The Qualities of a Responsible Teacher

It is a somewhat depressing experience to sample the vast literature on education in search of enlightenment regarding the personal qualities most essential for a responsible teacher. Although millions of words have been written about a limited number of facets of education, investigation into the qualities necessary for teacher effectiveness appear to have a very low priority. Teachers are human beings and, as such, are prone to the same idiosyncrasies, prejudices, hasty judgements and concern with self that characterise the rest of the human race. It seems logical to suggest that unless an acceptable balance is achieved between personal strengths and personal failings a teacher’s effectiveness as an educator will be flawed. As society entrusts to the school the major responsibility for guiding the formal learning of children beyond five years of age, deficiencies in teacher performance are likely to find expression in ill-educated adults.

Surveying the Literature

Hildebrand (1975) says that the style of classroom interaction developed by a teacher is derived from his personality, his knowledge of himself and of the children and their families, his philosophy of education and his political and moral value systems. The good teacher, she says, believes in himself and his ability to cope with his responsibilities. He believes that his job is important and that he will make a significant contribution to the lives of the children he teaches. It is interesting to speculate on the outcome of the application of these criteria to all teachers in the field.

Katz (1980) highlights distinctions between mothering and teaching behaviours on seven dimensions (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Distinctions between mothering and teaching in their central tendencies on seven dimensions.
Role Dimension Mothering Teaching
1 Scope of Functions Diffuse and Limitless Specific and Limited
2 Intensity of Affect High Low
3 Attachment Optimum Attachment Optimum Detachment
4 Rationality Optimum Irrationality Optimum Rationality
5 Spontaneity Optimum Spontaneity Optimum Intentionality
6 Partiality Partial Impartial
7 Scope of Responsibility Individual Whole Group

She believes that the scope of teachers’ functions are specific and limited. She considers detachment, rationality, intentionality, impartiality and low intensity of effect to be the qualities which characterize the teacher’s role. Katz quotes Getzel’s (1974) statement that relationships between teachers and children are specific in scope, function and content, being “limited to a particular technically-defined sphere”. However, this delineation of the teacher’s role serves to conceal the pervasiveness of his/her influence as a model for imitation and identification, and the quality of the effect which permeates the many evaluative judgements that teachers make of children, their behaviour and their attainments.

Professional and Personal Qualities

In an attempt to identify qualities which are essential for success in the role of a classroom teacher, an arbitrary distinction will be made temporarily between a teacher’s professional and personal qualities. In reality the two cannot be divorced.

Nowadays pre-service training institutions acknowledge that an understanding of child growth and development, of the behaviours and prevailing concerns that characterise children at different stages, are an essential component of teacher education. In addition, a teacher should be knowledgeable about learning and teaching processes in order to assist children to acquire the skills and abilities prescribed by the curriculum. A teacher needs to attain a high degree of mastery of content areas, and a variety of methods of imparting subject matter, so as to match teaching opportunities and learning strategies to the needs, interests and abilities of the children in the classroom. No single method of instruction is applicable to all children. Variations in learning styles, levels of understanding, and motivation necessitate tailoring the approach to subject matter to the particular characteristics of small groups or individuals.

Brophy and Good (1972) documented the mechanisms used by teachers, not necessarily deliberately or consciously, to convey to each child their expectations of his ability to learn. Their model of classroom interactions which evolved from the work of Rosenthal and Jacobson (1969) assumes that:

  1. A teacher forms differential expectations for the performance of children in his classroom.
  2. He begins to treat the children differently in accordance with his differential expectations for each child.
  3. The children respond differentially to the teacher because they are being treated differently by him.
  4. In responding to the teacher, each child tends to manifest behaviour which complements and reinforces the teacher’s particular expectations.
  5. As a result, the general academic performance of some children is enhanced whilst that of others is depressed. The changes are in the direction of teacher expectations.
  6. These effects are reflected in the achievement tests administered by the teacher from time to time.

In this way teacher expectations function as “self-fulfilling prophecies”. Teacher attitudes to children, conveyed to them in classroom interactions, come to determine their learning outcomes.

Teachers and parents need to be aware of the operation of these classroom variables so that unrealistic, inappropriate or inconsistent teacher expectations can be acknowledged and modified before children develop negative attitudes towards their ability to learn. The recognition that the education of a child should take place within the context of a home-school partnership, based on mutual respect and genuine two-way communication, is long overdue.

