Teaching in Mind

Helping Teachers Mindfully Transform Education


The Teaching in Mind website has been refocused on how the unconscious beliefs and values of teachers influence the education of our children. Since the 2nd edition of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education was published in 2010, the lives of teachers and students have undergone major changes. To this end, our goal is to publish an updated edition of Teaching in Mind by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the key ideas about the effects of teacher beliefs can still be found here. New articles on the topic will be added as they are completed.

Other Articles

Articles about learning and assessment, historic foundations of education, current issues in education, and transforming education that previously appeared on this site can now be found at our sister site, Learning in Mind.

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Teacher Quality and Teacher Qualifications

"A great teacher takes a hand, opens a mind, and touches a heart."


fter decades of ignoring teachers and tinkering with every aspect of education in an attempt to create meaningful change, reformers are now blaming teachers for the failure of their own failed policies. They have repeatedly ignored research suggesting that teachers are arguably the most important variable in the educational equation. At the same time, policy makers demand more "highly qualified teachers" with ever-increasing demands for certification in both subject matter and pedagogy. But equating teacher quality with teacher qualifications has not had the predicted results.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) is one organization that has attempted to identify the factors in professional teaching excellence. Begun in 1987, NBPTS has identified five core propositions about what excellent and effective teachers should know and be able to do. Certification is voluntary and programs require a commitment of hundreds of hours of time and considerable expense on the part of the teacher. According to their website, "Certification is a symbol of professional teaching excellence. A certificate will attest that a teacher was judged by his or her peers as one who is accomplished, makes sound professional judgments about students' best interests and acts effectively on those judgments."1

Teachers who have undertaken such certification are certainly to be commended. Although some states offer incentives for certification, I doubt that many teachers would commit so much of their precious time, not to mention a significant financial commitment, if they weren't caring and concerned professionals. Many have said that it was the most powerful professional development program they had ever experienced. So it must have come as a terrible shock to learn that a long-term study commissioned by NBPTS and conducted by William L. Sanders, "found that there was little difference in students' achievement levels for teachers who earned the NBPTS credential, those who tried but failed to earn it, and those who never tried to get the certification."2

According to Mr. Sanders, there was greater variability among certified teachers than between certified and uncertified teachers. Such studies can be interpreted in many ways. For example, the five propositions identified by NBPTS and assessed in their program all refer to the behaviors of the teacher. However, the effectiveness of the teachers was assessed based on scores of various standardized tests. Therefore, it might be equally valid to say that standardized tests are poorly correlated with the effectiveness of a teacher or with true learning on the part of students. [This is yet another reason why using the results on standardized tests to judge the effectiveness of a teacher is absurd!]

What Makes a Teacher Effective?


f the goal of education is to help children learn, then it is reasonable to assume that an effective teacher would demonstrate the ability to facilitate that process. In today's data-obsessed world, that effectiveness is judged by the students' grades on high-stakes tests. But that is only a valid judgment if 1.) the tests measured student learning; and 2.) teaching was the only factor that influenced student learning. Since neither of those conditions is true, we need to look beyond the tests to identify what makes a teacher effective.

Would more and better training insure quality teachers? If all teachers had PhDs in their subject area and Master's degrees in educational theory and pedagogy, would it follow that every teacher would then exhibit the quality and effectiveness reformers are seeking? Is there a direct correlation between accumulating knowledge about teaching and "being" an effective teacher?

A former Montana Teacher of the Year was a young woman with a degree in Biology and minors in Chemistry and Physics. Those were the subjects that she taught…in an exemplary and highly effective manner according to her peers and students. Ironically, she doesn't meet the government standard as a "highly qualified teacher." Why? Because she doesn't have a major in every subject she teaches. That requirement would pretty much eliminate from the ranks of "highly qualified" every teacher in a small school where there aren't enough students to fill a teacher's schedule with the same subject.

person carrying books

Is this requirement realistic? If so, I assume that the same criteria will henceforth be applied to candidates for public office. Clearly, to be "highly qualified," a candidate should have degrees in civil and criminal law, foreign relations, economics, psychology, and business…to name just a few.

