Teacher Soft Skills (Executive Functioning Skills) Overview
Teacher Soft Skills PDF
States, J., Detrich, R. & Keyworth, R. (2018). Overview of Teacher Soft Skills.Oakland, CA: The Wing Institute. https://www.winginstitute.org/teacher-compentencies-soft-skills.
Table of Contents
- Communicating high expectations
- Communicating clearly
- Instilling a love of learning or motivating students
- Adapting to novel situations
- Showing empathy and cultural sensitivity
- Being an effective problem solver
- Working well with others and being a member of a team
- Managing time and personal productivity
This overview examines the available research on the topic of soft skills (personal competencies) and how these proficiencies support the technical competencies required for success in school (Laker & Powell, 2011; Schulz, 2008). Key technical competenciesfor teachers include instruction, assessment, and classroom management. Commonly cited technical competencies for school principals include budget administration, organizational management, and knowledge of effective teaching skills (Hattie, 2009; Heckman & Kautz, 2012; Whitehurst, 2016). Soft skills, in contrast, are skills broadly applied across all the disciplines in school (Matteson, Anderson, & Boyden, 2016). Communicating high expectations, instilling a love of learning, persevering, adapting to novel situations, conveying empathy, demonstrating cultural sensitivity, being an effective problem solver, working well with others, and efficiently managing time are attributes often linked to teachers who are effective in the classroom (Hattie, 2009). Soft skills associated with being an effective school principal are generally the same, with the addition of skills such as organizational management, assertive communication, and leadership (Horng, Klasik, & Loeb, 2010; Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008). Other soft skills central to a principal’s success are the ability to prioritize demands on his or her time to accomplish critical tasks and maintaining a calm, unflappable temperament under pressure. These skills are important for the success of both teachers and principals. These same skills have been identified in the professional development literature as central to success across the spectrum of occupations and human endeavors (Robles, 2012).For the purposes of this overview, the focus will be on teacher soft skills.
Technical competencies in education are job-specific technical skills and indispensable knowledge core to teacher training curricula and imbedded in standards required for professional licensing (States, Detrich, & Keyworth, 2012). The existing educational research is filled with evidence supporting technical competencies specific to teaching (States, Detrich, & Keyworth, 2017).In spite of the substantial body of research supporting technical competencies, anecdotal reports abound of teachers proficient in technical competencies failing on the job because they lacked essential soft skills (Davis, 1998; Wragg, Haynes, Wragg, & Chamberlin, 2005). In 2015, Pew Research Center asked a national sample of adults to select among a list of 10 skills: “Regardless of whether or not you think these skills are good to have, which ones do you think are most important for children to get ahead in the world today?” Those surveyed listed communication skills as the most important, followed by reading, math, teamwork, writing, and logic (Goo, 2015). Two soft skills (communication and teamwork) made it into the top 10 list of skills suggesting that, in the general public’s opinion, some soft skills are highly valued as necessary for success.
To better understand the causal relationship between soft skills and student success, it is important to examine both the quality and quantity of evidence for a link between teacher soft skills and student outcomes. With this information, policymakers can more confidently commit to expending the necessary time and money on soft skill training and to developing a working curricula for teacher preparation pre-service and for in-service training.
What Does the Research Tell Us About Teacher Soft Skills?
At the heart of teacher soft skills is the relationship that teachers develop with their students. Large effect sizes ranging from 0.72 to 0.87 have been reported for the impact of positive teacher-student relations on student achievement (Cornelius-White, 2007; Marzano, Marzano & Pickering, 2003). Enhanced teacher-student relations likewise have improved the classroom climate and reduced disruptive student behavior, resulting in an effect size of 0.52 (Hattie, 2009). If we are to discover what is essential in establishing positive student relations, it is necessary to empirically identify the specific skill sets that contribute to a positive teacher-student relationship that results in student success.
