Teach for America data is ideal for studying traits of effective teachers, psychology study says

Elementary Pupils Counting With Teacher In ClassroomTeaching is a tough, often demoralizing job.  This raises the question: How important are positive traits such as life satisfaction, optimistic outlook and sheer grit in determining a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom?

A recent study in the Journal of Positive Psychology says data from the Teach for America (TFA) program provided the ideal laboratory for answering this question.

Typically, teachers with the strongest qualifications (i.e. more positive traits) disproportionately take better-paying jobs in higher-performing districts.  The TFA helped researchers avoid this selection bias because while assignment to schools was not completely random, all new teachers are assigned to under-resourced schools. Under-resourced schools are some of the toughest  and most stressful environments for teaching and serve as a good test of positive traits.

Almost a half- million students are being taught by TFA teachers and the organization has collected a vast amount of data on achievement gains of students  during teachers’ 2-year tours of duty.

In this study, optimism was a weaker factor in determining teacher success than life satisfation and “grit.”

Teachers who rated higher in life satisfaction were 43% more likely to outperform their peers based on their students’ achievement data. Teachers who scored higher on a grit scale, which measured perseverance in the pursuit of long-term goals, were 31% more likely to outperform their peers.

“Teachers higher in life satisfaction may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the researchers write.

In this prospective, longitudinal study, 390 novice teachers  completed measures of life satisfaction, grit and optimistic explanatory style (how they explained why events happen) prior to the school year. At the conclusion of the school year, teacher effectiveness was measured in terms of the academic gains of students.

The TFA program is a competitive program that assigns novice teachers to under-resourced schools based on their geographic and other preferences whenever possible. Because the program is so selective, a higher percentage of TFA teachers might be expected to have the 3 positive traits that are the focus of the study compared with the average population, the researchers write.

Participants completed the 8-item “Short Grit Scale”, the 5-item Satisfaction With Life Scale and the Attributional Style Questionnaire. In the latter measure, participants were presented with 6 positive and 6 negative events and asked to attribute a cause to each event if they imagined if were to happen to them.

For research purposes, TFA  administrators assigned an effectiveness ranking to each teacher based on the grade-level academic gains of their students. A detailed rubric was used to make unbiased comparisons across teachers.

The researchers concluded that when recruiting and selecting teachers, schools should consider that positive traits such as grit, life satisfaction, and optimism may be as important if not more so than traditional indicators of performance (e.g. certification). The positive traits also can be cultivated in professional development programs, they add.

“Positive predictors of teacher effectiveness,” by Angela Lee Duckworth et al., The Journal of Positive Psychology, November 2009, Volume 4, Number 6, pps. 540-547.

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