Sweeping educational reform has focused on re-structuring without
examining the basic qualities that educators bring to the classroom. The
present study sought to identify specific teacher qualities associated
with exemplary teachers as determined by pre-service educators seeking
teacher certification. Also examined were: (1) gender differences in
students' perceptions of exemplary teacher qualities as well as:
(2) exemplary teachers' influences on students' decisions to
enter the teaching profession.
Education students selected five qualities (from a list of twenty)
that best described their exemplary teachers and then ranked them.
Analyses of students' surveys revealed that students perceive that
their exemplary teachers demonstrate defining personality attributes
that outweigh the importance of professional skills.
"Enthusiasm" was ranked as the most important quality for
males and females. A gender difference emerged in that 41% of the males
selected the personality characteristic of "enthusiasm" as a
top five descriptor and an equal percentage of males selected
"subject knowledge", a professional skill characteristic. No
females chose professional skills as their top quality descriptors.
Exemplary teachers were reported to positively influence student
achievement and pre-service educators' decisions to enter the
teaching profession. Implications are discussed in terms of optimizing
the teacher education reform movement by addressing specific teacher
At the University of Idaho as in many other universities
nationwide, we are continually in the throes of restructuring. Debating
the merits and demerits of restructuring issues with my education
students, e.g., increased field experiences, team teaching,
micro-teaching, community service components, etc., I was struck by
their comments. They suggested that we could restructure all that we
wanted, but additional factors beyond re-structuring are more critical
to their educational growth. According to them, the characteristics of
their university professors and the qualities of their cooperating
teachers at their field locations, have the greatest impact in teaching
pre-service educators how to become effective in-service educators. It
was at this point that I decided to examine those characteristics that
inspire and foster student learning; characteristics that go beyond the
global classroom environment; characteristics that originate with the
classroom teachers themselves.
A discussion with a colleague on the relative position of teaching
as an art, (a quality possessed from birth), or teaching as a science,
(a skill to be acquired through study) yielded his position that,
"effective teaching is 25% preparation and 75% theatre" and
that all pre-service educators should be required to enroll in theatre
classes as part of their required curriculum. Recall stories of
inspirational educators who have gone the extra mile to maintain student
engagement by implementing theatrical skits, gimmicks, music, and
costumes. Not to suggest that teachers should don period costumes or
employ Shakespearian theatrics in their classes but, it would be
beneficial to consider those qualifies that make teachers stand out as
effective educators in the eyes of their students.
Perceptions of teachers
How does one describe exemplary teachers? Who are the prototypical
teachers? Ayers (1994) posed the question,
Consider Hollywood's portrayal of teachers. Think back to Gabe
Kaplan in "Welcome Back Kotter" (Kaplan, 1975), to Sidney
Poitier in "To Sir with Love" (Clavell, 1967), Jon Voight in
"Conrack" (Twain, 1974), Edward James Olmos in "Stand and
Deliver" (Menendez, 1988), Morgan Freeman in "Lean on
Me"(Twain, 1989), Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds"
(Bruckheimer, 1995), and most recently, Matthew Perry in "The Ron
Clark Story" (Granada, America, & MAGNA Global Entertainment,
2006). With the exceptions of real- life, heroic teachers Jamie
Escalante (on whose life Stand and Deliver is based) and Ron Clark,
these depictions of teachers are anomalous with the majority of
teachers. In reality, these teachers are clearly the exception to the
rule. As for most teachers, daily classroom challenges pose
insurmountable barriers to acts of super-heroism.
Furthermore, teachers' salvation of students, through either
extracurricular involvement or ingenious, innovative classroom
methodologies, are at odds with the pressures beating down on educators
to comply with federal and state imposed mandates. The No Child Left
Behind Act (NCLBA) has placed the highest premium on teaching to the
test for the purposes of assessing knowledge of subject content at the
lowest levels of Bloom's (1956) taxonomy. NCBLA requires that
teachers of core subject areas must be "highly qualified",
hold at minimum a bachelors degree (usually from a teacher education
program), state licensure and certification, and competency as
determined by state mandated exams such as the Praxis. Surprisingly,
current research reveals that teacher certification shows little
relationship to later teacher effectiveness as measured by indices of
student achievement (Gordon, Kane, & Staiger, 2006). Certification
is not the guarantee of teacher effectiveness that the NCLBA would like
it to be. So what is needed above and beyond these criteria?
