Lorena Ortega

Edited by Anna Riggall

CFBT Education Trust-2014




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