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How Much Does Good Teaching Have to Do With Personality?

With all the emphasis on improving evaluations and scaling up effective instruction, there's been no shortage of attempts in recent years to identify the attributes or practices that make someone a good teacher. But in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week, community college English professor Rob Jenkins cuts through the complicated taxonomies and says that, in his experience, effective teaching has a lot to do with personality, plain and simple. Good teachers, he says, tend to share a few common dispositional traits. Here are a couple of examples from his list. It's hard to argue with his descriptions:

"They are good-natured. The best teachers tend to be approachable, as opposed to sour and forbidding. Grouchy, short-tempered, misanthropic curmudgeons can sometimes make effective teachers, too, if for no other reason than that they prepare us for grouchy, short-tempered, misanthropic bosses. I had some grouchy teachers myself, especially in graduate school, and learning to cope with them was a valuable experience I would not wish to deny anyone. But most of my very best teachers were pretty easy to get along with -- as long as I paid attention in class and did my work. ... "

"They seem comfortable in their own skin. Perhaps one reason students tend to like these faculty is that they like themselves, without being in love with the sound of their own voices. This is related to not taking themselves too seriously, but it goes beyond that. The root cause of bad teaching is a fundamental lack of self-confidence, leading teachers to overcompensate by being unreasonably demanding, aloof, or condescending to students. Paradoxically, professors who appear arrogant and narcissistic are often trying to cover up what they perceive as profound deficiencies in their own personalities and abilities. The best teachers are confident without being arrogant, authoritative without being condescending."

Among the other characteristics on Jenkins' list are having a good sense of humor, being demanding but not unkind, enjoying your work, and being creative.

Of course, the problem with basing your definition of effective teaching on traits like these is that they are tricky to measure and teach—although Jenkins believes they can be developed, in part through just recognizing "we don't possess them to the degree we would like [and] committing ourselves to working on those areas ..."

Maybe, in other words, there's a whole separate discussion to be had around social-emotional learning objectives in reference to the teaching profession, not just students. That may already be starting to build, at least on a small scale, as schools experiment with stress-reduction and mindfulness-based programs for teachers. But could it become a more mainstream part of teacher-quality efforts? Should it?

What are your thoughts?

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