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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AI to Assess Teacher Dispositions? 

I just finished reading a piece entitled AI Could Conduct Peer Review, Report Findsit actually focuses on using robots to detect plagiarism, finding instances of misused data and noting when statistical tests have been used incorrectly. This sounds like Turnitin perhaps joined at the hip with SPSS software–on steroids. It may prove to be quite a handy tool.

However, I had other thought: Could forms of artificial intelligence accurately identify individuals who have a propensity for success in the classroom? In other words, could they be programmed to assess an individual’s professional dispositions? Dispositions are the “soft skills” needed to have a positive impact on the lives of students–not just academically but also developmentally, socially, and emotionally. Skills like compassion, caring, ethics, values, commitment, grit, attentive to detail, organized, collaborative, and so on–cannot easily be measured but we know them when we see them, and they make a huge difference in the classroom. I’ve seen so many times over the years individuals who had a tremendous command of their subject matter and yet they were terrible teachers–they didn’t have those dispositions necessary for working well with students, parents, colleagues, and others.

Institutions of higher education struggle with how best to measure dispositions; it’s often cost-prohibitive or personnel-prohibitive to assess each applicant once, much less at multiple points in their program. But what if we could build tech tools that would be very effective at evaluating the professional dispositions of prospective teachers or school leaders? If developed correctly, this could potentially save schools of education huge sums of money each year and it would help them to better identify those who are most likely to be successful: Most likely to be retained in the program, most likely to graduate, and most likely to be successful after program completion.

Of course, this would also open the door to all sorts of research studies! And, it would be entirely possible to confirm things such as content validity, reliability, inter-rater reliability, and so on.

What might this look like? And how would we get started?

 

–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 and P-12 schools in areas such as competency-based education, teacher preparation, distance learning, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC. She can be reached at: globaleducationalconsulting@gmail.com