What the Research Says About Specific Soft Skills
- Communicating High Expectations
Either consciously or unconsciously, teachers form expectations about a student’s abilities or skills that impact the student’s achievement (Rubie, 2004; Rubie-Davies, 2006). The primary question is, Do teacher expectations have an impact on student achievement?Research attempting to answer this question goes back more than 40 years. A meta-analysis by Rosenthal and Rubin in 1978 established an effect size of 0.70 for self-fulfilling prophecies. The study found that teachers were more likely having them meet expectations regardless of the accuracy of these expectations based on student past history. Harris and Rosenthal, in a 1985 meta-analysis, reported an effect size of 0.26 supporting student sex, age, and ethnicity as the most important factors in influencing ateacher’s expectations about how a student will perform. In a 1980 study, Smith reported that when teachers were provided data outlining a student’s abilities, the teacher reliably rated ability, achievement, and behavior according to the label that was provided.
Other factors influencing teacher expectations found a 0.30 effect size for student physical attractiveness affecting performance (Dusek & Joseph, 1983). A study in Switzerland found that when achievement levels were identical, evaluators would place students labeled as having a lower socioeconomic status (SES) in a lower track and students labeled with a higher SES in a higher track (Batruch, Autin, Bataillard, & Butera, 2018).Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes, Lipsey, and Roberts (2002) found an effect size of -0.61 when teachers were given a label for a student having a disability in reading as opposed to when no label was provided the teacher. Rubie-Davies, Hattie, and Hamilton (2006) found that negative expectations influenced a teacher’s expectations beyond one student and generalized to lower expectations for the entire classroom. Hattie (2009) found an overall 0.43 effect size for a teacher’s positive expectations about student achievement.
In summary, there is evidence that teacher expectations can influence student achievement. This research suggests that teachers need to be trained in emphasizing high expectations for students, and they need further training in how to identify implicit biases that can have a negative impact on student performance.
- Communicating Clearly
Anecdotally, teachers spend much of the day communicating with students through talking. Research on effective verbal communication suggests that clearly communicated lessons along with explicitly announced expectations have a positive impact on student performance (Fendick, 1990). In education, clarity has been defined as the methods by which teachers and principals effectively communicate expectations and instruction through verbal and nonverbal messaging (Chesebro & McCrosky 1998). It is how teachers facilitate the intended lesson using a precise selection of terms and the way they organize the presentation of the content; they offer examples to support the intended lesson, provide guided practice, and then assess the effectiveness of the instruction by sampling student learning (Fendick, 1990).
A meta-analysis examining the impact ofteacher clarity on student achievement gains found an effect size of 0.35 (Fendick, 1990). When teachers are not clear, students can become anxious and frustrated, and their acquisition of material and skills is reduced (Chesebro & McCrosky, 1998). Hattie (2009) reported a 0.75 effect size for teacher clarity on achievement. It is not surprising that vaguely communicated lessons produce poorer results and that explicit, clear instruction benefits learning. To maximize the impact of clarity of communication that benefits students, teacher and principal preparation programs need to incorporate these skills into their curricula.
- Instilling a Love of Learning or Motivating Students
Motivating students to enjoy learning is essential if the primary goal of education is to prepare students for success in life. Having a positive teacher-student relationship is an important ingredient in effective teaching (Marzano et al., 2003). A meta-analysis of six studies found that motivation had an effect size of 0.48 on student achievement (Hattie, 2009). As a rule, teachers should maintain a ratio of four or five positive interactions for every negative interaction if they are to sustain a positive relationship with students (Gable, Hester, Rock, & Hughes, 2009; Gottman, 1994; Kalis, Vannest, & Parker, 2007).
Students who are motivated tend to excel and, conversely, students who are not motivated perform more poorly (Hattie, 2009; Schiefele, Krapp, & Winteler, 1992). Fundamentally, we can infer students are motivated when they engage in an activityand they are unmotivated when they avoid or escape the activity. Student motivation in a subject is highest when students are competent, have autonomy to act, and receive affirmation for having successfully accomplished a task (Dörnyei, 2001). Motivation is low when students have insufficient knowledge or the skills to successfully complete the task assigned to them (Hattie, 2009). Students who consistently fail, encounter public embarrassment, or do notexperience positive acknowledgment for their efforts will most likely not develop a long-term interest in the subject area. It is imperative that teachers find ways to build positive relationships with students to motivate them to be successful.