Temperament and Constitution

Two important components of personal qualities are the temperamental or constitutional basis of personality and character, which is moulded by the social environment. Temperament refers to emotional make-up and is expressed in areas such as susceptibility to emotional stimulation, customary speed and strength of response, quality of prevailing mood and frequency and intensity of changes in mood. Character usually refers to the internalization of ethical values and is the aspect of personality most subject to social forces. Honesty, responsibility, loyalty and moral courage are central character traits. Character is acquired primarily through the social environment. It is moulded initially through parental reward and punishment and by imitation of the behaviour of adults who are significant people in the life of the young child. Later, reflective thinking and strength of purpose contribute to character development.

An individual’s behaviour is a product of both the social setting in which he lives and of his own constitutional make­up. The teacher, particularly in the lower grades, serves as a model for the children who are exposed to his influence. The salience of the teacher as a model for imitation is enhanced by the authority vested in his role. The fact that children acquire attitudes, values and ways of behaving through observing significant adults underscores the necessity for self-discipline on the part of teachers, and realistic self-appraisal of the images that they project in their classroom. The cumulative effect over the years of a responsible teacher on children, young people and their parents, is considerable. Teachers must recognise that Erikson’s dictum that children model themselves on what their parents are as people, rather than on what they tell their children they should do, applies to other significant adults. Teachers teach their own self-concepts more faithfully and more effectively than they teach their subject matter.

Influences on Teacher-Child Interaction

Personal qualities colour a teacher’s modes of communication with children in the class and the development of inter-personal relationships between the teacher and each child. Interaction is a two-way process — not something a teacher “does” to a child. Two people are involved in any developing relationship and each influences the course and outcome. The teacher, as the high-powered member of the dyad, has more control over the way a relationship develops than does the child. Like other human beings, teachers initially respond to an unfamiliar child on the basis of their personal preferences, biases, likes and dislikes — which are seldom consciously recognised as such.

A teacher’s initial reaction to a new child tends to be in terms of his perception of him as a “pupil”. The following components help to determine the attitudes that will colour the teacher’s future interactions with that child.

  1. General appearance: physical attractiveness, build, hair and skin colour, physical handicaps or abnormalities, cleanliness, tidiness, posture, health and nutritional state.
  2. Facial expression: what the teacher sees reflected in the child’s face, gestures, manner and use of language.
  3. Personal characteristics: self-confidence, brashness, friendliness, timidity, deference and so on.
  4. Demonstrated level of ability: gained from “information” on report cards and staffroom anecdotes.
  5. Attitudes: to school, teachers, authority and to life, as the teacher perceives these.

Even boys’ and girls’ names come to have positive and negative connotations for teachers arising from classroom experiences. Teachers are often unaware of the antecedents of their likes or dislikes for particular children they teach which, nevertheless, colour the relationships that develop and help to determine their effectiveness as that particular child’s teacher.

Authoritarian vs Democratic Teachers

About forty years ago Anderson (1946) and co-workers carried out a series of studies on the nature and degree of the relationship between children’s behaviour and teachers’ authoritarian and democratic approaches to classroom management. It seems highly likely that a present-day replication would yield similar results. They found that children of teachers with democratic attitudes behaved significantly more often in ways that reflected spontaneity, initiative and constructive social attitudes towards peers. Children with more authoritarian teachers, on the other hand, showed significantly more non-conforming behaviour. They paid less attention to their work, spent more time in looking around and in talking to other children.

The same teachers and children were studied in the following year. The investigators found that the teachers tended to behave in a similar manner, year after year, regardless of the kinds of children they encountered. The children, in contrast, did not do this. They reacted dominatively, if they had a dominative teacher, but changed to democratic behaviour if the actions of their next teacher were integrative.

These studies suggest that the behaviour of school children is highly dependent upon the styles of interacting of their teachers. Democratic modes of interaction generally elicit greater co-operation, spontaneity, interest and initiative, whereas aggressive dictatorial styles are likely to elicit resistance either through talking, lack of attention, wasting time, or through more direct opposition.

The integrative teacher more often helps to satisfy the children’s needs and interests. The dominative teacher more often frustrates children in their attempts to satisfy their felt needs in the classroom. Accordingly she is more likely to become a target for hostility than a source of reward. She may be able to inhibit overtly aggressive responses through the use of fear and punishment but she is not able to instil a positive desire for co-operation or for learning. She is thus defeating her purpose as a teacher and negating her responsibility for assisting children to learn.

Teaching Styles and Effect on Academic Progress

Heil and Washburne (1961) studied the relationship between teacher characteristics and children’s academic and social progress in Grades 4–6. On the basis of psychological testing they identified three broad teacher types, viz. “turbulent”, “self-controlled” and “fearful”. Investigation of the effects of teacher styles on child behaviour revealed that the children made the greatest academic progress under a self-controlled teacher and the least progress under a fearful teacher. Growth in friendliness and other social attitudes was significantly greater under a self-controlled teacher than under turbulent or fearful teachers.

