Teachers need affective competencies

Teachers need affective competencies

Olson, Carl O

“Everyone who remembers his own educational experiences remembers teachers, not methods and techniques”-Sidney Hook (1).

“Educators should be chosen not merely for their special qualifications, but more for their personality and their character, because we teach more by what we are than by what we teach”-Will Durant (2).

The competencies deemed most valuable in a teacher change from era to era. In the post-Sputnik 1950s, emphasis was placed on a teacher’s knowledge of mathematics and science. It did not take long to discover that more than a knowledge of subject matter was required of teachers. In the 1960s and 1970s “human potential” era, emphasis was placed on the affective skills of teachers. It was quickly discovered that even the most caring teacher could not be successful without a knowledge of subject matter and a repertoire of teaching skills. Historically, the emphasis on what we seek in teachers swings between the cognitive and affective domains. The latest efforts to define what teachers need to know and be able to do tend to overemphasize the cognitive skills of teachers.

Across the nation we are increasingly basing the evaluation of school districts, individual schools and teachers on the results of standardized tests. This trend will result in increased emphasis on the cognitive skills of teachers.

In recent years excellent work has been done in defining teacher competencies as standards. Various states, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) have defined versions of “what teachers need to know and be able to do.” The INTASC standards have been widely adopted. They are excellent as far as they go. However, they are not comprehensive enough as they tend to stress the cognitive aspects of teaching more than the affective aspects. Knowledge of subject matter and pedagogical skills are necessary for successful teaching. However, they are not sufficient.

As veteran educators, we have trained, employed and supervised hundreds of teachers. We are convinced that the personality and attitudes of teachers are just as important as their knowledge of subject matter and pedagogical skills. Research demonstrates that the affective competencies of teachers directly impact student learning. We need balance. We should be defining what teachers need to “know, be able to do and be.”

The INTASC standards and similar standards adopted by various states and organizations are generally excellent statements of the cognitive skills needed by teachers. We do not presume to criticize or change them. We do recommend they be augmented.

We suggest that, in order to achieve balance, educators should consider additional standards such as the following when considering the needed competencies of teachers:

The teacher is an authentic person who is genuine, self-aware and able to behave in accordance with his or her true feelings.

The teacher sees all people as worthy of unconditional positive regard and treats them with dignity and respect.

The teacher is an empathic person who understands the feelings of students and responds appropriately to those feelings.

We offer these standards to illustrate the type of affective standards supported by research. We do not suggest that any group adopt these standards exactly as we have written them. However, we do feel that separate standards should be devoted to the three key personal characteristics of authenticity, respect and empathy.

It will be argued by some that there is no need to articulate additional affective competencies of teachers for some or all of the following reasons:

– Everyone knows that teachers need affective competencies.

There is no clearly established relationship between the affective competencies of teachers and student learning.

The importance of affective teacher competencies are implicit in current lists of standards.

The “dispositions” associated with the INTASC standards address the affective dimension of teaching.

Educators using the INTASC or similar standards consider the affective competencies of teachers when using the standards.

It is impossible to define, measure and improve the affective competencies of teachers.

The first argument is easy to refute. If “everyone knows that teachers need affective skills” why do so many teachers lack them? Why do we have some teachers who actually seem to dislike their students? We believe it is because teacher educators and those employing teachers have not given sufficient attention to the importance of affective competencies.

Research demonstrates that the affective competencies of teachers have a direct bearing on student learning. This research has identified certain specific teacher behaviors which greatly enhance student learning. The impact of teacher interpersonal skills such as authenticity, respect and empathy on students can be characterized as follows:

Level 1: Very ineffective (crippling)

Level 2: Ineffective (hurting)

Level 3: Minimally effective

Level 4: Very effective (adding significantly)

Level 5: Extremely effective (adding, encouraging, and exploring) (3).

Over the years, the following findings have emerged:

1) The average level of empathy, congruence, and positive regard among teachers is about the same as the general population.

2 )The average level of interpersonal skills for teachers, principals, counselors and professors of education is below 3.0 .

3) Discipline problems can be predicted if a teacher’s interpersonal level is known.

4) There are five retarding teachers for every facilitating teacher in a typical school (3).

These findings are disturbing. The average level of interpersonal skills for teachers falls into the ineffective range. The principals who supervise them are no better and neither are the professors who trained them. If teachers are ineffective in their relationships with students, obviously student learning suffers.

When teachers operate above the 3.0 level, students score higher on measures of self -concept, have increased scores on intelligence measures, exhibit higher levels of thinking, make gains in creativity scores, do more problem solving, make greater gains on standardized math and reading tests, are more involved in learning and present fewer discipline problems(3). In sum, students develop greater academic skills and grow in personal and social skills.

The implications of this research are far-reaching. We can identify the specific behaviors in teachers which facilitate student growth and we can help prospective teachers develop these behaviors. The results achieved by teachers who exhibit these behaviors are dramatic.

The remaining arguments against articulating additional affective competencies of teachers have some validity. For example, it might be argued that INTASC standards such as an “ability to create learning experiences adapted to the ability of diverse learners” can only be met by empathic teachers. It is also true that the “dispositions” that accompany the INTASC standards are affective in nature. Unfortunately, many groups use the INTASC standards without considering the dispositions that accompany them. It is also true that some groups using the INTASC standards for the purpose of, for example, developing portfolio assessments of teaching performance take the need for affective competencies into consideration.

In regard to the final argument, while affective competencies are difficult to define and measure, the task is not impossible. Excellent statements of affective standards are available as are a variety of ways to measure them. For example, Martin Haberman has demonstrated how to measure the affective competencies needed by urban educators(4). The affective competencies of teachers can be improved. R.R. Carkhuff has developed a systematic model for helping people develop interpersonal skills(5). In his important recent book Working With Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Coleman has demonstrated the importance of affective competences in the business world and has described how individuals can develop such competences(6).

In summary, we have no serious disagreement with most lists of primarily cognitive standards. Our point is simply that because it is so easy to neglect the affective dimensions of teaching, the importance of affective competencies should not be left to chance but should be made explicit in any statement of the kind of teachers we need.


1. Bridget Sullivan, Ed., Teachers: A Tribute (Kansas City: Ariel Books, 1996, p.8).

2. Rosalie Maggio, Ed., Quotations on Education (Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997, p.34).

3. G.F.Render, “Research in Humanistic Education: Implications for Teacher Preparation,” Reforming Teacher Education (New York: Garland Publishing, 1985, pp.233-251).

4. Martin Haberman,”Selecting ‘Star’ Teachers for Children and Youth in Urban Poverty,”Phi Delta Kappan, June, 1995, pp.777-781.

5. R.R, Carkhuff, The Art of Healing (Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press, 1993).

6. Daniel Goleman, Working With Emotional Intelli ence (New York: Bantum Books, 1998).



825 Grande Heights Drive Cary, North Carolina 27513

Carl O. Olson is a retired public school administrator residing in Cary, North Carolina. Jerry L. Wyett is an Associate Professor of Foundations, Division of Education, Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana.

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