Key Skills and Dispositions: Essential Traits all Exceptional Teachers Must Have

Note: This is an update to Professional Dispositions: Essential Traits for Effective Teaching & School Leadership, published January 12, 2018.

Being an effective teacher or school leader involves much more than simply possessing a solid command of subject matter or earning a certain grade point average (GPA). It also takes more than an ability to write lesson plans, or to maintain discipline in a classroom. Being an effective educator requires other skills that are essential to teaching and learning success–these are the attributes students mention when they are asked to think back to their favorite teacher–the ones who made the greatest impact on their lives:

  • She always made me feel as though I mattered.
  • He had a great sense of humor!
  • She could admit when she had made a mistake.
  • He was tough, but always fair. 
  • Being in Mr. ______’s class made me want to become a teacher. 
  • She was kind of like a mom to me when my life was in such chaos.
  • She always encouraged me to keep going and told me she knew I could make it. And I did. 

 

Making a Difference Starts with Our Personal Compass

Comments like these are the result of teachers who made a profound impact on their students’ lives — not just academically, but personally. These attributes–sometimes known as soft skills–are more properly labeled as professional dispositions. Dispositions stem from our beliefs, our attitudes, and our personal “compass” that steers us through life. For example: Do I really care about children? Am I compassionate and empathetic? Am I respectful of other ideas or traditions, even if they differ from my own? Do I take responsibility for my own actions? Do I take the high road even when no one else is looking?

Dispositions Defined

Accrediting bodies such as the now-defunct National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) that review the quality of educator preparation providers started emphasizing the importance of professional skills and dispositions many years ago. Even though they never defined them, NCATE spoke about dispositions in terms of values, commitments, and ethics; these in turn impact the behaviors and decisions of teachers in the classroom and in their interactions with others. More recently, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) and the Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation (AAQEP) as well as the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC) emphasize the role that professional dispositions play in effective teaching and school leadership. These bodies hold schools of education accountable for identifying, selecting, and graduating individuals who indicate a propensity for success as an educator, including the demonstration of specific professional dispositions. In a white paper focusing on knowledge, skills, and dispositions sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the Innovative Lab Network (ILN) defined dispositions as: mindsets (sometimes referred to as behaviors, capacities, or habits of mind) that are closely associated with success in college and career.

Essential Key Skills and Dispositions for Teachers

The primary purpose of becoming a teacher is to make a positive impact on the development, achievement, and success of students. In its research, the ILN was able to pinpoint 10 key teacher skills and dispositions that contribute most significantly to K-12 student success (Current Evidence of Relationships with Academic Outcomes, p.4):

Correlation to Student Success

STRONG IMPACT

MODERATE IMPACT

  • Self-Efficacy
  • Initiative
  • Integrity
  • Intellectual Curiosity
  • Adaptability
  • Study Skills
  • Time & Goal Management
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Problem Solving
  • Leadership
  • Critical Thinking
  • Self-Awareness

The Role of Grit and Self-Control

Renowned psychologist and researcher Angela Duckworth identified two key characteristics that closely predict achievement across multiple professions: grit and self-control. In essence, grit is the ability to play the long game – to remain focused and committed to meeting long-term goals. In other words, grit means not giving up and moving on to something else when there are challenges or bumps in the road. Self-control is similar to self-discipline – it refers to not allowing oneself to act on impulses and not needing instant gratification. In many ways, grit and self-control are related, because they both focus on long-term, sustainable success. Individuals who possess these traits can remain focused on accomplishing their long-term goals and are able to cross the finish line. We need teachers and school leaders with grit and self-control.

 

What School Districts Look for When Hiring Teachers

School district officials often look for specific traits when they review applications and go through the interview process for hiring. However, in many instances, the criteria they use don’t always align with what the ILN’s research says is important to student success. Many school principals and human resource directors are looking to hire teachers who demonstrate professional traits and behaviors such as:

  • Adaptable, confident, & organized
  • Good communicators & lifelong learners
  • Team players but also leaders
  • Imaginative, creative, & innovative
  • Committed to Students & the Profession
  • Able to locate engaging resources, including technology
  • Able to empower and inspire students
  • Able to successfully manage a positive online reputation
  • Able to periodically unplug from technology & social media

Partnering to Build a Cadre of Exceptional Teachers & School Leaders

It’s essential to hire teachers who will make a long-term positive impact on the achievement, success, and lives of our students. To that end, university schools of education and P-12 school districts must partner to ensure that only individuals who demonstrate a propensity for success in the classroom are recommended for a teaching license. Once hired, they need to continue working together to provide teachers with excellent professional development support and mentoring at all career phases. A few questions to serve as a springboard for partner conversations could include:

  • What dispositions make the very best teachers?
  • Do effective school leaders need the same set of dispositional skills that teachers need?
  • How can we assess dispositions to identify who will likely become successful teachers?
  • Can these skills be taught, or are they innate?
  • If they can be taught, how can dispositional growth be supported in schools of education?
  • Is it possible to develop a reliable tool for hiring exceptional teachers and school leaders?