Of greater concern is the assumption that being "highly qualified" equates to being "highly effective." What exactly does "highly effective" mean? A number of studies from the 1990s have already identified the characteristics of effective teachers. The studies were done with teachers identified by their peers and students as "teachers of the year" in states around the country. A few of the characteristics shared by exemplary teachers include:

Notice that these characteristics are the antithesis of today's "one size fits all" and "no excuses" public schools. They don't fall into neat categories of "what teachers should know and be able to do." What these teachers shared were positive and research-supported beliefs about students and learning rather than a certificate proving that they had successfully completed more formal training in teaching. The characteristics on this list were not easily observed external behaviors that someone can assess, list, and attempt to pass on to others. Yet these are the characteristics that drive the exemplary behaviors of those teachers! Unfortunately, this research was all but ignored at the time because of the growing focus on bigger and better standards, and assessment of schools based on quantitative data—high-stakes tests.

Certainly, the concern that some teacher's lack accredited training in subject matter, learning theory, and pedagogy is valid. Worse, critics suggest that these poorly prepared teachers are often assigned to disadvantaged or at-risk students, depriving those students of equal opportunities for a sound education. But will demanding more certification and training solve that problem? And conversely, will replacing these teachers with "teachers" who have received only a few weeks formal training in educational theory and methodology (such as Teach for America) solve the problem?

Understanding Teacher Quality


o understand why efforts to improve teacher quality have been so difficult, we must again look to the metaphor that is so popular in education—school as factory/workplace. If a manufacturer wants to improve the efficiency of the assembly line and the quality of a product, there are several things s/he might do. First, s/he can bring in experts to analyze the process, break it into steps, make each step more efficient, and program the assembly line workers (human or machine) to perform those steps.

Using a similar approach, many reformers have attempted to break down the complex process of education into observable, manageable components—curriculum, assessment, teaching methods, discipline, etc. They analyze each of the components and optimize them (according to their own beliefs about what is effective). Each component is then neatly packaged and "given" to teachers as the "best" way to educate students. (Note the similarity between this process and the Taylorization of public education.) Although this factory model may be effective in improving the efficiency of the manufacturing process and the quality of inanimate products, it has proven woefully inadequate in education. Yet rather than question the process itself, we see an endless stream of reform efforts designed to fix broken parts of the process.

What the factory model fails to recognize is that education is a human endeavor rather than the manipulation of inanimate material. The raw material in an assembly line can't choose how it will behave. It can't choose what it will do or not do—what it will become. Students can! Raw materials on an assembly line have no goals, dreams, or individual interests. Those materials don't vary in their unique potential. Students do!

robot teacher

Nor are teachers assembly line robots who can be programmed to turn out standardized products through the same repetitive actions. They are human beings who make hundreds of decisions a day based on their personal beliefs and values. Those decisions profoundly influence the educational experience and learning of their students.

A manufacturer might also improve the manufacturing process by addressing the work ethic—the mindset— of the workers themselves. Clearly, this is a more challenging problem. It isn't solved by creating a set of rules and regulations. It isn't solved by setting the standards for the product higher. Something much deeper is involved here—the ways in which those individuals perceive their work, their personal values, and the attitudes they have about their duties and responsibilities. Clearly, those differ from person to person, so it's not surprising that dealing with inanimate processes and raw material is often the preferred approach.

There is a long history of attempts to reform education by fiat—creating new programs and mandates that are then handed to teachers to be carried out. In addressing teacher quality, theorists have fallen into that same factory metaphor. In asking "What are the characteristics of an effective teacher?" they seek the answers in observable teacher characteristics. They document the external behaviors of effective teachers and the observable effects of those behaviors on students. Theorists then categorize their observations, distilling them into a handful of "effective teaching" principles about "what works." Those principles are made available to teachers in articles, books, websites, and professional development workshops. The assumption is that, if teachers know what they should be doing, they will do it! But simply telling people that they should "demonstrate high expectations" or should "exhibit flexibility" is about as effective as telling people they should exercise more and eat healthier meals. They may cognitively accept the idea, but unconscious beliefs and values prevent the execution.