Most teachers must have sufficiently mastered their subject content
and pedagogy to pass state mandated tests for certification. However,
this does not ensure that teachers possess the necessary qualities to
effectively convey the mandated subject matter to their students.
Teachers who have mastered their subject matter but who lack the ability
to purposefully engage students, are commonplace. As students, we may
have experienced similar scenarios. How does this level of disconnect
with students occur and what is missing from the formula for effective
Research on Qualities that Contribute to Effective Teaching
Early research into teaching effectiveness, sought to identify
those qualities that distinguished effective teachers from the less
effective ones, generally accomplished by asking pupils to describe
effective teachers they had known (Medley, 1979). By 1930, Barr's
scales had come into widespread use for evaluating characteristics of
effective teachers. The most frequently mentioned characteristics
included cooperation, personal magnetism, personal appearance, breadth
and intensity of interest, considerateness, and leadership. It is
important to realize that these lists were attributed to teachers who
were perceived as effective. Perceptions of teacher effectiveness have
been examined from elementary levels to graduate school by a variety of
methods such as questionnaires, interviews, and observations.
Qualities of Good Teachers
Research on effective teaching has typically addressed two
categories: professional skills (pedagogy, subject matter knowledge,
policy, cultural knowledge, multiple approaches and teaching style,
etc.) and personal teacher characteristics (caring, enthusiastic, fun,
humorous, friendly, supportive, respectful, etc.). Andrew, Cobb, &
Giampietro (2005) posit that Wilson, Hoden, and Ferrini-Mundy's
(2001) review of research focuses on professional skills to the
exclusion of personal teacher characteristics, a current trend in
research of this nature. Irrespective of this report, there dwells a
large body of literature that suggests that while subject matter
knowledge is important, teachers' characteristics matter more when
student achievement is at stake (Ayers, 1995; Bettencourt, Gillett,
Gall, & Hull, 1983 ; Noddings, 2003; Thompson, Greer, & Greer,
2004). These findings transcend and ethnicity and culture (Delpit,
2006). Native American, Ojibwa, college students emphasized that
effective teachers possessed the characteristics of being fun, caring,
friendly, patient, respectful of students, and staying for the long haul
rather than quickly leaving the school and community (Peacock, 2006).
African-American children from a successful school in Atlanta indicated
that if they don't feel connected to their teachers on an emotional
level then they wouldn't learn or put forth effort (Willis, 1995).
Intrator (2006) reported that when students were asked, "what can I
do as your teacher to help you succeed?" they responded,
"I want a teacher who knows me well enough to know when I
don't understand something because I might be too embarrassed to
ask for help." "I want you to know me." "I want you
to not just stick to the subject but to take time to joke and tell
stories. That helps me to learn that you're a person and not just a
teacher." (p. 235)
Nikola-Lisa & Burnaford (1994) investigated 32, K-6th-grade
classrooms from the Chicago area, urban and suburban. They interviewed
children regarding their thoughts about their teachers. Their responses
lead to 10 distinct categories, some of which included teacher as:
novice, tyrant, pushover, incompetent, witch, victim, friend, problem
solver, and lastly, the good teacher. A good teacher was described as
someone who "catches your interest, helps people that need help,
smart, and teaches in a fun way". "Catches your interest"
and "teaches in a fun way" are re-occurring themes in student
responses throughout elementary, middle school, high school and beyond.
