Does personality count when it comes to teaching?

14th September 2018 at 00:00
Research suggests it does, and, if this is indeed the case, it raises a whole lot of questions about teacher recruitment. If schools could screen recruits to ensure they have the right character for the job, it could improve retention and boost pupils’ attainment. But, says Marc Smith, the science so far raises more questions than answers. And, in the grip of a recruitment crisis, would we want to limit the pool of applicants based on perceived personality traits?

Do you think you’re a good fit for teaching? I don’t mean academically. Rather: would you say that your personality matches the job?

We certainly seem to believe that a “teacher personality” exists. We look for the “right kind of person” for teacher training or when recruiting. Friends tell us we are “such a teacher” if we display certain behaviour, and we often label ourselves that way, too. We can easily list the traits we think are associated with great teachers: empathy, persistence, resilience, grit and so on.

However, it is all guess work, really. We don’t research to see if there is such a thing as a teacher personality. We don’t check whether that personality could boost teacher effectiveness. And we don’t track down what that personality might consist of. We certainly don’t measure personality traits in a scientific way when recruiting. It’s all done on gut instinct, knowledge from experience, a sixth sense.

But what if the research did exist, and what if we could assess personality and measure its parts? If we could isolate the traits that make for an effective teacher and we screened recruits accordingly, one could argue that many of the problems we are currently experiencing in the profession would disappear. Because surely the resultant teaching workforce would be stronger, happier and more likely to stick in the job. The recruitment crisis would be solved and the quality of education would increase.

Well, it turns out that research does exist, that some are even trying to apply it, but that it’s all a lot more complicated than it first appears.

We tend to have an instinctual idea of what we mean by personality; after all, many of the words we use to describe ourselves and others are descriptions of seemingly innate qualities. We might describe someone as an extrovert, moody, shy or “scatty”. Just as we describe people using their physical attributes, we also use language that reflects how we view their behaviour or their personal dispositions (their traits).

Some researchers have tried to codify these instinctual ideas into a list of concrete traits. Back in the 1930s, psychologist Gordon Allport identified no fewer than 45,000 of them. Thankfully, over the years this list has been reduced considerably. Raymond Cattell narrowed Allport’s list down to 171, while Hans Eysenck settled on just three personality dimensions: extraversion-introversion, emotional stability-neuroticism and psychoticism.

Today, psychologists are likely to describe personality in terms of the “Big Five” traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (or emotional stability), conveniently spelling out the word “Ocean”.

Each of the Big Five traits also has subdomains; for example, conscientiousness includes aspects of our personality that support our tendency to work hard and overcome obstacles, such as persistence and self-efficacy.

But have any of these identified traits been attributed to effective teaching? Has anyone attempted to define a teaching personality?

A 2011 study discovered that students favoured teachers who displayed high levels of conscientiousness, openness, extraversion and agreeableness. Students didn’t, however, favour teachers with low levels of emotional stability (Patrick, 2011). Unfortunately, while this may tell us which teachers are likely to get nice presents at the end of the year, it tells us little about how effective these teachers are.

More promising is a 2017 study of teachers in the United States. It found that conscientiousness is positively related to both effectiveness and retention, findings consistent with other studies into a number of different professions and job roles (Kim, Dar-Nimrod and MacCann, 2017).

Another study in 2017, this time looking at German pre-school teachers, found that low levels of emotional stability negatively impact career success (Smidt et al., 2017).

We can, therefore, tentatively identify both conscientiousness and emotional stability as being related to teacher effectiveness.

But what other facets of our personality might positively impact both teacher and student outcomes?

Andrew Martin, an educational psychologist at the University of New South Wales, has highlighted adaptability (a sub-domain of conscientiousness) as an important non-cognitive quality. Teachers who can adjust their thoughts, actions and emotions to successfully respond to long- and short-term changes in circumstances are more likely to thrive. Teachers with high levels of adaptability are also better engaged and appear more satisfied with their job.

This makes sense: a lesson rarely runs as smoothly it could, and children can often behave erratically. Adapting makes for better teaching, and being comfortable with adapting makes for happier teachers.

