3 Chapter 3: The Personal Attributes and Skills of Effective Teachers

Guiding Questions for Chapter 3

  1. What personality traits seem most related to effective teaching?
  2. What skills seem most related to effective teaching?
  3. What personality traits or skills do I currently possess that will help me be an effective teacher?
  4. What personality traits or skills will I need to work on most to be an effective teacher?


To be successful, students need effective teachers—teachers who know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how to do it well. Our virtues, experience, and prior knowledge inform our perceptions, analyses, and judgments, BUT teachers must have the intellectual, social, and teaching skill to be able to act. Teaching is, after all, a performance art.  So let’s begin with bad teachers and teaching….

What is Ineffective Teaching?

Quick! Think to yourself (no names, please!): Who was the worst teacher you had during your 12-plus years of experience as a student?

Chances are, a name or a classroom experience popped into your head fairly quickly. We all have some awful experiences locked in our brains:

  • The teacher who had such a regimented and predictable classroom that it could function whether he or she was there or not.
  • The teacher who, in response to one student’s misbehavior, punished the entire classroom…by having all students copy from a dictionary or some other form of mass punishment.
  • The teacher who scolded you for coloring outside the lines.
  • The teacher who didn’t know his or her content well enough to respond to students’ questions.
  • The teacher who was even less thrilled than you to be in his or her classroom.
  • The teacher who found no humor in the day-to-day classroom events.
  • The teacher who started a movie at the beginning of the class, returned to his or her desk, and shopped online or checked sports scores through the entire period.
  • The teacher who made you feel miserable as soon as you stepped into the classroom, but you tried to salvage the semester by stating that you “learned a lot”—even though you can’t come up with anything meaningful that you gained from the class.

OK, so we know what bad teaching can look like from our own classroom experiences. Some of us even entered the teaching field because of those poor experiences—to provide a better learning experience than we’ve had along the way.

But, how do we avoid creating our own bad memories for our future students? How do we become those “other” teachers—the ones you remember who led a lively, engaging, and effective learning environment in his or her classroom?

In this section on Effective Teaching, we’ll discuss some of those “things” that make successful teachers so good…and so memorable, in a positive way.

What is Effective Teaching?

Effective teachers motivate and maximize learning but precisely how they do that is difficult to precisely describe. There is no magic formula or list that will magically transform anyone into an effective teacher. To illustrate, watch below an example of one teacher’s interpretation of a student/situation, analysis, action, and ultimate impact.


What Does it take to Become an Effective Teacher?

Before we dig into specific elements of effective teaching, we recognize that hovering above any of the specific elements we can identify and describe, effective teaching really requires good people doing things for the right reasons. Watch David Brooks (op-ed columnist for The NY Times) discuss the distinction between resume virtues and eulogy virtues.

Having the right mindset about your role, purpose, and impact on others is prerequisite to effective teaching. That kind of thinking is difficult to describe, reduce to numbers, or use as criteria on teacher evaluations; yet, we all realize its importance.

Still, we have been trying to identify “good teachers” and their characteristics for decades–stressing different elements in different contexts and different periods.

Read: Cruickshank, Donald R., and Donald Haefele. 2001. “Good Teachers, Plural.” Educational Leadership 58 (5): 26.

Although difficult to precisely define the contours of effective teaching, our field strives nonetheless to do just that. In Kansas State’s College of Education, we use the Conceptual Framework below.  As you can see, our Conceptual Framework identifies and combines certain kinds of knowledge, skills, and dispositions for the purpose of effective teaching.

What Does a Framework for Teaching Offer?

  • It provides a description of the teacher responsibilities that promote student learning.
  • It explains what teachers should know and be able to do, based on research and best practice.
  • It provides common language for discussing good teaching.

Right now, looking at the poster below probably seems overwhelming.  However, by the time you end your program, you will not only know and be able to discuss these ideas at a fairly sophisticated level, you will also be able to show how you apply these ideas to your own teaching.

The framework is an attempt to clarify the complex job of a teacher. Like other jobs that involve human beings (e.g., becoming a nurse or a doctor), there is more to it than the average person might think. Across domains, teachers are limited or liberated by what they know and are motivated and able to do. Our next task is to explore the personality traits and skills of  highly effective teachers. These personality traits and skills, like practical wisdom, are applicable to every domain of the framework.

What Personal Characteristics do Effective Teachers Possess?

Intermingled among the 15 standards of the COE Conceptual Framework are a variety of personal characteristics that connect to effective teaching. What kinds of people make great teachers? Of course, the short answer is all kinds of people. We know from our own experience that great teachers may be introverted or extroverted, young or old, or traditional or progressive. Researchers have been studying various aspects of teacher personality for decades. Some of the personality traits that appear to have the greatest connection to student academic achievement include:

  • Enthusiasm
  • Warmth and Humor
  • Credibility
  • High Expectations for Success
  • Encouraging/Supportive
  • Businesslike
  • Adaptable

Most people would agree that those traits are probably related to effective teaching. What do these words really mean? How, specifically, do these words translate into the actions of a highly effective teacher? We provide a little additional clarity below.

