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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A Gentle Nudge to CCSSO: What Do We Really Mean by Competency-Based Teaching and Learning?

Competency-Based Education (CBE) has really started gaining the attention of P-12 school districts, colleges and universities, and state departments of education in recent years. CBE emphasizes demonstrated learning over traditional seat time, and it offers a more flexible way to support students achieve their educational goals.

We can talk about the benefits of CBE and we can describe its attributes. However, it seems that there are numerous definitions of the term that while well-intentioned are lacking or are not always hitting the mark. For example, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) developed a working definition of the term competency in 2011; that definition identifies five major components that must be present in a competency-based educational model. While I congratulate the CCSSO for their work in this area I would encourage them to revisit what they mean by competency. Given that this organization leads policies and practices of departments of education and P-12 school districts across the nation, it is important to have a current, accurate, and clear definition. I’ve taken the CCSSO’s definition and have offered a few questions as food for thought in order to advance the conversation:

  1. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
    • Advance in what way? To the next assessment? To the next chapter or unit? To the next course?
    • How is mastery demonstrated? Through what form(s) of assessment?
    • Is demonstrating mastery really the same as demonstrating competency?
  1. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
    • Do competencies truly include learning objectives, or are those LOs created as a measurable subset of the competencies?
    • How are learning objectives transferable? Transferable to what?
    • What do competencies that empower students look like? How would we identify them, as compared to competencies that do not empower students? Empower in what way(s)?
    • From what source(s) are competencies derived?
  1. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
    • Meaningful to whom? Learners? Educators? Parents? Educational agencies?
    • Meaningful in what way(s)?
    • Must all assessments be deemed as positive learning experiences for students?
    • What benchmark(s) should be used in order to judge each assessment’s merit in this regard?
    • How are educators able to ensure that assessments are of high-quality?
  1. Students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
    • What is the definition of rapid support? Is this truly intended to be time-bound?
    • What would be the source of this support? From a teacher or designee? From a software application or AI device?

 

  1. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge along with the development of important skills and dispositions.
    • Should learning outcomes that comprise competencies represent each level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, thereby requiring students to demonstrate what they know and are able to do at each cognitive level (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation, synthesis)?
    • How might learning outcomes include the development of dispositions? What might that look like in measurable terms? Which dispositions?

 

This is just a partial list of questions that must be answered by the CCSSO as they revisit what they mean by competency-based education. Their definition will steer how CBE is implemented in school districts and state departments of education for years to come and it’s important to get it right.

–rrf

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation, online learning, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter, writer, and educator, she currently supports higher education, P-12 schools, and non-profit agencies in areas such as competency-based education, new program design, gap analysis, quality assurance, leadership, outcomes-based assessment, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC. She also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations through her blog site (www.robertarossfisher.com).