College Students' Perceptions
In one of the first studies involving college students, Bousfield
(1940) reported that the college professors' attitudes toward
students were perceived by students as being more important than their
knowledge of the subject matter. Costin, Greenough and Menges (1971)
posited that college students' ratings of teaching effectiveness
were positively correlated with the teacher's agreeableness,
emotional stability, and enthusiasm. Kramer, & Pier (1997) presented
findings from their interviews of college students (students generated
the items used in the survey) and found that effective teachers were
energetic and enthusiastic. They made clear connections between class
activities, reading materials and tests, were casual and approachable,
had frequent interactions with their students before, during, and after
class and were available at other times. Students stated that they
learned more than just content from effective teachers, they learned an
appreciation of the subject. Effective teachers related the materials to
students' fives better and clearly communicated their interest in
their students. In Murray's (1983) study, trained observers visited
classrooms taught by university lecturers who had been rated as low,
medium, or high on their student evaluations. Significant behavioral
differences were found for these three groups of teachers. Factor
analyses yielded nine factors, three of which differed significantly
across groups (Clarity, Enthusiasm, and Rapport). Group differences were
largest for "attention -getting" behaviors such as speaking
expressively, moving about while lecturing, using humor, and showing
interest for the subject. Patalano, (1978) recruited graduate students
to voluntarily complete a questionnaire on the qualities of effective
and ineffective teachers. Results showed a significant proportion of the
participants' responses emphasized personality characteristics over
professional skills with respect to both the effective and ineffective
Reliability of Student Perceptions
Although many of the previously discussed findings are based upon
student perceptions, Murray's (1980) summary suggests that students
are reliable judges of teacher effectiveness. Consistently, a
preponderance of research findings shows that students' ratings of
a given instructor are stable over time, affected minimally by class
size and severity of grading, and consistent with ratings by alumni,
colleagues, and trained classroom observers. Most importantly, student
ratings of teaching effectiveness were significantly correlated with
measures of achievement such as students' exams and performance
Characteristics Related to Student Achievement
What are those teacher characteristics that appear to be related to
student achievement? For many years, researchers have established a
positive correlation between teacher enthusiasm and student achievement
(Barr, 1948; McCoard, 1944; Rosenshine, 1970; Ryans, 1960; and Solomon,
Bezdek, and Rosenberg, 1963). Berliner (1979) stated, "Elementary
teachers who find ways to put students into contact with the academic
curriculum while maintaining a convivial classroom atmosphere are
successful in promoting achievement (p. 122). Additionally, Rosenshine
and Furst (1971) reported that the two dimensions of teacher behavior
that correlate highest with student achievement are "clarity"
In Ware and William's (1980) study, students rated videotaped
lectures and illustrated the Dr. Fox effect. In this effect, material
presented in a "dynamic" fashion involving humor, expressive
speech, and movement and gesture, was recalled significantly better than
the same material presented in a "static" fashion. It seems
reasonable to infer that expressive teaching behaviors serve to convey
the instructors' enthusiasm and interest in the subject matter and
therefore elicits and maintains student attention, a crucial factor in
Whereas enthusiasm is obviously an important trait for teachers,
additional characteristics emerge as important factors for effective
teaching. Delpit (2006) interviewed resilient adults who attained levels
of success incongruous with their inopportune beginnings (low income,
single parent families, need for special education, foster placements).
All adults attributed their successes to teachers who were supportive,
encouraging, and convinced them that they could succeed. Rosenshine and
Furst (1973) summarized findings from 50 studies in which student
achievement was the criterion measure. They identified variables that
yielded the most significant and/or consistent results. Nine naturally
occurring behaviors appeared to be related to student growth. They were
as follows: 1. Teacher clarity, 2. Teacher flexibility, 3. Enthusiasm,
4. Task oriented, 5. Criticism. (negatively correlated) 6. Use of
student ideas/respect for student opinion 7. Student opportunity to
learn criterion material 8. Use of structuring comments and 9. Cognitive
Statement of the Problem
In the interest of substantiating past research findings and
examining the possible influence of exemplary teachers on career choices
of pre-service educators, this current study was conducted.
Questions of Interest
1. When describing exemplary teachers, will pre-service educators
more frequently address personality characteristics over professional
2. Are exemplary teachers perceived to be effective with respect to
fostering learning and achievement?
3. Do exemplary teachers influence pre-service educators'
decisions to enter the teaching field?
4. Will there be gender differences in perceived qualities of
The sample consisted of 137 (n=86 female and n=51 male) voluntary
participants from The University of Idaho. All subjects were pre-service
educators enrolled in an undergraduate Educational Psychology course.
Students were asked to recall exemplary educators from their past
or present. They were asked to submit five characteristics or qualities
that best described the exemplary educators. Their responses were
compiled and the twenty most frequent characteristics were utilized in
the construction of a survey shown in Table 1. Four items also included
in the survey were: (1) Can you remember exemplary teachers from your
educational experiences (elementary, middle school, secondary, or
college) that you thought of as personal favorites from among all of
your teachers? (2) If you answered yes to the previous question, would
you state that these teachers were effective with respect to fostering
your own learning and achievement? (3) Did your favorite, exemplary
teacher(s) influence your decision to enter the teaching profession?
