The impact of personality in the classroom

What is the impact of personality on teaching? Does personality matter when it comes to teacher effectiveness? Should I try to change any elements of  my personality in order to be a better teacher?

To begin my short study on personality, I began with a rather dated American study by F. Tyler, which had the promising title of ‘ Teachers Personalities and Teaching Competencies‘ (The School Review, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Winter, 1960), pp. 429-449). It turned out to be excellent, and it began with a reality check:

“One writer lists nineteen desirable qualities [of a teacher], including integrity, maturity, dominance, and diligence. Another investigator catalogues twenty- nine attributes, such as introversion, vitality, punctuality, and persistence. A third researcher tabulates only six traits, but among them is competence in computing with two-digit numbers. A fourth author reports that “speed of tapping” and “right and left hand coordination” (supposedly measures of temperament) distinguish effective from non-effective teachers. Another writer thinks that intelligence is important but maintains that we cannot prove that fact. Effective teachers, one states, are peppy and popular, with pleasing voices. One other example: a teacher should have magnetism, self-control, and enthusiasm. A complete listing would contain a finite number of attributes, but the number seems to be approaching infinity as a limit.”

Not only do the (often non-scientific) studies cited by Tyler disagree with each other, they also use different measures of what teacher success is. Some authors were interested in ‘pupil growth’, whereas others thought that ‘effective teachers are those who are assigned the highest ratings by pupils, teachers, principals, or supervisors’.  Furthermore, different observers often arrive at different conclusions about successful teaching:  “which teachers are classified as successful depends, among other things, on the criterion and on who applies the criterion“.

Tyler explains further:  “We vary greatly among ourselves in our values and attitudes, and these affect our judgments about teachers. It is no wonder that the identification of competent teachers depends on who attempts to identify them and by what means.” Furthermore, Tyler also acknowledges that  “a teacher may be effective with some pupils but not with others” by contrasting two types of pupil:  “some pupils prefer a highly organized, systematic presentation of instructional materials. Others delight in, and learn from, the give and take provided by informal teaching procedures. Few teachers are able to appeal effectively to all pupils, and pupils are likely to vary in their acceptance of a given teacher.”

It was at this point that I realised that ‘personality’ cannot be divorced as an independent variable in deciding teacher effectiveness. Tyler’s example of the ‘systematic presentation of materials’ moves beyond personality type. A teacher with a  slapdash, thoughtless, carefree ‘personality’ (if one can describe a personality in this way) could still teach using this approach if his school’s schemes of work had pre-prepared those materials for him. Despite being a passionate teacher, I am still (sometimes, with the wind behind me) able to deliver information in a calm manner.

Perhaps the issue of how personality affects student outcomes is a red herring. In the October 2014 report ‘What Makes Great Teaching’ by Coe et. al., the six components identified did stray into the areas of teacher personality type by mentioning ‘quality of interactions’ between teachers and students and ‘professional behaviours’. However, these were the components that had moderate or only some impact on student outcomes. The major gains were made by teachers having a ‘deep knowledge of the subjects they teach’, and ‘quality of instruction’. You could argue that the latter is, again, tied up in personality, yet this links back to Tyler’s previous point that one observer of a teacher could see quality instruction delivered by a variety of personality types, whereas others might prioritise a certain personality over another.

How does one determine what a personality type is anyway? Next, I looked at an Australian study by D. Fisher entitled ‘Associations Between Teacher Personality and Classroom Environment’ (The Journal of Classroom Interaction, Vol. 33, No. 1 (WINTER 1998), pp. 5-13) . Fisher used the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to determine personality types. An issue with the study is that the use of the MBTI has been criticised as it doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Therefore, we should perhaps acknowledge the author’s conclusions that “both students and teachers perceived greater student cohesiveness in the classes of extroverted teachers” with caution. As Tyler had noted,  “we are not always sure what a given test [of personality] measures. Different tests may give different results even though they are said to be measuring the same trait. Test scores indicate relative standings, not amounts. Careful judgment must be exercised when we attempt to describe the traits of successful teachers from a knowledge of their test scores alone.”

So far, so frustrating. The issue of measuring personality impact is so fraught with difficulties that even the most tentative conclusions often do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. So I asked a different question: let’s say that I attempted to change aspects of my personality in order to become a more effective teacher, would I be able to change?

When Tyler broached this question, he commented “to say that teachers are characterized by certain personality traits is to assume the existence of a basic, stable personality and to assume that the personality traits of a beginning teacher are what they will be after twenty or thirty years of teaching experience. Constancy is necessary if we are to predict the degree of success to be expected.” Tyler’s study later demonstrates that the extent to which personality is genetically-determined and constant, and the extent to which it is (and can be) changed, is still the subject of debate. He concludes, however, that ‘ probably most individuals change in some respects, some more than others.” This suggests that changes in personality can happen.

I then considered a final (also American) study by J. Houtz et. al., conducted in 1994, entitled ‘Personality Type, Creativity, and Classroom Teaching Style in Student Teachers’ ( The Journal of Classroom Interaction, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1994), pp. 21-26). The authors began sensibly with a warning: “that there is an “ideal” personality for a profession as diverse or complex as teaching is not realistic”. The study only included a small sample of 46 student teachers (rather than experienced professionals), yet there were some interesting points for discussion:

  • Consistent with research on the creative personality (Delias & Gaier, 1970; Martindale, 1989), among these student teachers the ability to postpone judgment or be open to a wider array of external stimulation appears to correlate with the ability to generate more ideas [in teaching] and ideas which are unusual or original
  • If teachers, student teachers, or others were to have  good knowledge of their own personality and how their  individual strengths and weaknesses could manifest themselves, then problem solving [in the classroom] might be easier.

Summary

My overriding conclusion from my short study of the impact of personality in the classroom has to be that it is a red herring, Not only are there issues of definition and measurement (the major issues being that  is impossible to define ‘personality’ effectively, and measuring its impact can say more about the observer than the teacher), but for me the overriding problem is that an effective teacher ‘personality’ cannot be separated from other aspects that lead to improved student outcomes. A teacher’s demonstration of  ‘quality instruction’ and  ‘professional behaviour’ perhaps involves some element of harnessing an innate personality type, but a teacher’s training, experience, support systems and a myriad of other things must also be involved.

Yet there may be something to take away from these studies on personality. Houtz et al. noted in their study, teachers were not always ‘self-aware’, and colleagues and students often had a different, and often ‘more accurate’ (so far as that can be established) idea about their personalities. If, for example, someone mentions being calmer at certain points in a lesson, or more passionate, and if being calmer or more passionate will actually improve my teaching practice, then I shall seek to be mindful of that.

And that’s what I shall do. Keep ‘being calm’ or ‘being passionate’ as a tool to use, among all of the others that I have collected in my Teacher Toolkit, to be brought out at the appropriate time and place.

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