Imagine you’re a teacher. What would you do in the following situation?
As students in your classroom begin a writing task, one of them, Kata, starts throwing paper around and distracting the others. You know from previous incidents that Kata often becomes frustrated when she doesn’t understand how to complete activities; she often displays this by being disruptive.
- Ask her to leave the class?
- Show her how to get started on the task?
- Encourage her by telling her that she is capable of completing the task?
- Ask a passing teacher to talk to her?
Your answer gives important clues about how you think and operate as a teacher (see below for the answers). In future, similar questions could help researchers understand how prospective teachers might interact with students, and enable trainers to recruit people who are best suited to work in schools.
The debate over what makes a good teacher isn’t new – as far back as 500BC Confucius was portrayed as a model teacher. But despite this, there’s been little systematic research into how we can measure the personal characteristics that make a teacher effective – and how we can reliably select people for teacher training.
Part of the problem is that teaching is often portrayed as something that’s too magical and cryptic to decode. But research has shown that some teachers are routinely more successful than others – and science can predict who is likely to be the most effective.
A recent study by Dr Allison Atteberry from the University of Colorado followed more than 3,000 teachers over the first five years of their careers, measuring their effectiveness by looking at student outcomes. Atteberry found that even after statistically controlling for external factors such as school, family and student characteristics, teachers who were most effective tended to maintain this over time. Similarly, those in the bottom group for effectiveness stayed there, even when they moved schools. Anecdotal experience backs this up: it’s not uncommon for someone to remember having a great – or not-so-great – teacher at school. This indicates that multiple factors, which interact in complex ways, make some teachers consistently effective.
Academic ability is one of them, hence the UK government’s introduction in 2013 of tougher entry requirements for teacher training. But it’s not the only thing that matters: non-cognitive attributes – personal characteristics such as empathy and communication – are also essential.
A recent large-scale review of the factors associated with student achievement showed that teacher-student relationships outweighed the contribution of teachers’ subject knowledge, teacher training, or home and school effects. In fact, John Hattie’s research in Australia shows that teacher characteristics, such as interpersonal skills, are more closely associated with student achievement than curriculum or teaching approach.
Our research in the UK and internationally – funded by the European Research Council – takes this further, examining how we can identify key teacher characteristics and assess them for entry into teacher training. There can be a lot of leeway in how personal characteristics are expressed, but we want all teachers to have qualities such as empathy, resilience and adaptability in the face of challenges. Our results show that these attributes are broadly the same across secondary and primary schools, although there are some variations between cultures.
In Finland, for example, cooperative skills are particularly desirable because there’s a strong tradition of collaboration in schools, where teachers plan and work together. Instead of using personality tests, we use scenario-based questions, known as situational judgment tests, to measure characteristics. These tests have more validity in predicting job performance than personality tests, which people can fake more easily.
Studies in organisational psychology suggest that face-to-face interviews are also an unreliable way to gauge characteristics as interviewers are prone to hidden bias: even when we try to be open and fair, we’re inclined to select people who are a bit like us. It’s possible to improve some traits – such as communication or organisation – through professional development.
But this may not be possible for all non-cognitive attributes – for example, it’s harder to build skills such as empathy. This is why it’s essential that we pay more attention to personal qualities when recruiting prospective teachers. We have already piloted situational judgment tests with universities in Cambridge, Newcastle and York, and are working with universities and education ministries in Australia, Finland, Hungary and Lithuania. After further validation of the tests, we are excited about introducing this new selection procedure nationally in some settings and an online version using video scenarios.
Back to the scenario at the beginning of this article. Although there’s no perfect response, if you chose ‘2’ you might show adaptability in the classroom. Choose ‘3’ and you probably have a growth mindset and believe that with effort children are capable of improving their attainment. Choosing ‘1’ might show a lack of resilience when facing challenging situations, and ‘4’ might show a lack of self-efficacy to engage all pupils in learning. Which quality do you have? Maybe you would make a great teacher.