However, Martin, along with Rebecca Collie, highlights the role of the environment in nurturing adaptability; specifically the role of autonomy and involvement in curriculum and policy decisions (Collie and Martin, 2016). So it may be that those traits can be taught or developed, given the right circumstances, even if you don’t have the gift from birth. Likewise, they could be stifled by the “wrong” environment, even if you are lucky enough to have them already.

Elsewhere, another trait that has been identified as particularly significant for teachers to possess is self-efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to a teacher’s belief in their capacity to influence student outcomes. High levels of self-efficacy increase motivation, persistence and job satisfaction, as well as reducing stress levels and improving the quality of relationships with students.

Again, this makes sense: a teacher who believes they can support a student is more likely to try different approaches to do so and will be more comfortable doing it than one who has no faith in their ability and thus may also try fewer options.

In a 2014 study, Robert Klassen and Virginia Tze found self-efficacy to be significantly related to positive teaching and learning outcomes.

However, self-efficacy, like adaptability, can be nurtured. It wouldn’t, therefore, be completely necessary for prospective teachers to display such characteristics prior to training.

Teaching traits

So, is this article turning into an argument that many of the teacher personality traits are actually taught skills?

Possibly, but a 2008 Australian study found that teacher trainees who displayed low levels of motivation at the start of training showed little improvement throughout their training period and beyond. These findings are consistent with a 2013 study published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research. In its report, Allison Atteberry and her colleagues highlighted findings that new teachers have a tendency to stay in the same position relative to their peers throughout the first five years of their career. This remained the case even when teachers changed schools.

So the traits may be teachable, but it seems we may not be very good at teaching them.

Self-efficacy and adaptability are tentatively on the list, then. Any more?

Klassen, professor of psychology in education at the University of York, believes he’s identified many more qualities. As lead researcher on the European Research Council-funded Teacher Selection Project, Klassen, with his team of international researchers, has been busy identifying important non-cognitive attributes and trialling a number of tools that they hope will inform training providers of those candidates most likely to thrive.

Drawing on data collected from teachers in England, Finland, Malawi and Oman, the researchers have formulated a list consisting of empathy and communication; organisation and planning; and resilience and adaptability (Klassen et al., 2018).

But are these qualities of innate personality or, again, are they skills that can be taught through teacher training programmes and nurtured through sensitive leadership? This would depend on the attribute in question. While empathy might not be a skill that can be taught, we can certainly help trainees to be better organised and plan more effectively.

There is another issue to ponder in this research, too: the team identified a small number of regional differences that corresponded with country-specific priorities. For example, in Finland, cooperation and the fostering of community was seen as particularly important, perhaps due to the way Finnish teachers are expected to work closely with colleagues in preparing and delivering content.

So bits of the traits list may change with the educational culture. In England, that culture can morph rather frequently. Which is a problem if you are screening teachers on one political whim and then find, five years later, that a new whim is driving policy.

Nevertheless, the attributes identified by Klassen and his team do appear sensible enough. So if we are to take these and the other attributes cited in research as a desirable personality profile for teachers, is it actually possible to measure how well someone might fit it?

Traditionally, prospective student teachers have been assessed using a variety of methods, from aptitude tests to interviews. Such selection methods have a tendency to identify competencies in a rather haphazard way, with no real quantifiable way of measuring their effectiveness. Cognitive factors such as intelligence and subject knowledge tell us little about how the candidates would perform in a number of real-world settings. Indeed, this largely remains unknown until the trainee enters a real classroom, often several weeks into their training.

Could we, therefore, administer a personality questionnaire as part of the recruitment process? Klassen has written previously that he thinks not, insisting that such measures are easily faked.

Personality tests consist of a number of self-completion questions, generally in the form of statements, measured on a five-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Common statements include, “I handle stress well”, “I have a forgiving nature” and “I like to reflect and play with ideas”.

The person taking the test is expected to approach the questions honestly and instinctively, with the assumption that we know ourselves better than anyone else.