The value of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation has been debated for more than 50 years (Deci, 1971; Skinner, 1953). By 1970, hundreds of studies within the operant tradition established that extrinsic rewards can influence behavior. Still, many have argued that extrinsic reinforcement has a negative impact on student development. Some have even described extrinsic reinforcement strategies as bribery (Kohn, 1993). Despite this clash, ample data in the fields of psychology and economics since the 1960s support the use of external contingencies (Cameron & Pierce, 1994; Lazear 2000). Although studies show mixed results, there is evidence that extrinsic motivation not only is not harmful but, when used appropriately, can increase intrinsic motivation (Cameron & Pierce, 1996; Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996). A 1992 meta-analysis on extrinsic motivation suggested that in many of the reviewed studies, the procedures were poorly operationalized (Wiersma, 1992). This is important as the outcome of a study depends on the specificity of the intervention’s procedures as well as how effectively the intervention is implemented. It is not surprising that vaguely defined interventions produce ambiguous results. In education, it is common to see very different practices promoted under the same label, resulting in confusion about the power of the intervention to produce positive outcomes for students (Wing Institute: Charter Schools; Wing Institute Paper: Induction).
Ultimately, teachers are mandated to work with all students, even those who are not excited or inspired. Not all students are equally motivated by the subjects mandated in education standards. To be successful, teachers need evidence-based methods to engage these students. Building a positive teacher-student relationship is a powerful first step. Using an external reinforcer is a practical and efficient next option for strengthening the relationship and boosting student motivation. Best practices indicate that extrinsic reinforcement programs should be time limited, with the goal of scaling back tangible reinforcement (awards, activities, stickers, token economy, edibles, etc.), and moving to social praise as students achieve success (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 1987).
Being successful in most endeavors requires persistence. Failure is commonin life. Distractions are inevitable. Everyone must experience and effectively adjust to challenges and frustrations to thrive. The Oxford Dictionary defines perseverance as steadfastness and resilience in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success. It means staying with the task and not giving up. Being persistent in elementary schooland high schoolstrongly correlates with post-secondary education and a person’s occupation and income level after leaving school (Choy, 2002; Laube, 1992). Although few studies on the subject of teacher perseverance exist, there is research on practices that teachers can use to increase student persistence. (How can teachers increase student perseverance?)
- Adapting to Novel Situations
The classroom is a very dynamic environment. It has been widely quoted that teachers make between 1,200 and 1,500 decisions a day (Jackson, 1990). The majority of the issues requiring decisions are unplanned and unpredictable, requiring teachers to use their judgment based on training, available evidence, and experience.Teacher decisions entail responding to student questions, managing student behavior, responding to administration requests, adjusting to changes in the schedule, addressing safety issues, ensuring that choices are compliant with policies and regulations, and managing countless miscellaneous student matters.
Only on rare occasions does the available evidence perfectly match the service context of concern. To bridge the gap between research and local circumstances, the educator must make a series of judgments such as defining the problem, determining which evidence is relevant, and deciding which features of the local context are likely to require adaptations to the selected evidence-based intervention (Spencer, Detrich, & Slocum, 2012). The end result is that teachers must think on their feet, be flexible, and adjust planning and lessons to meet the often changing and unique needs of students. One of the most common teaching failures is an overreliance on academic and behavior management interventions and an underreliance on adjusting to and managing interventions to meet the needs of the moment (VanDerHeyden, 2013;VanDerHeyden & Harvey, 2013).
Recognizing the complex character of schools requires teachers to be adaptable to the demands of the moment. Planning is indispensable, but knowing how to adjust to the unexpected is essential to survival as an educator as well as necessary for making informed choices based on the best available evidence (Spencer et al., 2012). Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless but planning is everything”(Eisenhower, 1957).This has relevance to educators, who must have a plan, but the fluid nature of the classroom also requires them to be flexible and prepared to adapt to the inevitable challenges of each new day.
