The traits of effective teaching (and teachers)

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
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What does the research say about the traits and talents that make for an effective teacher and effective teaching? John Dabell takes a look

Everyone seems to know a “good” teacher. They normally stand out a mile because they go the extra mile. They seem to have that magic touch, charismatic DNA and bucket-loads of “je ne sais quoi”. They seem to build pupil relationships and rapport easily – the “T factor” according to Adam Lopez (2011). These teachers are dramatically more multi-dimensional and effective than their colleagues.

Children, parents and staff all know what a good one looks like and anecdotally they can produce their own A to Z of traits, quirks and qualities that make the difference. I have previously written that there must be at least 365 things that good teachers do well (Dabell, 2018)!

Teaching is a very personal business and so one pupil might love you and another might hate you. It is idiosyncratic, subjective and it is all about personalities and getting the best fit. Being effective is elastic but relationship effects between teachers and pupils play a huge part (Gross et al, 2014).

However, getting a consensus on what being a good or effective teacher is can be extremely hard and we cannot rely on Ofsted inspectors, what Chloe’s mum says, or the Twitterings of social media.

There is no formula, but there are some pointers in the research showing us what traits or approaches are most likely to be effective.

What does the research say?

The research that is out there on effective teaching tends to mix together what effective teaching looks like and what qualities an effective teacher has.

Barak Rosenshine

Barak Rosenshine’s (2012) Principles of Instruction have certainly got a lot of attention in recent years. He presents 10 research-based principles from cognitive science, studies of master teachers and the research on cognitive support to help students learn complex tasks. His research focused on learning instruction, teacher performance, and student achievement.

Working with Norma Furst, he identified five characteristics of teacher behaviour which have served as a framework for research on teacher performance. These are: clarity of exposition, enthusiasm, task orientation, varied approaches, and opportunities to learn. The 10 principles are all based around the model of explicit instruction:

  1. Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning.
  2. Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step.
  3. Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students.
  4. Provide models.
  5. Guide students’ practice.
  6. Check for student understanding.
  7. Obtain a high success rate.
  8. Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.
  9. Require and monitor independent practice.
  10. Engage students in weekly and monthly review.

Rosenshine offers a further list of 17 principles that overlap and expand these 10 sections (2010).

The Sutton Trust

A 2014 Sutton Trust report, What makes great teaching? (Coe et al, 2014) identifies six common components that constitute good quality teaching. In order of effectiveness, they are:

  1. Pedagogical content knowledge – teachers who have a deep knowledge of their subject (strong evidence of impact on outcomes).
  2. Quality of instruction – effective teaching and assessment methods (strong evidence of impact).
  3. Classroom climate – creating a classroom that stretches students while recognising their self-worth (moderate evidence of impact).
  4. Classroom management – a teacher’s ability to make use of lesson time and resources (moderate evidence of impact).
  5. Teacher beliefs – why teachers adopt particular practices and the purposes they aim for (some evidence of impact).
  6. Professional behaviours – how teachers reflect on their own development, supporting colleagues, and engaging with parents (some evidence of impact).

These components are seen as a “starter kit” for thinking about what constitutes effective teaching. Importantly, the report also identifies strategies not proven to be effective, and for which there is a lack of evidence to support their use. Examples include:

  1. Using praise lavishly.
  2. Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves.
  3. Grouping students by ability.
  4. Encouraging re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas.
  5. Addressing low confidence and aspirations before teaching content.
  6. Presenting information to students in their preferred learning style.
  7. Ensure learners are always active, rather than listening passively (to help them remember).

The CESE

The Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation categorises the practices likely to improve student learning in its report What works best (CESE, 2015). It identifies seven key areas with a summary of why each one matters, what the evidence says, and implications for teachers. The seven are:

  1. High expectations.
  2. Explicit teaching.
  3. Effective feedback.
  4. Use of data to inform practice.
  5. Classroom management.
  6. Wellbeing.
  7. Collaboration.