However, there is always the danger than we attempt to second-guess the motives of the person administering the test. For example, if we were applying to join a teacher training programme, we would want to convince the assessor that we were conscientious and empathetic. And it really isn’t that difficult to fake a personality test: we instinctively understand that answering positively to the statement “I am lazy” isn’t going to get us far in the selection process.

Rather than traditional personality tests, Klassen and the Teacher Selection Project have been trialling a series of scenario-based questionnaires known as Situational Judgement Tests (or SJTs). SJTs present the candidate with a number of hypothetical scenarios that could crop up in a classroom environment. How the candidate responds to each scenario highlights certain positive qualities associated with teaching. At present, the tests are pen and paper or computer-based, but Klassen has high hopes, intending to include video and virtual reality as the project develops.

The project team have recently begun working with Teach First to develop selection methods based both on Teach First’s core values and the current research into personality and non-cognitive attributes; specifically, conscientiousness, emotion regulation and growth mindset. Teach First’s drop-out rate has been particularly high at the three-year point, so the organisation might be eager to ensure that it recruits trainees who have the attributes to remain in the profession for longer.

So, taking this into account, it would appear that there is a “teaching personality” and that we can measure for it. Moreover, it might even help teachers to stay in the profession for longer, and those teachers to be better at the job.

What are we waiting for?

Well, it’s not as easy as it might seem. Already, you have read that certain traits can be taught. And we now need to consider how stable personality traits really are. If we were to test for a teacher personality at 18, could we be reasonably confident that any positive “teacher traits” would still exist by the time that person retired? If the latest research is anything to go by, possibly not.

It used to be believed that consistency increases with age; that we gradually become more consistent in our traits up until the age of about 30. One would then have a stable period between the ages of 50 and 70. A test at 18, then, may not predict accurately the personality of the same teacher at 30 years old, 40 years old or older.

More recent research casts doubt on there being much stability at all. A 2016 study by Matthew Harris and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh and Liverpool John Moores University found little consistency of traits in a group of 174 participants whose personality was measured at the age of 14 and then again at the age of 27. Of course, during the intervening period, theories of personality changed considerably, so this factor might have impacted on the findings.

Nevertheless, a meta-analysis published in 2018 by Eileen Graham found that the “Big Five” personality traits decrease across the life span; for example, people become less agreeable and more introverted the older they get (Graham et al., 2018).

If personality isn’t stable, then there is good reason to caution against the use of personality testing in teacher trainee recruitment. After all, a candidate might display the desired attributes early on in their career, only for these to diminish with time. And we could exclude people who will develop just the attributes we need.

Put this into the mix with the other areas discussed in this article and it would seem sensible to caution against any use of personality testing in teaching for the moment.

And we should remain mindful that teachers leave the profession for many reasons. Increased bureaucracy, constant monitoring, workload, lack of support and the national obsession with measuring pupil progress are just some of the reasons teachers give for quitting. It is, as yet, not known whether personality factors help some teachers to survive this onslaught.

Even without these concerns, the existence of a “teacher personality’ raises other issues. It implies that certain people may lack the capacity to develop the skills to thrive in the profession, and there is a danger that some schools could reduce the level of support for teachers if they believe that staff have the innate capacity to thrive.

Meanwhile, on a purely practical level, do we really want to further reduce an already diminishing pool of prospective teachers? Recruiting teachers is now harder than ever. Targets for postgraduate trainees were missed in the year 2017-2018 with only around 80 per cent of the required number recruited. Adding an extra dimension to the recruitment process would most likely lead to an even deeper recruitment crisis.

In my view, the research poses more questions than it answers. The science is still developing: we are still yet to reach a clearer understanding of personality more generally and of its stability in particular. Whether a teacher personality really exists, and whether it is innate or can be developed, remains very open to interpretation.

That’s not to criticise the research, such as that being carried out by Klassen and his team: it is providing a useful added dimension to the recruitment process. But we don’t have enough teachers as it is, so while the science remains inconclusive, using it to exclude candidates seems premature and counter-productive.

For now, if I was a school leader, I’d stick to trusting my gut.


Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and teacher. He is author of The Emotional Learner and Psychology in the Classroom (with Jonathan Firth). He tweets @marcxsmith

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