- Showing Empathy and Cultural Sensitivity
An empathic disposition is considered a desirable trait in educators. Empathy is also linked to the effectiveness of teachers working in diverse settings with students of differing cultural backgrounds (McAllister & Irvine, 2002). Being able to recognize and comprehend the feelings of another is at the heart of empathy.Behaving empathetically is taking the perspective of another. This is important in an ethnically and culturally diverse society in which teachers must look beyond their own cultural values to effectively understand and respond to the perspectives of a diverse study body (Gay, 2000). For over 50 years, key education performance data including achievement scores, graduation rates, special education placement, school discipline, and juvenile justice consistently have reported lower outcomes for students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Differences between home and school cultures likely have contributed to these outcomes (Sugai, O’Keeffe, & Fallon, 2012).
Being culturally responsive can mollify this picture. This requires incorporatingcultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students (Gay, 2002). When knowledge and skills being taught are positioned within the experiences of a student, instruction become more meaningful, relevant, and interesting, and hence students are more motivated to excel and achieve (Gay, 2002). Because culture strongly influences the attitudes, values, and behaviors that students and teachers bring to the instructional process, being culturally sensitive has a major role in bridging the tenacious achievement gap for students from ethnic, socioeconomic, and racial populations that differ from the Eurocentric culture that predominates within the United States (García, 1999; Lipka, Mohatt, & the Ciulisetet Group, 1998; Moses & Cobb, 2001). Discrimination is deeply embedded in U.S. culture. It is present in the labor market, in policing, in the courts, and in education (Bertrand, Chugh, & Mullainathan, 2005; Greenwald, & Krieger, 2006; Jost et al., 2009; Levinson, 2007; Quillian, Pager, Hexel, & Midtbøen, 2017). Explicit and implicit ethnic, racial, and cultural biases affect the way students are taught.
Teacher preparation programs must actively increase the diversity of applicants and graduating teachers (Holinside, 2017). Teacher preparation programs must train teachers in curricula and instructional strategies that will address racial, ethnic, and cultural issues. Lessons must be developed to include culturally relevant examples and context when teachers are implementing prescribed curricula and developing teacher developed lessons (Ladson-Billings, 1995). It is important to increase teacher knowledge of the diversity of cultures they will encounter in the classroom. Teachers should be trained to have high expectations for all students. They should be instructed in the impacts of bias; in how to build a classroom climate that is conducive to and supports a culturally diverse student population; and in methods for opening cross-cultural communication among students. This type of teacher preparation requires knowledge of the specific cultures of ethnic groups, how these cultural values impact learning, and how to adjust curriculum and instruction in a way that respects and values our differences as people (Gay, 2002). School recruitment and hiring practices should be designed to identify and avoid candidates who are explicitly biased. Finally, a combination of strategies available for teacher pre-service and in-service training are designed to mitigate the impact of implicit and explicit bias. These include stereotype replacement, counterstereotype imaging, individualization, perspective taking, increasing opportunities for positive engagement of people outside the teacher’s culture, and feedback when bias is observed (Devine, Forscher, Austin, & Cox, 2012).
- Being an Effective Problem Solver
Being an effective problem solver is viewed as an important skill set across many professions (Snyder & Snyder, 2008).Having a mastery of problem solving has been identified as best practice for school psychologists (Deno, 1995; Thomas & Grimes, 1995). Problem solving is seen as fundamental to building effective evidence-based practices in schools (Tilly, 2008).Response to Intervention (RtI), an education decision-making framework, has been described as "synonymous with problem solving" (Fuchs, Fuchs, et al., 2003).
Teaching is awash with opportunities for teachers to solve problems.Given the complex nature of the job and the need for teachers to make more than a thousand decisions a day, accomplishing the fundamental responsibilities of the profession requires effective problem solving. Two key problem-solving strategies are generally employed in schools: (1) problem solving independently managed by a teacher throughout the school day, and (2) problem solving conducted as a member of an interdisciplinary team (Vaccarello, 2012).
Over the years numerous models of problem solving have evolved. Although each model offers its own specific procedures and protocols, the underlying components are remarkably similar (Bartels & Mortenson, 2005; Fuchs, Mock, Morgan, & Young, 2003).Effective problem solving includes a collection of core practice components: defining the problem, reading and interpreting data, establishing the cause of the problem, identifying possible solutions, assessing the viability of solutions, examining possible unintended consequences associated with possible solutions, designing effective implementation plans, and evaluating a solution’s impact on solving the problem (Hattie, 2009).
