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Pre-service educator's perceptions of exemplary teachers.

Sweeping educational reform has focused on re-structuring without examining the basic qualities that educators bring to the classroom. The present study sought to identify specific teacher qualities associated with exemplary teachers as determined by pre-service educators seeking teacher certification. Also examined were: (1) gender differences in students' perceptions of exemplary teacher qualities as well as: (2) exemplary teachers' influences on students' decisions to enter the teaching profession.

Education students selected five qualities (from a list of twenty) that best described their exemplary teachers and then ranked them. Analyses of students' surveys revealed that students perceive that their exemplary teachers demonstrate defining personality attributes that outweigh the importance of professional skills. "Enthusiasm" was ranked as the most important quality for males and females. A gender difference emerged in that 41% of the males selected the personality characteristic of "enthusiasm" as a top five descriptor and an equal percentage of males selected "subject knowledge", a professional skill characteristic. No females chose professional skills as their top quality descriptors. Exemplary teachers were reported to positively influence student achievement and pre-service educators' decisions to enter the teaching profession. Implications are discussed in terms of optimizing the teacher education reform movement by addressing specific teacher characteristics.


At the University of Idaho as in many other universities nationwide, we are continually in the throes of restructuring. Debating the merits and demerits of restructuring issues with my education students, e.g., increased field experiences, team teaching, micro-teaching, community service components, etc., I was struck by their comments. They suggested that we could restructure all that we wanted, but additional factors beyond re-structuring are more critical to their educational growth. According to them, the characteristics of their university professors and the qualities of their cooperating teachers at their field locations, have the greatest impact in teaching pre-service educators how to become effective in-service educators. It was at this point that I decided to examine those characteristics that inspire and foster student learning; characteristics that go beyond the global classroom environment; characteristics that originate with the classroom teachers themselves.

A discussion with a colleague on the relative position of teaching as an art, (a quality possessed from birth), or teaching as a science, (a skill to be acquired through study) yielded his position that, "effective teaching is 25% preparation and 75% theatre" and that all pre-service educators should be required to enroll in theatre classes as part of their required curriculum. Recall stories of inspirational educators who have gone the extra mile to maintain student engagement by implementing theatrical skits, gimmicks, music, and costumes. Not to suggest that teachers should don period costumes or employ Shakespearian theatrics in their classes but, it would be beneficial to consider those qualifies that make teachers stand out as effective educators in the eyes of their students.

Perceptions of teachers

How does one describe exemplary teachers? Who are the prototypical teachers? Ayers (1994) posed the question,
   If we were alien visitors from another planet and had nothing but
   Hollywood movies to tell us about teachers, what would they
   portray? Schools and teachers are in the business of saving
   children--saving them from drugs and violence, their own families,
   and from themselves and in fact, most teachers are simply not up to
   the challenge. (p. 147)

Consider Hollywood's portrayal of teachers. Think back to Gabe Kaplan in "Welcome Back Kotter" (Kaplan, 1975), to Sidney Poitier in "To Sir with Love" (Clavell, 1967), Jon Voight in "Conrack" (Twain, 1974), Edward James Olmos in "Stand and Deliver" (Menendez, 1988), Morgan Freeman in "Lean on Me"(Twain, 1989), Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds" (Bruckheimer, 1995), and most recently, Matthew Perry in "The Ron Clark Story" (Granada, America, & MAGNA Global Entertainment, 2006). With the exceptions of real- life, heroic teachers Jamie Escalante (on whose life Stand and Deliver is based) and Ron Clark, these depictions of teachers are anomalous with the majority of teachers. In reality, these teachers are clearly the exception to the rule. As for most teachers, daily classroom challenges pose insurmountable barriers to acts of super-heroism.

Furthermore, teachers' salvation of students, through either extracurricular involvement or ingenious, innovative classroom methodologies, are at odds with the pressures beating down on educators to comply with federal and state imposed mandates. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) has placed the highest premium on teaching to the test for the purposes of assessing knowledge of subject content at the lowest levels of Bloom's (1956) taxonomy. NCBLA requires that teachers of core subject areas must be "highly qualified", hold at minimum a bachelors degree (usually from a teacher education program), state licensure and certification, and competency as determined by state mandated exams such as the Praxis. Surprisingly, current research reveals that teacher certification shows little relationship to later teacher effectiveness as measured by indices of student achievement (Gordon, Kane, & Staiger, 2006). Certification is not the guarantee of teacher effectiveness that the NCLBA would like it to be. So what is needed above and beyond these criteria?

Most teachers must have sufficiently mastered their subject content and pedagogy to pass state mandated tests for certification. However, this does not ensure that teachers possess the necessary qualities to effectively convey the mandated subject matter to their students. Teachers who have mastered their subject matter but who lack the ability to purposefully engage students, are commonplace. As students, we may have experienced similar scenarios. How does this level of disconnect with students occur and what is missing from the formula for effective teaching?

