Effective Teacher Traits

Teachers impact our learning, our development, and may even make a difference in what we become.  Historian Richard Triana examined the autobiographies of 125 prominent Americans from the 19th and 20th centuries.  He found remarkable consistency in the descriptions these leaders gave of the teachers whom they admired most: 1) a command of subject matter, 2) a deep caring and concern for students, and 3) a distinctive memorable attribute or style of teaching.  Triana summarized his findings: “I cannot emphasize enough how powerful this combination of attributes was reported to be.  These Americans believed their lives were changed by such teachers and professors.”  

How does one become the kind of effective teacher that truly makes a difference in the lives of students? What is the effective teacher? What does the effective teacher do?  What and how does the effective teacher think?  Answers to these questions are found in the work of developmental psychologists Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Thomas Lickona, as well as the professionals who worked to implement their theories into the classroom.  

What the effective teacher is: Personal traits.
Care for students was the most common personal trait found in my research of effective teachers, while respect for students and parents was pointed to as a necessity for effective teachers to gain credibility with students.  

  • Caregivers who build their self-esteem, treat them in a moral way, and help them succeed by providing opportunities for quick successes so they can feel good about themselves and want to come back.  
  • Strong personal standards and continue to be learners throughout life.
  • Respectful of students, as well as parents
  • Highly conscientious and resourceful.
  • Communicate that they know what they are doing and why they are doing it.
  • Aware of themselves as moral philosophers and facilitators of moral growth.
  • Ability to develop trusting and respectful classroom atmospheres

What the effective teacher does: Teaching traits.
All of the developmental psychologists agree that effective teachers encourage. Through consistent use of positive words, actions and facial expressions teachers provide students the hope to keep striving to learn and grow.  They also agree effective teachers ask probing questions to challenge accuracy and completeness of thinking in a way that moves students towards their ultimate goal.

  • Provides a well-planned, organized classroom environment conducive to students’ spontaneous learning.
  • Uses Socratic “Why?” questions--students go beyond just giving their opinions as teachers probe for the whys.  
  • Models respect by speaking the language of respect in interactions with students, and by taking students’ thoughts and feelings seriously.  
  • Builds rapport with students that makes it easier for them to talk about problems, be receptive to moral guidance, and care about what their teachers think.  
  • Uses rules as the starting point for effective instruction and learning—not the end point.   Starts the year with rules for things like homework practicing them repetitively so they can master them.
  • Serves as an ethical mentor, providing guidance through discussion, storytelling, personal encouragement and feedback.

What and how the effective teacher thinks: Intellectual traits.
All of the developmental psychologists show that one of the most important intellectual traits of effective teachers is to be life-long learners and role models for learning.  They are as much street smart, as they are book smart.  These teachers have knowledge of their students, the school, and the community in which they are teaching, and use this knowledge to uniquely approach each student and head off, or solve problems, in the classroom.  They spend time with students outside of the classroom in settings that enable them to learn about their students’ passions, their dreams, and what they face each day in order to get to school.  Their joy for learning is shown in their actions.  Those teachers who model high expectations for themselves tend to get the same from their students.

  • Constantly diagnosing each child’s emotional state, cognitive level, and interests by carrying a theoretical framework in their heads.
  • Enters the classroom prepared, feeling that they want to be there, and with the attitude that we are all going to have a solid learning experience.
  • Active learners of moral issues, with the ability to bring them forth to students by communicating the importance of curiosity, sensitivity and self-examination.
  • Exposes students every day to people who are doing a variety of things to improve the lives of others and these people experience a deeper fulfillment than can ever be found in a bank account.
  • Always learning about the human condition around the world.
  • Knows the stage of development the student is in and as a result the capability of the student  
  • Spends dedicated time developing a social conscience by participating in activities that can make a difference.

Traits of Effective Teachers References

  • Anderson, R.S. and Guernsey, D.B. (1985).  On being family: A social theology of the family.  Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  • Cawelti, G. (1999). Portraits of six benchmark schools: Diverse approaches to improving student achievement.  Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.
  • Colby A., Kohlberg L., Speicher-Dubin E., and Lieberman M. (1977). Secondary School Moral Discussion Programs Led by Social Studies Teachers, Journal Moral Education 6 (2), pp.90-117.
  • Davidson Films, Inc. (Producer), and Elkind, D. (Director). (1991). Using what we know: applying Piaget's developmental theory in primary classrooms. [Video recording].  (Available from Davidson Films, Inc. 735 Tank Farm Road, Ste, 210, San Luis Obispo, CA.  93401).
  • Furth, H.G. and Wachs, H. (1974). Thinking goes to school.  Piaget’s theory in practice. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Hopkins, G. (2007, December 4). Character(istics) Count! -- What Principals Look for When Hiring New Teachers. [Online]  Education World. Retrieved April 20, 2008. www.educationworld.com
  • Lickona, T. (1991).  Educating for Character.  How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility.  New York: Bantam Books.
  • Medlock, A. and Graham J.  (2008). Giraffe Heroes Project [Online].  Retrieved April 20, 2008 www.giraffe.org     
  • Power C., Higgins A., and Kohlberg, L. (1989).  Lawrence Kohlberg's approach to moral education. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Reimer J., Paolitto Pritchard D., and Hersh R.  (1990, c1983). Promoting moral growth: from Piaget to Kohlberg.  Prospect, Heights, Ill. : Waveland Press.
  • Schwebel, M. and Raph, J. (1973). Piaget in the Classroom.  New York: Basic Books, Inc.
  • Triana, R.P. (1999, January 20).  What makes a good teacher[Online].  Education Week.  Retrieved March, 2008 from the World Wide Web. www.educationweek.org