Notwithstanding general agreement on what constitutes effective problem solving, there is a dearth of research supporting the acceptance of including problem-solving training in teacher preparation curricula[C2] or for systematic in-service training in the field. Preliminary research has shown promising outcomes of professional development in improving problem-solving effectiveness, but little evidence exists that schools are spending adequate time and effort to establish practice components or to invest in problem-solving protocols, provide feedback and coaching to teachers, and assess the implementation of teacher or team-based problem-solving solutions (Burns, Peters, & Noell, 2008; Lundahl, 2010). Establishing such systems is one the most effective ways to increase teacher problem-solving skills required to address the academic, behavioral, and social-emotional challenges of students.
- Working Well With Others and Being a Member of a Team
Teams are not a new phenomenon; they have been in use for over 2,000 years and have been a basic building block of military organizations (Shuffler, Pavlas, & Salas, 2012). Shuffler et al. found that when utilized in the military, teams have shown importance in accomplishing challenging goals, developing solutions to vexing problems, and overcoming obstacles to achieving critical missions. In business, teams have been shown to increase both quality and productivity (Daniels & Whitener, 2000; Rummler & Brache, 2012). Teams have been used extensively in the field of medicine to improve patient outcomes (Kozlowski, & Bell, 2003; Meltzer, et al., 2010). Research on team effectiveness in various fields has found an overall positive effect in improving performance outcomes and staff attitudes (Richter, Dawson, & West, 2011; Mathieu, Maynard, Rapp, & Gilson, 2008).An abundance of research has found a positive effect for teams on various outcomes; however, most of these studies have come from outside the field of education (Clark, 2003; Delise, Allen Gorman, Brooks, Rentsch, & Steele‐Johnson, 2010; Devine & Phillips, 2000; Gully, Incalcaterra, Joshi, & Beaubien, 2002;Salas, Stagl, and Burke, 2004; Webber & Donahue, 2001).Although fewer studies have been education based, a sufficient body of research exists to suggest that teams can be an effective strategy for accomplishing critical educational goals (Gully et al., 2002; Joshi & Jackson, 2003).
A team is defined as a minimum of two people who interact with one another in an interdependent and adaptive manner to reach a common goal (Salas, Dickinson, Converse, & Tannenbaum, 1992). The use of teams in education has expanded over the past 30 years (Somech, 2008), offering educators a tool with the capacity to accomplish certain tasks more efficiently and effectively than could be achieved by an individual(Chen, Kirkman, Kanfer, Allen, & Rosen, 2007; Wayman, Midgley, & Stringfield, 2006). Teams offer advantages by increasing member motivation, coordinating efforts toward a common goal, increasing creativity by maximizing diverse viewpoints, bringing together expertise from different disciplines, and increasing the buy-in from staff required to implement new practices (Drury, 1984; Kozlowski, & Bell, 2003).
Teams perform many functions in schools and fall into two general categories: permanent teams and temporary teams. Permanent teams are established for specialized functions such as improving curricula or coordinating services for students in RtI. Temporary teams are organized for a particular short-term purpose and are meant to be dissolved when the task is accomplished, such as implementing a schoolwide behavior management system (Oswald, 1996). Other types of teams used in education are horizontal grade-level teams and vertical teams, which work across grade levels. A vertical team generally includes a teacher from each grade level as well as a special education teacher or other specialist teachers. A grade-level team is composed of teachers and other specialists required for accomplishing specific tasks associated with the effective operation of systems and practices common within a specific grade.