Research on Qualities that Contribute to Effective Teaching
   Banner & Cannon (1997) suggest that We may know our subjects and
   perfect our techniques for teaching them, without recognizing that,
   for our mastery to make a difference to our students, we must also
   summon from within, certain qualities of personality that have
   little to do with subject matter or theories of instruction. We
   don't learn these qualities, we call them forth-and by
   understanding them, use them for the benefit of others. (p. 3)

Early research into teaching effectiveness, sought to identify those qualities that distinguished effective teachers from the less effective ones, generally accomplished by asking pupils to describe effective teachers they had known (Medley, 1979). By 1930, Barr's scales had come into widespread use for evaluating characteristics of effective teachers. The most frequently mentioned characteristics included cooperation, personal magnetism, personal appearance, breadth and intensity of interest, considerateness, and leadership. It is important to realize that these lists were attributed to teachers who were perceived as effective. Perceptions of teacher effectiveness have been examined from elementary levels to graduate school by a variety of methods such as questionnaires, interviews, and observations.

Qualities of Good Teachers

Research on effective teaching has typically addressed two categories: professional skills (pedagogy, subject matter knowledge, policy, cultural knowledge, multiple approaches and teaching style, etc.) and personal teacher characteristics (caring, enthusiastic, fun, humorous, friendly, supportive, respectful, etc.). Andrew, Cobb, & Giampietro (2005) posit that Wilson, Hoden, and Ferrini-Mundy's (2001) review of research focuses on professional skills to the exclusion of personal teacher characteristics, a current trend in research of this nature. Irrespective of this report, there dwells a large body of literature that suggests that while subject matter knowledge is important, teachers' characteristics matter more when student achievement is at stake (Ayers, 1995; Bettencourt, Gillett, Gall, & Hull, 1983 ; Noddings, 2003; Thompson, Greer, & Greer, 2004). These findings transcend and ethnicity and culture (Delpit, 2006). Native American, Ojibwa, college students emphasized that effective teachers possessed the characteristics of being fun, caring, friendly, patient, respectful of students, and staying for the long haul rather than quickly leaving the school and community (Peacock, 2006). African-American children from a successful school in Atlanta indicated that if they don't feel connected to their teachers on an emotional level then they wouldn't learn or put forth effort (Willis, 1995). Intrator (2006) reported that when students were asked, "what can I do as your teacher to help you succeed?" they responded,

"I want a teacher who knows me well enough to know when I don't understand something because I might be too embarrassed to ask for help." "I want you to know me." "I want you to not just stick to the subject but to take time to joke and tell stories. That helps me to learn that you're a person and not just a teacher." (p. 235)

Nikola-Lisa & Burnaford (1994) investigated 32, K-6th-grade classrooms from the Chicago area, urban and suburban. They interviewed children regarding their thoughts about their teachers. Their responses lead to 10 distinct categories, some of which included teacher as: novice, tyrant, pushover, incompetent, witch, victim, friend, problem solver, and lastly, the good teacher. A good teacher was described as someone who "catches your interest, helps people that need help, smart, and teaches in a fun way". "Catches your interest" and "teaches in a fun way" are re-occurring themes in student responses throughout elementary, middle school, high school and beyond.

College Students' Perceptions

In one of the first studies involving college students, Bousfield (1940) reported that the college professors' attitudes toward students were perceived by students as being more important than their knowledge of the subject matter. Costin, Greenough and Menges (1971) posited that college students' ratings of teaching effectiveness were positively correlated with the teacher's agreeableness, emotional stability, and enthusiasm. Kramer, & Pier (1997) presented findings from their interviews of college students (students generated the items used in the survey) and found that effective teachers were energetic and enthusiastic. They made clear connections between class activities, reading materials and tests, were casual and approachable, had frequent interactions with their students before, during, and after class and were available at other times. Students stated that they learned more than just content from effective teachers, they learned an appreciation of the subject. Effective teachers related the materials to students' fives better and clearly communicated their interest in their students. In Murray's (1983) study, trained observers visited classrooms taught by university lecturers who had been rated as low, medium, or high on their student evaluations. Significant behavioral differences were found for these three groups of teachers. Factor analyses yielded nine factors, three of which differed significantly across groups (Clarity, Enthusiasm, and Rapport). Group differences were largest for "attention -getting" behaviors such as speaking expressively, moving about while lecturing, using humor, and showing interest for the subject. Patalano, (1978) recruited graduate students to voluntarily complete a questionnaire on the qualities of effective and ineffective teachers. Results showed a significant proportion of the participants' responses emphasized personality characteristics over professional skills with respect to both the effective and ineffective teachers.