The CESE points out that this is not an exhaustive list of effective practices, but a useful framework for us to consider when “deciding how to challenge the status quo and tackle student improvement”. The seven areas overlap and connect with one another in complex ways and the report reminds us that great teachers lean from other teachers.

Positive predictors

Pedagogy is well-researched but what about the pedagogue? What is it specifically about the person that makes the difference? Eric Hanushek (2011) says that teacher effect dwarfs school effect and that students are better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than the inverse.

Angela Duckworth et al (2009) tracked 390 novice teachers who were teaching in challenging schools in the US and assessed how grit, life satisfaction and optimism predicted teacher performance. The gains in academic performance of the students they taught was used as an indicator of their effectiveness at the end of the school year.

All three positive traits predicted teacher effectiveness. When all were simultaneously used to predict the teacher effectiveness outcome, only grit and life satisfaction were significant predictors so it seems that optimism works via grit and life satisfaction. As such, the authors suggest that schools should look also for grit and happiness when hiring their teachers.

Meanwhile, when it comes to personality, research findings consistently coalesce around five major non-cognitive personality dimensions: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness (Kell, 2019).

Kim et al (2019) conducted a meta-analysis of 25 studies reporting the relationships between teacher personality domains and two teacher job-related outcomes – teacher effectiveness and burn-out. They found that for teacher effectiveness the greatest effect sizes were for extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness and agreeableness.

And finally...

The reality is there are so many teacher types, who can categorically say what is right? There is no blueprint or checklist that HR can feed us. If one of your students gets you a mug at the end of the year with “World’s Best Teacher” on it then you know it is true. All we know for sure is that it takes someone special to be a teacher.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 25 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2gBiaXv

Further information & research

  • What makes a brilliant teacher? Adam Lopez, The Guardian, December 2011: http://bit.ly/2TtfmhU
  • 365 characteristics of good teachers, John Dabell, @TeacherToolkit, December 2018: http://bit.ly/33vCctK
  • Forecasting the student–professor matches that result in unusually effective teaching, Gross et al, British Journal of Educational Psychology, June 2014: http://bit.ly/2OUiW5Z
  • Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know, Barak Rosenshine, American Educator, 2012: http://bit.ly/2ZpbIqW
  • Principles of instruction, Barak Rosenshine, International Academy of Education (IAE), 2010: http://bit.ly/2YK1GEX
  • What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, Coe et al, The Sutton Trust, October 2014: http://bit.ly/2HPseLL
  • What works best: Evidence-based practices to help improve NSW student performance, Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE), March 2015: http://bit.ly/2ySEULQ
  • Valuing teachers: How much is a good teacher worth?, Hanushek, Education Next, 2011: https://stanford.io/2KLrB5h
  • Positive predictors of teacher effectiveness, Duckworth et al, The Journal of Positive Psychology, November 2009: http://bit.ly/2KvSbR8
  • Do teachers’ personality traits predict their performance? A comprehensive review of the empirical literature from 1990 to 2018, Tell, ETS Research Report Series, February 2019: http://bit.ly/2H2t7iE
  • A meta-analysis of the effects of teacher personality on teacher effectiveness and burnout, Kim et al, Educational Psychology Review, March 2019: http://bit.ly/2TvwvYb
  • Talk-Less Teaching: Practice, participation and progress, Wallace & Kirkman, Osiris Educational, 2014.
  • Characteristics of effective teachers, Felder & Brent, Stanford Teaching Commons: https://stanford.io/2KIgoT9
  • Outstanding teaching: 31 things that effective teachers do, John Dabell, SecEd, September 2017: http://bit.ly/2IIhsaN
  • Six habits of talented teachers, John Dabell, @TeacherToolkit, August 2017: http://bit.ly/2OPMIbX
  • Birds of a feather cluster together: The “Why Teach?” teacher types, Parameshwaran, lkmco, October 2015: http://bit.ly/2N57XUC


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