Enthusiastic teachers. . .
  • Appear interested, confident, energetic, and friendly
  • Are engaged and dramatic when teaching
  • Maintain eye contact with students
  • Use varied pitch, volume, and pauses
  • Insist that students achieve success
  • Have a sense of humor and can laugh at themselves
  • Maintain a quick lesson pace
  • Use movement to maintain interest and attention
Warm and humorous teachers. . .
  • Greet students by name
  • Learn about and comment upon students’ life outside of class (e.g., band contest)
  • Smile frequently
  • Convey personality; are true to themselves
  • Encourage students to approach with any topic or problem
  • Will take the time to ensure that ALL students are successful
  • Although keenly interested in getting to know students, will not lower expectations or “join” students socially
Credible teachers. . .
  • Are open, honest, and equitable
  • Solicit student input about lessons/course
  • Clearly define expectations
  • Explain the importance or rationale for learning
  • Are concerned about student success
  • Have high expectations for success.
  • Clearly inform students of lesson objectives
  • Provide extended, well-organized explanations
  • Set reasonable but attainable expectations
  • Consistently adhere to high expectations
  • Call upon all students frequently and seldom interrupt
  • Provide extensive, frequent, and specific feedback
  • Use wait time to allow students time to respond
  • Solicit and incorporate input from students as they teach
Teachers who are encouraging and supportive. . .
  • Use positive comments about student abilities
  • Are aware of and comment upon improvement
  • Help students work through their own problems and evaluate their own work

Teachers who are businesslike. . .

  • Are goal-oriented, serious, and deliberate
  • Are well-organized
  • Establish clear academic goals and communicate them to students
  • Treat the academic content seriously and respectfully
  • Maximize the use of academic learning time
  • Are professional educators and maintain professionalism
Teachers who are adaptable. . .
  • Carefully consider students’ characteristics, attributes, preferences, and interests when planning instruction
  • Systematically and carefully monitor student learning (both verbal and non-verbal) and adjust instruction accordingly (i.e., acumen)

Of course, the above list of personality traits is not exhaustive—these are ones that are based on research. What other personality traits do you think might be important for great teachers?

What Skills do Effective Teachers Possess?

In addition to certain combinations of personality traits, effective teachers also possess specific skills. Like personality traits, education researchers have studied various teaching skills and their impact on student academic achievement.

The skills that seem to have the greatest impact on student learning include:

  • Clarity
  • Questioning
  • Variety
  • Use of Time
  • Monitoring
  • Feedback and Reinforcement
Clear teachers. . .
  • Carefully organize and structure lessons, units, and courses
  • Identify and share objectives
  • Reinforce new information
  • Connect new ideas to previously learned ideas
  • Connect new ideas to students’ lives
  • Provide meaningful examples
  • Provide instruction at an appropriate pace
  • Monitor student learning
  • Modify instruction based upon student learning
Meaningful questions are. . .
  • Clear
  • Interesting
  • Age-appropriate
  • Connected to objectives
  • Asked to promote higher levels of thinking
  • Open-ended
  • Connected to students’ lives, experiences, and understanding
Teachers who lead great discussions. . .
  • Use wait time
  • Avoid rhetorical questions
  • Ask questions before calling on individual students
  • Use variety in questioning
  • Use probing, rephrasing, and redirection
Effective teachers utilize variety when. . .
  • Planning lessons and units
  • Selecting instructional strategies
  • Asking questioning
  • Assessing and evaluating student performance
  • Introducing lessons and units
  • Closing lessons and units
  • Providing feedback and reinforcement
Teachers who use time wisely. . .
  • Are well prepared
  • Are focused on learning
  • Maintain an appropriate pace
  • Avoid bird walking (focusing discussion on only slightly relevant topics)
  • Are task oriented
  • Provide smooth transitions between activities
Teachers who effectively monitor student learning. . .
  • Use formal and informal means of monitoring student progress
  • Are keenly aware of the classroom environment (acumen)
  • Effectively end lessons by checking for student understanding
  • Adjust instruction based on their observations
Teachers who offer effective feedback and reinforcement. . .
  • Provide clear, specific, and varied feedback and reinforcement regarding a variety of student performances (e.g., papers, class discussion)
  • Provide feedback and reinforcement often
  • Use clear criteria to evaluate student performance
  • Identify specific strengths and weaknesses of student performance
  • Describe specific ways students can improve

You may well want to download a copy of Stronge, James H., and Alexandria, VA. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Qualities of Effective Teachers, 2002.  This book is available online through our library and explains these skills and personality traits in more detail and adds many more.

Watch this 10-minute teaching episode. How does an understanding of research-based teaching skills help you evaluate this teaching performance?



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Core Teaching Skills Copyright © 2020 by Thomas Vontz and Lori Goodson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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