UKEdMag: The Key to Exceptional Teaching by @ArnoldLodgeHead

FULL TITLE: The Key to Exceptional Teaching: Happiness and Trust


As teachers, we’re often challenged to find newer, better ways of helping learners to make progress…

Teaching: A new innovation, a new piece of research or a new piece of technology heralds the breakthrough we were waiting for and we run to adopt it (or not – depending on your disposition). While I believe that we should embrace innovation and change in our pedagogy, we should never lose sight of the real ingredients for success in the classroom: happiness, confidence and trust. Children simply will not fulfil their potential – in any classroom – if the relationships aren’t right.

This article originally appeared the March 2017 edition of UKEdMagazine

I love pedagogy. I love talking about it, sharing it and coaching others in teaching. As a Headteacher, it is a privilege that I am able to debate and discuss with colleagues best practice in the classroom. I love reading articles on pedagogy and teaching techniques. I’m convinced that the more we engage with professional practice and feedback, the more effective we can be in the classroom and that can only benefit the children in our care. I wonder, though, whether we pay enough attention to developing the happiness and trust of learners in the classroom. The research on key indicators of learner progress and learner performance are out there for all to see; whether this is the size of the class, the quality of the teaching or the quality of feedback, we’re able to see from evidence the techniques and approaches that work well in the classroom.

This, of course, is a good thing. Recently, after pottering on Twitter on a Sunday evening, I stumbled across an article sharing good practice and I was inspired to try it myself the next day. I loved it. The learners loved it. There was noticeable impact on progress in the lesson and I was able to see an upswing in attainment in the class in an assessed piece of work.

“This is fantastic”, I thought. But, was it? I wondered if it really was any better than my normal tasks. Was it more effective than my normal approach to teaching? On reflection, it probably wasn’t. What was it, then, about the new technique that was so compelling? What produced the progress in the classroom for the learners?

The real difference was my excitement and this drove the performance of the class. My enthusiasm for the new task generated a feel in the classroom of energy and enjoyment, which, in turn, meant the learners were excited, too. “This is new”, we thought. “This is exciting”. The impact came not directly from the pedagogy but from how we approached the task. There’s a danger that we will become so fixated on the pedagogy and the techniques of teaching that we will end up missing the point: above all else, learners need to be happy, confident and trusting in their teacher to commit to their learning.

I’ve watched a number of exceptional teachers in the classroom and the one thing they all had in common was a confidence in their practice, a happy learning environment and trust from their learners. The approaches to pedagogy was inevitably varied (different approaches to feedback, to assessment, to the ways of structuring a lesson…) but the thread that linked these exceptional practitioners was how learners felt in their classroom.

If learners aren’t happy, confident to make mistakes and able to place trust in their teacher, all the teaching in the world will not help learners to make progress. As we strive to find best practice in education, we must ensure that we never lose sight of the key ingredient in teaching: positive relationships between facilitator and learner. It is from this relationship that stems the ability to provide the highest levels of learning.

If pupils are happy and they trust their teacher, they’re more willing to have a go without fear of failure. They’re more engaged with their work. In this environment, when pupils are challenged to do better next time and given feedback for improvement, it becomes a reflection of high aspirations for them, not a defeat and another failure. The break time conversations that teachers and pupils sometimes need to have about getting that piece of work in on time becomes meaningful rather than white noise to a pupil who is disengaged. In short, the learner becomes motivated to learn through their relationship with their teacher. No amount of pedagogical silver bullets can replace the importance of that.

Sadly, there’s not enough research on the impact of happiness and trust in the classroom and the long-term impact this has on pupil progress. Nor has there been adequate research into the teaching techniques that allow learners to make progress and to facilitate positive relationships between teacher and pupil. For now, the best I can offer are questions for us to reflect on:

  • Do pupils trust in you as a person?
  • Do pupils trust in your capabilities as a teacher?
  • Is your classroom a happy place?
  • Are pupils confident to try new things without fear of failure?

For teachers, if we can’t answer yes to all of these questions, we’re inhibiting the learning in the classroom. If you’re finding a class difficult or you know they’re not making as much progress as you’d like, stop and wonder: have you given enough time to build the relationships? Are your pupils happy to fail with you? Are they confident to trust in you?

For school leaders, start with happiness, confidence and trust. If there are concerns about the learning in a class or subject, start by asking if the children are happy, if they’re confident to have a go and if they trust in their teacher. This will tell you far more about what is going on in school than any amount of book trawls, planning checking or lesson observations.

As we strive for a school system that “works for all”, we should start with “positive relationships for all”. If we set out to build trust, confidence and ensure our learners are happy, we won’t go far wrong.

David Preston @ArnoldLodgeHead is Headteacher at Arnold Lodge School, a Co-Educational Independent Day School for pupils from 4-18. View his blog at

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