Reliability of Student Perceptions

Although many of the previously discussed findings are based upon student perceptions, Murray's (1980) summary suggests that students are reliable judges of teacher effectiveness. Consistently, a preponderance of research findings shows that students' ratings of a given instructor are stable over time, affected minimally by class size and severity of grading, and consistent with ratings by alumni, colleagues, and trained classroom observers. Most importantly, student ratings of teaching effectiveness were significantly correlated with measures of achievement such as students' exams and performance (Murray, 1980).

Characteristics Related to Student Achievement

What are those teacher characteristics that appear to be related to student achievement? For many years, researchers have established a positive correlation between teacher enthusiasm and student achievement (Barr, 1948; McCoard, 1944; Rosenshine, 1970; Ryans, 1960; and Solomon, Bezdek, and Rosenberg, 1963). Berliner (1979) stated, "Elementary teachers who find ways to put students into contact with the academic curriculum while maintaining a convivial classroom atmosphere are successful in promoting achievement (p. 122). Additionally, Rosenshine and Furst (1971) reported that the two dimensions of teacher behavior that correlate highest with student achievement are "clarity" and "enthusiasm".

In Ware and William's (1980) study, students rated videotaped lectures and illustrated the Dr. Fox effect. In this effect, material presented in a "dynamic" fashion involving humor, expressive speech, and movement and gesture, was recalled significantly better than the same material presented in a "static" fashion. It seems reasonable to infer that expressive teaching behaviors serve to convey the instructors' enthusiasm and interest in the subject matter and therefore elicits and maintains student attention, a crucial factor in later retention.

Whereas enthusiasm is obviously an important trait for teachers, additional characteristics emerge as important factors for effective teaching. Delpit (2006) interviewed resilient adults who attained levels of success incongruous with their inopportune beginnings (low income, single parent families, need for special education, foster placements). All adults attributed their successes to teachers who were supportive, encouraging, and convinced them that they could succeed. Rosenshine and Furst (1973) summarized findings from 50 studies in which student achievement was the criterion measure. They identified variables that yielded the most significant and/or consistent results. Nine naturally occurring behaviors appeared to be related to student growth. They were as follows: 1. Teacher clarity, 2. Teacher flexibility, 3. Enthusiasm, 4. Task oriented, 5. Criticism. (negatively correlated) 6. Use of student ideas/respect for student opinion 7. Student opportunity to learn criterion material 8. Use of structuring comments and 9. Cognitive discourse.

Statement of the Problem

In the interest of substantiating past research findings and examining the possible influence of exemplary teachers on career choices of pre-service educators, this current study was conducted.

Questions of Interest

1. When describing exemplary teachers, will pre-service educators more frequently address personality characteristics over professional skills?

2. Are exemplary teachers perceived to be effective with respect to fostering learning and achievement?

3. Do exemplary teachers influence pre-service educators' decisions to enter the teaching field?

4. Will there be gender differences in perceived qualities of exemplary teachers?



The sample consisted of 137 (n=86 female and n=51 male) voluntary participants from The University of Idaho. All subjects were pre-service educators enrolled in an undergraduate Educational Psychology course.


Students were asked to recall exemplary educators from their past or present. They were asked to submit five characteristics or qualities that best described the exemplary educators. Their responses were compiled and the twenty most frequent characteristics were utilized in the construction of a survey shown in Table 1. Four items also included in the survey were: (1) Can you remember exemplary teachers from your educational experiences (elementary, middle school, secondary, or college) that you thought of as personal favorites from among all of your teachers? (2) If you answered yes to the previous question, would you state that these teachers were effective with respect to fostering your own learning and achievement? (3) Did your favorite, exemplary teacher(s) influence your decision to enter the teaching profession? And, (4) please specify your gender.


Following construction of the survey, students were instructed to review the 20 characteristics shown in Table 1 and to select the top five characteristics or qualities that best describe those possessed by their most favorite, exemplary teacher(s), and then to rank those five characteristics in order of importance, with number one as the most important.

To establish test-re-test reliability, students were administered the survey approximately 2 weeks after the first administration and surveys from 30 subjects were randomly selected for reliability analyses.


Test/Retest reliability analyses revealed, r. = .70. Results showed that 100% of males and 100% of females responded, "yes" to question one, signifying that they remembered past favorite exemplary teachers. Likewise, 100% of males and females responded "yes" to question two signifying that these teachers fostered their learning and achievement. Question three, however, asking if their favorite, exemplary teachers influenced their decisions to enter the teaching profession yielded affirmative responses for 65% of the females and 55% of the males. Table 2 shows the top five qualities ascribed to exemplary teachers by gender and the percentages of females and males who selected those characteristics. The females' selections of top qualities all fell within the category of teachers' personality characteristics. The males' selections of top qualities also fell within the teacher personality characteristics category with the exception of "knowledge of subject matter" (a professional skill). The quality that earned the top ranking (most frequently ranked as number one) was the teacher personality characteristic of "enthusiasm" ranked number one by 16% of the females and 12% of the males.


