Do Good Teachers Really Matter?
In short, yes, and that’s not just my biased opinion. In fact there are a multitude of studies that indicate that quality teaching and student learning are very much connected. I could cite them all here (and have in academic papers I’ve written), but suffice it to say, there aren’t many people who deny that connection. The importance of quality teaching has become so prevalent that we find elements related to teacher quality all over teacher education program accreditation standards (e.g. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation Standards), in state K-12 teaching standards (see any state in the US’s professional teaching standards, and in national K-12 teaching standards (e.g. The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards). These standards drive how we train and evaluate teachers meaning that they are a big deal. In my world of educational research, there is a robust amount of work done in the area of identifying traits of quality teachers, and that work continues to grow. Just about anyone in the educational enterprise (and a multitude of research studies) will tell you that good teachers not only matter, they can be the difference between a good education, checking out of school, and even dropping out.
How Do We Identify Quality Teachers?
While it’s valuable to know that quality teachers really do make a difference, what most educational researchers and school administrators struggle to determine is exactly what makes a quality teacher. Certainly we can identify certain attributes we would desire – they actually like kids, they have the ability to break down subject matter in a way that is accessible to kids, among others. Some have looked at the skills of teachers (e.g. subject matter knowledge), some at their beliefs (e.g. believe it is important to never give up on a student), and others at intentions (e.g. what they want to do in the classroom that day). Though all of these are certainly revealing, the area that has picked up the most steam is in identifying a teachers’ dispositions (this is my primary area of research). A disposition is comprised of one’s belief, intention, and action with all three needing to be present. For example, one might believe it’s important to show care for students, may even intend to do that in the classroom, but regularly is harsh or negative with kids. That teacher would not possess a disposition of care for students.
I’ll spare you a history lesson in teacher dispositions (though if you’re interested, I’m happy to yammer on about it at length), but it’s important to know that they can be traced back to the 1920s, though they went by different labels. By the mid-80s, teacher dispositions were heavily researched and began to be included into teacher standards across the US and eventually nationally. While there are certainly some detractors, teacher dispositions have become one of if not the dominant means to attempting to identify quality teachers.
Since I began my doctoral studies in 2007, I have been reading about and researching the dispositions of quality teachers (including their beliefs, intentions, and actions). Upon arriving at Capital University in 2011, I began working with a colleague of mine who did work in this area and I learned even more from the research in psychology and motivation around human and teacher dispositions. Through that work we synthesized all we have learned to come up with what we believe is the Holy Grail for educators – we think we can identify (with some certainty) what makes a quality teacher. As such, I want to share this with parents so you know what to look for in your child’s teacher. I also want to share this with educators so you can get a clearer sense of what makes a great teacher. I also hope to share this with policymakers so you might be better informed when enacting new policies in K-12 and teacher education.
The Eight Dispositions of Great Teachers
What ensues is the list of eight dispositions great teachers possess according to all of the research that exists on the topic. Though they are listed in numerical order, they are not listed in order of importance.
Self-awareness/Self-reflectiveness: this disposition includes awareness of self and awareness of how they are received, of the words they say, and of their body language. It also includes the teacher’s propensity/ability to reflect on her/his actions and interactions with others. A self-aware/self-reflective teacher has the ability to ask hard questions to themselves about who they are as people and professionals. Great teachers teach kids how to be self-reflective as well.
Open-mindedness: this disposition includes being open to new ideas, situations, and people. It also involves possessing a quality of spontaneity while tending to be less judgmental with a wiliness to be wrong. These folks aren’t necessarily rule breakers, but they can see rules as potentially changeable or up for negotiation. They are willing to try new and unconventional things while being willing to discard what does not work.
Authenticity: this disposition involves showing up authentically in the classroom and in other environments (with appropriate filters). The authentic teacher doesn’t act one way with parents and then a completely different way with kids. They also seek to establish positive, genuine relationships with their students, demanding respect while respecting their students. These teachers demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for what they are teaching and hold their kids to high yet attainable expectations.
Personalizing the Educational Experience: this disposition involves individualizing the educational experience for every student. It includes getting to know how each student learns, teaching different kids in different ways, allowing kids to represent their learning in different ways, and inviting individual responses to content where appropriate. These teachers recognize that culture (including race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, neighborhood, peer group, and much more) is the lens through which we experience the world and find ways to invite those individual perspectives into the classroom. They seek ways to connect the content to students’ interests/needs and make it explicitly relevant to kids. In the process, they try to make the learning interesting and fun (what a novel concept).
Caring: As I said, these are not listed in order, but this one may be the most important. Teachers illustrating care actively build relationships with kids and make them feel welcome, safe, and cared for. They also build relationships among students in the classroom. These teachers care for students academically, but also as human beings, giving kids a sense of belonging and safety in the academic environment. They also teach their students how to care for others and how to build authentic, meaningful relationships with peers and adults.
Intentionality: So often I tell my teacher education students that teaching with intention is what great teachers do. This means that teachers have informed intention behind what they are teaching, how they are teaching, and what kind of classroom environment they create and maintain. They plan their day, week, and year with an end goal in mind and work toward that goal. In doing so they can provide appropriate supports to get students from where they are to where they need to go. This is the opposite of a teacher coming to class with no plan and winging it. Each assignment has meaning/intention and the great teacher explicitly shares those with the class.
Developing Autonomy: this disposition represents the teacher teaching beyond the formal curriculum/content; they teach life. Here teachers encourage and support independence, helping students develop capabilities they already possess to achieve various end. Great teachers try to build capacity in students as learners and human beings so that they can be independent people who know how to problem solve on their own. They want their students to succeed academically while also striving to teach kids to be well rounded, empowered, good people. In short, these teachers want to empower students so that they don’t need them anymore.
Teaching the Whole Person: this disposition represents a growing movement in education where the teacher teaches well beyond content. They teach kids how to work in groups, how to interact with one another, how to engage in discourse, how to be a member of a pluralistic democracy, how to be kind, and so much more. They value their students not just as pupils, but also as human beings, and actively work to help kids meet their full human potential. These are the teachers who recognize that they don’t just teach content, they teach kids.