And, (4) please specify your gender.
Following construction of the survey, students were instructed to
review the 20 characteristics shown in Table 1 and to select the top
five characteristics or qualities that best describe those possessed by
their most favorite, exemplary teacher(s), and then to rank those five
characteristics in order of importance, with number one as the most
To establish test-re-test reliability, students were administered
the survey approximately 2 weeks after the first administration and
surveys from 30 subjects were randomly selected for reliability
Test/Retest reliability analyses revealed, r. = .70. Results showed
that 100% of males and 100% of females responded, "yes" to
question one, signifying that they remembered past favorite exemplary
teachers. Likewise, 100% of males and females responded "yes"
to question two signifying that these teachers fostered their learning
and achievement. Question three, however, asking if their favorite,
exemplary teachers influenced their decisions to enter the teaching
profession yielded affirmative responses for 65% of the females and 55%
of the males. Table 2 shows the top five qualities ascribed to exemplary
teachers by gender and the percentages of females and males who selected
those characteristics. The females' selections of top qualities all
fell within the category of teachers' personality characteristics.
The males' selections of top qualities also fell within the teacher
personality characteristics category with the exception of
"knowledge of subject matter" (a professional skill). The
quality that earned the top ranking (most frequently ranked as number
one) was the teacher personality characteristic of
"enthusiasm" ranked number one by 16% of the females and 12%
of the males.
Results from the present study reveal that students remember
exemplary teachers and that these teachers fostered students'
learning, supportive of past findings (Delpit, 2006; Murray, 1980;
Rosenshine & Furst, 1973). The majority of females and males also
signified that exemplary teachers were influential in pre-service
educators' decisions to enter the teaching field consistent with
social cognitive theory where the more closely a students identify with
an effective model the greater their self-efficacy will be, as well as
influences on their goals, emotions, and beliefs (Pintrich & Schunk,
2002). Also, congruent with past findings, the majority of qualities
addressed by both males and females to describe exemplary teachers were
personality characteristics with "enthusiasm" reigning supreme
as the top personality characteristic. It stands to reason that teacher
enthusiasm engages students and captures their attention resulting in
higher student achievement. This holds true in current times as in the
past. While gender differences were not anticipated, males reportedly
described their exemplary teachers as possessing the professional skill
of "subject knowledge" and found this quality as frequently
compelling as "enthusiasm". Females described their exemplary
teachers entirely with personality characteristics.
One explanation for this gender discrepancy lies with the
possibility that for males, their favorite, exemplary teachers may also
have been males. Male teachers more often teach at the secondary level.
Secondary teachers are generally experts within one subject area or
discipline and relate to their subject matter at a higher level on
Bloom's (1956) Taxonomy. Levels of expertise or "subject
knowledge" within a singular field, would be more likely to be
critiqued by secondary students than elementary students, and more often
attributed to secondary teachers. The 41% of males that selected
"subject knowledge" as one of the top five characteristics
were most likely describing a secondary teacher. "Subject
knowledge" may also be perceived as a cultural interpretation for
masculinity as males are more often perceived as the authoritative
dispensers of knowledge (Witkin, Moore, Goodenough, & Cox, 1977).
Therefore, if the exemplary teacher were a secondary teacher, then
relatively speaking, that would increase the probability that the
favorite teacher were a male. The present survey did not ask students to
identify the gender(s) or teaching grade(s) of their exemplary
teacher(s) because students may have been considering multiple exemplary
teachers, but recommendations for future research would be to include
Another explanation for females' selections of descriptors
that were entirely "personality characteristics" is that if
females" favorite, exemplary teachers were female; there is an
increased likelihood that these were elementary teachers. The elementary
school environment is known to be more nurturing and supportive.
Teacher/student relationships are deeper and more informed due to the
sheer magnitude of their temporal relationship. The emotional needs of
elementary aged students are more likely to be addressed by elementary
teachers. Consequently, the elementary teachers would tend to be
described by the elementary students in terms of their most salient
characteristics; their personality characteristics. Elementary students
would also have less regard for the teachers' subject matter
knowledge, not being informed sufficiently to gauge levels of expertise.