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in quality assurance, educator preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as accreditation, competency-based education, and teacher/school leader prep programs design.  Roberta also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com). 

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Is There Room for Two Accrediting Bodies in Educator Preparation?

Depending on their state’s statutes, many US educator preparation providers may soon have a choice regarding which accrediting body they want to evaluate the quality of their programs.

The Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation (AAQEP), developed primarily by an advisory council and a small team of staff members with previous accreditation experience, have finalized a process by which the quality of educator preparation providers (EPPs) will be reviewed.  If this sounds strikingly similar to the regulatory body that already serves in this capacity, that’s because it is. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) was birthed as a result of consolidation between the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC); it became fully operational as the nation’s sole accrediting body for educator preparation providers in mid-2013.

Similar to the CAEP model, AAQEP is partnering with several state departments of education for the purpose of streamlining and codifying expectations for program quality. According to its Spring 2018 newsletter, four providers are planning for AAQEP accreditation reviews in early 2019. As part of its adopted policy, the new body recognizes the accreditation conferred by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, and any accreditor recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or by the Secretary of the United States Department of Education.

CAEP, on the other hand, is currently the only programmatic accrediting body for educator preparation that’s recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).    It also has the benefit of being in existence for five years and has had a chance to test its policies, procedures, and evaluation framework. Numerous changes have been made during that time, mostly because of feedback from institutions that have undergone program review. While providers embrace the need for quality assurance, many have expressed frustration by a lack of consistent messaging by CAEP staff and point to a perception that key elements of the program review process have been changed with little notice or explanation. CAEP leadership indicate they are committed to improving their system and seem to be taking steps to improve communication with providers but many challenges remain.

Common Goals, Different Approaches

While each body has developed its own set of program review protocols and standards, the goal is essentially the same – to ensure that educators are fully prepared to meet the needs of students in 21st Century schools. In order to make this happen, educator preparation providers responsible for training teachers and school leaders must work closely with P-12 school districts to provide high-quality learning experiences from curriculum that is current and standards-based. Performance expectations should be high with appropriate academic support, guidance, and mentoring as needed. Subject- and grade-appropriate field and clinical experiences should play an integral role in every program, and providers should monitor the success of their program candidates as well as the success of the P-12 students being served. And finally, an overarching goal for all providers must be a deep commitment to continuous program and systematic improvement.

Standards-Based Frameworks

While both bodies rely on a standards-based framework for program review, those standards are not identical. CAEP adopted five standards designed to evaluate programs that lead to initial and advanced level teaching credentials:

  • Content and Pedagogical Knowledge
  • Clinical Partnerships and Practice
  • Candidate Quality, Recruitment, and Selectivity
  • Program Impact
  • Provider Quality, Continuous Improvement, and Capacity

AAQEP, on the other hand, bases program review on a set of four standards:

  • Completer Performance
  • Completer Professional Competence and Growth
  • Quality Program Practices
  • Program Engagement in System Improvement

 

One functional accrediting body for EPPs is enough; why would we want to add another?

Programs want options for greater individualization. Not all schools of education are created alike, and while they strive to attain the same goal of preparing teacher and school leader candidates for their careers, they enjoy a variety of missions, visions, program designs, and delivery systems. For example, a completely online program operating in multiple states may have a very different model from one serving teacher candidates in a traditional, face-to-face learning environment. One that focuses on social equity and recruits 18-22-year-olds may take a very different approach from an alternative preparation provider that recruits adult learners who already have a bachelor’s degree. In other words, while a one-size-fits-all approach to accreditation doesn’t always support a provider’s diversity or uniqueness.

There’s a risk in having only one body to judge the quality of all programs. Having a monopoly is never a good idea, regardless of the enterprise. Competition ultimately helps all stakeholders to reach higher and become better. This is also true for accrediting bodies. Professional educators, preparation providers, public stakeholders, and accrediting bodies should all have a seat at the table while making important decisions about how teachers and school leaders should be trained. To do otherwise creates a risk of well-intentioned efforts that miss the mark and fail to accomplish our shared goal, which is to:

Strengthen our nation by building a well-educated society facilitated by exceptionally prepared teachers.

 

Is there really room for two accrediting bodies in educator preparation?

Will AAQEP be recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation? Will state departments of education be eager to partner with another accrediting body?  What will be the US Department of Education’s position, given that it currently recognizes neither? If given the choice, will some educator preparation providers want to be accredited only by one body, or will they choose to be accredited by both CAEP and AAQEP? Those are all questions that remain unanswered. However, if the addition of  a new accrediting body creates a space for freedom of choice and mission-specific program review while ensuring academic excellence, how can that be a bad thing?

–rrf

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in education transformation, teacher preparation, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter and writer, she currently supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as educational systems design, online learning experiences, competency-based education, and accreditation. Roberta also blogs about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com). 

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