The children were differentiated into four general types, viz. “conformers”, “opposers”, “waiverers” and “strivers”. Examination of the interaction of teacher and child types showed that while self-controlled teachers were generally the most effective, conforming children made slightly more progress with turbulent teachers, possibly because the children were already overly controlled and orderly. Children classified as opposers made the greatest progress with self-controlled teachers and the least progress with fearful teachers. It seems likely that the fearful teachers had a strong need for control and order and they were forced to insist upon these conditions when dealing with children who opposed suggestions.

Studies of the cognitive styles of Grade 1 children and their teachers by Kagan and others revealed that the teacher’s tendency to be reflective or impulsive can influence the cognitive style of the children in the class. Children taught by impulsive teachers tend to become more impulsive whilst those taught by reflective teachers become increasingly careful in evaluating a response before they make it. The effect was most marked for impulsive boys taught by teachers who were both reflective and experienced (Yando & Kagan, 1968). A review of the research literature on cognitive styles suggests that schools may have a responsibility to attempt to match teachers’ cognitive styles with the needs of the children in the classroom.

Classifying Personal Qualities of the Teacher

The personality variables investigated in the above research studies can be assigned to one of five clusters of personal qualities. These are:

  1. Self-knowledge and belief in one’s ability to do the job well.
  2. A philosophy of education which encompasses a sense of responsibility and concern for children.
  3. Moral value systems and democratic attitudes.
  4. Rationality and self-control.
  5. Impartiality and honesty.

The author suggests leavening these qualities with warmth, enthusiasm, patience, tolerance, and common sense, together with a sense of humour.

A percentage of teachers demonstrate these personality characteristics in the course of their daily teaching duties and the children they teach are well served by the process of education. However, as selection of students for pre-service training as teachers tends to be dependent on academic attainment alone, it is left to chance whether or not these highly desirable personal qualities necessarily co-exist with academic attainment. Once teachers are convinced of the gains in teacher effectiveness and role satisfaction for themselves, and in personal, social and academic progress for their charges, they are motivated to make appropriate changes in attitudes and teaching styles. With a strong belief in the efficacy of particular ways of behaving, all things are possible. In the interests of sound educational experiences for all school children, it seems to be imperative that in-service courses for teachers and institutes of higher learning focus their attention on fostering and enhancing the personal, as well as the professional development of the teachers who come within their spheres of influence.


ANDERSON, H.H., BREWER, J.E. AND REED, M.F. “Studies of teachers’ classroom personalities 111. Follow up studies of the effects of dominative and integrative contacts on children’s behaviour.” Applied Psychological Monographs, 1946, no. 11.

BROPHY, J.E. and GOOD, T.L. “Teachers’ communi­cation of differential expectations for children’s classroom performance.” U. Bronfenbrenner (ed.) Influences on Human Development. Hinsdale, Illinois: Dryden Press, 1972, 474–483.

HEIL, L.M. and WASHBURNE, C. “Characteristics of teachers related to children’s progress.” Journal of Teacher Education, 1961, 12, 401–406.

KAGAN, J. “Reflection, impulsivity and reading ability in primary grade children.” Child Development, 1965, 36, 609–628.

KATZ, L.G. (ed) “Mothering and teaching — some significant distinctions.” Current topics in Early Childhood Education Vol 111. Norwood, N.J. Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1980, 46–65.

ROSENTHAL, R. and JACOBSON, L. “Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils’ Intellectual Development”, N.Y. Holt, Rinehart and Wilson Inc., 1968.

YANDO, R.M. and KAGAN, J. “The effect of teacher tempo on the child.” Child Development, 1968, 39, 27–34.

HILDEBRAND, J. “Guiding Young Children”, N.Y. MacMillan, 1975.

About the Author

Dr Anne Silcock was a senior lecturer in Education at the University of Queensland. She was a regular contributor to Australian journals, writing about early childhood education, parenting and pre-school programmes. Dr Silcock worked with handicapped groups, educating kindergarten teachers, psychology students and secondary teachers. She was a member of many bodies, including Lifeline, The Childbirth Education Association and the Creche and Kindergarten Association. She participated in a number of educational events connected with the School of Total Education during the early 1980s.

This article appeared in Volume 3 Number 2 of the Journal of the Helen Vale Foundation, published in 1981. (Published on web site: May 2012).