For example, a discipline program based on responsibility shared by teacher and students will not work if a teacher believes a good teacher is always in control of the class and values that control as a sign that he is being a good teacher.

A teacher who believes that her role is to "give" students a specified body of knowledge may cognitively accept a program based on inquiry and internally-generated knowledge, but she will unconsciously modify that program in her own image. She will still find a way to "give" students what she believes they need before allowing them to engage in the more open-ended activities that are part of the program. Worse, she will still value and employ assessments of rote learning rather than higher level thinking processes that arise from inquiry. Inquiry produces more diverse questions and answers that may be outside the specified knowledge, so they can't be adequately assessed on multiple choice (one right answer) tests.

Further, while effective teachers share similar beliefs and characteristics, their personalities and teaching styles may be wildly different. Despite the fact that lecturing has been almost universally condemned, I suspect most of us recall a teacher who could hold us spellbound for long periods. Those teachers had a talent for drawing students into a challenging world of ideas. To tell that teacher that lecturing was "bad" would be depriving learners of a rich, learing experience.

Others may have a gift for true Socratic Discussion (not the typical "Teacher asks a question and students answer it" behavior that passes for discussion in many classrooms.) Still others have a talent for creating challenging open-ended activities based on students' questions rather than pre-determined content. Therefore, no list of "effective teaching principles" can possibly describe the unique set of characteristics on which an effective teacher's actions are based. Works of art in museums worldwide reflect a vast array of unique styles that qualify as "great art." Similarly, each effective teacher's approach may be equally unique, but no less effective.

The Elusive Spark


f you were to teach a hundred people to reproduce the exact brush strokes and color composition used by Rembrandt, and if you provided them with the same quality of paints, brushes, and canvas as the master, would you really expect each of them to produce a masterpiece in the style of Rembrandt? Of course not! What is missing is the artist's vision—his understanding of when and where to apply the techniques—the elusive spark that makes an artist unique. The talent and genius lie in the "mind of the maker."

Similarly, the components of effective teaching are found in the minds of teachers. Reformers expend tremendous amounts of time and resources with only marginal returns because they don't reach to the core of teacher quality. Having access to proven techniques and high quality teaching materials can certainly contribute to a teacher's effectiveness. But the key to being an outstanding teacher lies outside the light of direct observation. It lies in the largely unconscious thought processes that motivate and support a teacher's external behaviors. Without examining the beliefs, values, assumptions, and other thinking processes behind an outstanding teacher's behaviors, the behaviors themselves are relatively meaningless.

The misguided attempt to ignore anything that can't be quantified and measured has prevented educational policy makers from addressing the undeniable power of the subjective—what goes on in the unobservable mind of the teacher. I suspect that one major factor in the failure to address teacher thinking is fear! It's all so subjective! There's nothing "standard" about it. You can't quantify caring, enthusiasm, or passion for one's subject. You can't quantify respect for students, humor, or patience. And if you can't quantify it—can't even observe it directly—what good is it? Sociologist William Bruce Cameron (NOT Albert Einstein), reminds us, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Teacher thinking counts!

Research has already identified characteristics of effective teachers. In fact, identifying those characteristics often requires little more than asking people to recall a favorite teacher. Several years ago, a professor at the State University of West Georgia asked her teacher education students to post a note on the EdNet list that described a memorable or outstanding teacher. The results may surprise you! Other than mentioning the subject of the class, the prospective teachers focused, not on what they had learned about a subject, but about the personal characteristics of a particular teacher.

Several spoke of the enthusiasm and passion the teacher had for the subject and how that drew them in. Others mentioned the teacher's humor, fairness, or teaching style. And many said that their memorable teachers "cared about me" and about every student in the class—and showed that caring in their willingness to listen. Were these teachers "easy"? Here's what one student said.

