What does a great teacher look like?

Teachers with a strong belief in their own ability to ‘get the job done’ have the biggest impact on a student’s learning.

It’s well-known that teachers have the biggest influence on student learning over any other in-school factor, including class size, facilities and peer groups.

But what is it about the teacher themselves, and how they teach, that can improve student learning?

A recent study, consisting of 52 secondary sources of evidence (covering 1,427 primary research studies on effective teaching), found the top ten characteristics that great teachers all share.

Teachers’ self-efficacy, or their own belief in their innate ability to ‘get the job done’, had the strongest relationship to student learning.

Teaching vs Teacher

Personal characteristics affect how teachers teach
Personal characteristics affect how teachers teach

Personal characteristics affect how teachers teach because they influence the way they behave in the classroom.

While, of course, all teachers have their own unique personality and identity, until now it hasn’t been clear what types of communication style, beliefs, attitudes, and personality are common among high quality teachers, and therefore contribute to more effective teaching.

We already know quite a bit about what constitutes effective teaching, including the importance of content knowledge, the way a subject is taught and how the classroom is managed.

But teaching is influenced by the teacher.

What does an effective teacher look like?

In the study, ten key attributes of teachers that are most connected to effective teaching.

These characteristics can independently increase the impact of effective teaching on student learning, teacher wellbeing and school outcomes (like community engagement and school belonging).

1. Self-efficacy

High self-efficacy was associated with a positive classroom climate, greater student participation and motivation, student achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, and use of inquiry-based learning.

It also supports teacher well-being, confidence, and resilience.

2. Cognitive Capability

Teachers’ ability to think creativity, critically and competently.

3. Social and Emotional Learning/Competence

Five core competencies comprise this characteristic including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

4. Communication

Certain styles and models of communication can motivate students, promote a positive classroom climate and support effective teaching. But more research is needed to understand what styles are most effective.

5. Attitudes, beliefs, and expectations

Teachers’ belief in the importance of accomplished teaching alongside the learning and achievement potential of all students can improve student outcomes; in other words, high expectations are important.

6. Motivation

There are various dimensions of motivation theory including intrinsic motivation and self-determination theory but, overall, motivation levels of a teacher are linked with student outcomes.

7. Cultural Competence

How aware a teacher is of their own cultural competence, their views on diversity, and their ability to successfully teach students who identify with a culture or cultures other than their own are key to their impact on student outcomes.

8. Personality

A teacher’s personality doesn’t directly influence their teaching practice, but it is related to their communication styles and attitudes and beliefs about student progress and learning potential, which directly affect learning.

9. Self-Reflection

How teachers reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses in their teaching style and practice, and whether they adapt accordingly, are an important aspect of teacher quality.

10. Collegiality

Collegiality defines the co-operative relationship between a teacher and their colleagues, especially with teacher leaders.

Effective teachers are change agents within their practice
Effective teachers are change agents within their practice

All ten characteristics have a direct or indirect effect on teacher practice, student outcomes and school outcomes.

Values, morals and ethics were not identified by the literature, but were also considered to be important personal characteristics.

These findings suggest that specific teacher mindsets can improve student outcomes. Effective teachers have an evaluative mindset, they have a belief that they are a change agent, they value professional growth and think critically about their practice in response to student needs.

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Evaluating teacher quality

Considering teacher quality as distinct (but related) to the quality of teaching practice adds another aspect to how teachers are evaluated - with capability and behaviour important additions.

While the quality of teaching practice is already included in many teacher evaluation systems, like the Ontario Teacher Performance Appraisal System - including a focus on teacher quality characteristics could tell us more about how teachers can be effective.

It could also allow more individually-oriented feedback, acknowledging the importance of the individual teacher and how their personality, traits, and capabilities influence their practice, while also including actionable findings about how school environments can help teachers be more effective.

But, importantly, only certain characteristics should be evaluated in a teaching and learning context; for example, it would be inappropriate to include personality in an evaluation tool.

The next step is to understand how the findings can inform teacher evaluation practice and policy - along with teacher education and professional development to recognise, celebrate and support all teachers in Australia.

Article originally published on Pursuit

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