Effective teams that are sustainable do not happen by chance; they require planning, organization, and training of participants. Key to the successful implementation of teams in school systems is training in two critical areas: (1) team infrastructure and (2) critical interpersonal skills for individual team members. Teams require instruction in developing an infrastructure that specifies policies, processes, roles, and expectations to increase team efficiency and productivity(Delise et al., 2010). An effective infrastructure for a team requires a clear mission, a formal agreement, defined roles (leader, note taker, etc.), budgetary parameters, decision-making protocols, coherent and measurable goals, time lines for goal completion, assignment of personnel responsible for completing assignments, and systems for holding people accountable (Kozlowski & Bell, 2003). Essential interpersonal skills include clear and assertive communication, competence in conflict resolution, project management capabilities, and knowledge of social influence (persuasion) methods (Drury, 1984; Gibert, Tozer, & Westoby, 2017; Gillard, 2009; Salas, Tannenbaum, Cohen, & Latham, 2013).
In summary, teachers and education specialists working together can have a significant impact on the effective and efficient running of schools. Working as member of a team has been shown to have a medium effect size on student achievement (Eells, 2011).
- Managing Time and Personal Productivity
Teachers commonly express concern about having insufficient time to do the job (Collinson & Fedoruk Cook, 2001; Dibbon, 2004).The difficulty of balancing long hours of teaching with personal time is another complaint voiced by teachers (Clandinin et al., 2015). Teachers often report that their profession is highly demanding and stressful (Byrne, 1994; Kyriacou, 1987). Long hours were found to be a contributing factor in the persistently high rates of teacher turnover (Keigher, 2010). Effective time management has been suggested as an important strategy for teachers to more effectively manage the responsibilities of teaching and increase job satisfaction (Hung, Oi, Chee, & Man, 2007).
Time management is the process by which individuals organize their time to more effectively accomplish tasks and goals (Schuler, 1979).Effective time management has been associated with increased job satisfaction, reduced burnout, reduced stress, and increased productivity (Peeters, & Rutte, 2005).The vast majority of research on time management has been conducted in the field of business. Few rigorous studies directly address teacher time management. A study of college students conducted by Ocak and Boyraz (2016)found a moderate correlation student procrastination and poor and ineffective time management. Another study of college students found that time management skills were the leading factor in increased grade point averages and the second leading factor in a student’s personal success (George, 2012).
Literature reviews on the topic generally classify time management skills and activities into seven categories: time analysis, planning, setting goals, prioritizing, scheduling, organizing, and establishing new and improved time habits (Claessens, Van Eerde, Rutte, & Roe, 2007; Hellsten, 2012; Morris, 2001; Woolfolk & Woolfolk, 1986). Crutsinger (1994) wrote that time management involved setting goals, deciding which tasks were the most important and determining which needed to be scheduled for a later time (prioritizing), accurately estimating the amount of time needed for each task (time estimation), being flexible and adjusting to unanticipated events that inevitably interrupt the best made plans (problem solving), monitoring one’s own performance and adapting goals and priorities as necessary (evaluation), and observing patterns and trends in behavior.
The first step in effectively managing time is for an individual to clearly know the following: what he or she needs to accomplish, what tasks are expected by supervisors, and when assignments are to completed (Soucie, 1986). From this information, the individual can devise a plan for allocating time to complete the tasks. One of the greatest challenges is keeping to the plan. It is essential that a teacher develop the necessary strategies to minimize the inevitable distractions that disrupt his or her schedule, interfering with goal completion and diverting time away from established priority goals. Becoming distracted from the task at hand causes time lines to be missed and increases stress (Peeters & Rutte, 2005; Soucie, 1986).A keyfactor in increasing effective time management is performance feedback. Teachers work within a system that includes teams they are assigned to and the school’s administrative staff. The school principal and team members are important sources for holding a teacher accountable for assigned goals and tasks. If individuals in the work environment do not view on-time task and goal completion as vital, it is very likely these activities will not happen or will not be completed on time.
Much has been written about the importance of soft skills. There is a substantial body of research to support the need for being proficient in the key soft skills discussed in this overview. These skills are personal competencies that are valuable across most professions, including teaching. Although there is a large body of research on the topic, much needs to be done to increase both the quantity and the quality of research on soft skills specifically in education. Still, given the need to effectively prepare teachers today, the best available evidence is sufficient to guide those developing a curriculain soft skills for teacher pre-service and in-service training. These skills should be taught to every teacher and should become a part of every teacher’s repertoire.
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