"She was a strong-willed, colorful, vibrant, and popular teacher. She was not a teacher who allowed students to breeze their way through her class. She commanded her students' attention when she taught. Mrs. D taught me patience and endurance, traits that I hold very dear and have applied to my home life and will definitely apply to my classroom. "

Here are several other quotes from those posts.

There is little doubt that these students had learned a great deal from the teachers. Yet the students' memories of these teachers centered on how the teachers made them feel and how that inspired their learning. That was true in every case.

What teachers do you remember? What, in your estimation, made them "outstanding"? I've asked that question of many people and I have yet to hear, "He had advanced degrees in the subject. " or "She taught me everything I needed to get a good grade on the test." Certainly, a teacher's qualifications are important. Knowledge of one's subject matter is obviously necessary. But is that knowledge sufficient?

In every study of outstanding teachers I've read, the difference between those teachers and less effective teachers came down to personal characteristics. In particular, the differences lay in the beliefs the outstanding teachers hold about teaching, learning, and students. At issue is whether those characteristics…those beliefs…can be transferred from one person to another.

Changing One's Mind


he only person who can change a teacher's thinking is the teacher. You can't "tell" people what to believe or what to value. In fact, most people are totally unaware of the beliefs and values that drive their perceptions and behaviors. Therefore, a teacher's beliefs are unlikely to change unless and until that teacher consciously reflects on his or her own thinking. But not all reflection is equally effective!

Even where reflection is "taught," current exemplars recommend addressing what the teacher does, how he or she does it, and what effect it did or didn't have on learning. Why the teacher acts as s/he does—why s/he makes the decisions that lead to those behaviors—is rarely, if ever, addressed. Yet the why is the difference that makes the difference.

The key to effective reflection is for each individual to examine the beliefs underlying the choices s/he makes, and then to understand the cause and effect relationship linking those beliefs to what goes on in the teacher's class. Before any meaningful change can take place in a teacher's behavior, there must be a corresponding change in the teacher's fundamental beliefs, values, and attitudes. And that change must begin with reflection—with a reevaluation of old beliefs, values, and attitudes in the light of new knowledge.

Telling teachers to become more reflective is not sufficient. Creating standards for self-reflection sets a goal, but provides no mechanism to reach that goal. The only ones who can make the fundamental changes necessary to increase their effectiveness are the teachers themselves, but they need both the support and encouragement of enlightened professional development programs. Continuing to focus professional development and reform on the observable and measurable externals of teaching because it is less challenging is no longer an acceptable alternative.

Teacher quality and teacher qualifications are two very different things. As educators search for the keys to effective teaching, it would be well to keep that in mind.

[Note: An extensive inventory that teachers can use to help them reflect on their thinking can be found in the Appendix of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education.


  1. http://www.nbpts.org/
  2. Keller, Bess. (May 17, 2006) Study for NBPTS Raises Questions About Credentials. Education Week, Volume 25, No. 37, pp 1, 16 Available online at http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2006/05/17/37nbpts.h25.html
  3. Collinson, V. (1994) Teachers as Learners: Exemplary Teachers' Perceptions of Personal and Professional Renewal. San Francisco and London: Austin & Winfield. See also Collinson, V. (1999) Redefining Teacher Excellence. Theory Into Practice, Vol. 38, No. 1, 4-11

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The Teaching in Mind website has been refocused on how the unconscious beliefs and values of teachers influence the education of our children. Since the 2nd edition of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education was published in 2010, the lives of teachers and students have undergone major changes. To this end, our goal is to publish an updated edition of Teaching in Mind by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the key ideas about the effects of teacher beliefs can still be found here. New articles on the topic will be added as they are completed.

Other Articles

Articles about learning and assessment, historic foundations of education, current issues in education, and transforming education that previously appeared on this site can now be found at our sister site, Learning in Mind.

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