Gilligan (1982) posits that women are perceived as nurturing and
this is a natural, female characteristic that is expected by our
society. Males who choose to teach elementary levels are looked at
suspiciously, and have had to contend with subtle "innuendos of
pedophilia", (Hansen & Mulholland, 2005). Male, elementary
teachers must negotiate a risky path when caring for children. For
example, a female teacher could hold a child on her lap and comfort that
child with no question of impropriety, but for male teachers, this
action would go against the grain of society's sanctioned
conceptions of masculine behaviors. Even when males enter into the realm
of elementary teaching, they are less apt than females to demonstrate as
many personal interactions with students as their female counterparts.
In conclusion, getting an education is hard work. Greene (2002)
reported that 30% of students never graduate from high school. Many
students resist schooling and education because it is tough and requires
that they think and perform and study. The characteristics that emerged
from this study contribute to best teaching practices. As Ayers stated
in 2006, "It takes a brain and a heart" (p. 275). It logically
follows that if the learning process is made "fun" then
students will learn more effectively. Enthusiastic teachers are more
entertaining and can capture one's attention. Attention is a key
component of learning. Teachers who are respectful of students'
opinions show students that they value the students and think that their
ideas are worthwhile. This in turn increases the students'
self-esteem and self-efficacy. It is only natural, that students would
prefer to learn from enthusiastic, fun, humorous, respectful teachers
who know their subject matter and give them outside help towards success
while making them feel good about themselves. Csikszentmihalyi &
Larson (1984) suggest, "the task of education is one of socializing
through seduction. The success of the school depends on how effectively
it can engage the students' minds toward its objectives. Can it
generate interest, motivation, and focused attention?" (p. 202).
Ayers (2006) puts forth a challenge to beginning teachers when he
suggests that they need to do whatever it takes to meet the goal of
assisting every student in reaching their fullest potential. By
acknowledging that teacher's personal characteristics are
recognized by students as invaluable for helping them to attain their
goals, teacher education programs must identify and foster those
characteristics within pre-service education majors. We must help them
to reach deep within themselves and bring forth those qualities that
will make them stand out in the minds of their students as exemplary
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University of Idaho
If we were alien visitors from another planet and had nothing but
Hollywood movies to tell us about teachers, what would they
portray? Schools and teachers are in the business of saving
children--saving them from drugs and violence, their own families,
and from themselves and in fact, most teachers are simply not up to
the challenge. (p. 147)
Banner & Cannon (1997) suggest that We may know our subjects and
perfect our techniques for teaching them, without recognizing that,
for our mastery to make a difference to our students, we must also
summon from within, certain qualities of personality that have
little to do with subject matter or theories of instruction. We
don't learn these qualities, we call them forth-and by
understanding them, use them for the benefit of others. (p. 3)
Twenty Top Qualities Attributed to Exemplary Teachers
by Education Majors
1. Caring, compassionate, empathetic --
2. Warm, kind, friendly, sociable, familiar --
3. Fair, treats students equally --
4. Enthusiastic, excited about subject --
5. Organized --
6. Flexible, cooperative --
7. Makes subject matter clear for students, provides
concrete examples --
8. Patient, tolerant --
9. Humorous, funny, makes learning fun --
10. Easy to talk to, approachable --
11. Disciplinarian, controls classroom environment, --
12. Knows subject matter, has a wealth of information --
13. Knows how to motivate students, inspirational --
14. Entertaining, can hold the attention of the class --
15. Provides help to students outside of class --
16. Uses varied methods of instruction --
17. Creative, innovative, inventive, has fresh ideas --
18. Has high expectations, provides challenges --
19. Communicates clearly, good speaker --
20. Respectful of students, values their opinions --
Top Ranking Characteristics of Exemplary Teachers Selected
by Male and Female Pre-Service Educators and Percentages
of Males and Females Selecting Each Characteristic
Females (n=86) Males (n=51)
Respectful Of Students Knows Subject Matter
High Expectations Respectful Of Students
Humorous, Funny Humorous, Funny
Provides Outside Help Entertaining, Holds Attention
Easy To Talk To, Approachable