Results from the present study reveal that students remember exemplary teachers and that these teachers fostered students' learning, supportive of past findings (Delpit, 2006; Murray, 1980; Rosenshine & Furst, 1973). The majority of females and males also signified that exemplary teachers were influential in pre-service educators' decisions to enter the teaching field consistent with social cognitive theory where the more closely a students identify with an effective model the greater their self-efficacy will be, as well as influences on their goals, emotions, and beliefs (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). Also, congruent with past findings, the majority of qualities addressed by both males and females to describe exemplary teachers were personality characteristics with "enthusiasm" reigning supreme as the top personality characteristic. It stands to reason that teacher enthusiasm engages students and captures their attention resulting in higher student achievement. This holds true in current times as in the past. While gender differences were not anticipated, males reportedly described their exemplary teachers as possessing the professional skill of "subject knowledge" and found this quality as frequently compelling as "enthusiasm". Females described their exemplary teachers entirely with personality characteristics.

One explanation for this gender discrepancy lies with the possibility that for males, their favorite, exemplary teachers may also have been males. Male teachers more often teach at the secondary level. Secondary teachers are generally experts within one subject area or discipline and relate to their subject matter at a higher level on Bloom's (1956) Taxonomy. Levels of expertise or "subject knowledge" within a singular field, would be more likely to be critiqued by secondary students than elementary students, and more often attributed to secondary teachers. The 41% of males that selected "subject knowledge" as one of the top five characteristics were most likely describing a secondary teacher. "Subject knowledge" may also be perceived as a cultural interpretation for masculinity as males are more often perceived as the authoritative dispensers of knowledge (Witkin, Moore, Goodenough, & Cox, 1977).

Therefore, if the exemplary teacher were a secondary teacher, then relatively speaking, that would increase the probability that the favorite teacher were a male. The present survey did not ask students to identify the gender(s) or teaching grade(s) of their exemplary teacher(s) because students may have been considering multiple exemplary teachers, but recommendations for future research would be to include these questions.

Another explanation for females' selections of descriptors that were entirely "personality characteristics" is that if females" favorite, exemplary teachers were female; there is an increased likelihood that these were elementary teachers. The elementary school environment is known to be more nurturing and supportive. Teacher/student relationships are deeper and more informed due to the sheer magnitude of their temporal relationship. The emotional needs of elementary aged students are more likely to be addressed by elementary teachers. Consequently, the elementary teachers would tend to be described by the elementary students in terms of their most salient characteristics; their personality characteristics. Elementary students would also have less regard for the teachers' subject matter knowledge, not being informed sufficiently to gauge levels of expertise.

Gilligan (1982) posits that women are perceived as nurturing and this is a natural, female characteristic that is expected by our society. Males who choose to teach elementary levels are looked at suspiciously, and have had to contend with subtle "innuendos of pedophilia", (Hansen & Mulholland, 2005). Male, elementary teachers must negotiate a risky path when caring for children. For example, a female teacher could hold a child on her lap and comfort that child with no question of impropriety, but for male teachers, this action would go against the grain of society's sanctioned conceptions of masculine behaviors. Even when males enter into the realm of elementary teaching, they are less apt than females to demonstrate as many personal interactions with students as their female counterparts.

In conclusion, getting an education is hard work. Greene (2002) reported that 30% of students never graduate from high school. Many students resist schooling and education because it is tough and requires that they think and perform and study. The characteristics that emerged from this study contribute to best teaching practices. As Ayers stated in 2006, "It takes a brain and a heart" (p. 275). It logically follows that if the learning process is made "fun" then students will learn more effectively. Enthusiastic teachers are more entertaining and can capture one's attention. Attention is a key component of learning. Teachers who are respectful of students' opinions show students that they value the students and think that their ideas are worthwhile. This in turn increases the students' self-esteem and self-efficacy. It is only natural, that students would prefer to learn from enthusiastic, fun, humorous, respectful teachers who know their subject matter and give them outside help towards success while making them feel good about themselves. Csikszentmihalyi & Larson (1984) suggest, "the task of education is one of socializing through seduction. The success of the school depends on how effectively it can engage the students' minds toward its objectives. Can it generate interest, motivation, and focused attention?" (p. 202). Ayers (2006) puts forth a challenge to beginning teachers when he suggests that they need to do whatever it takes to meet the goal of assisting every student in reaching their fullest potential. By acknowledging that teacher's personal characteristics are recognized by students as invaluable for helping them to attain their goals, teacher education programs must identify and foster those characteristics within pre-service education majors. We must help them to reach deep within themselves and bring forth those qualities that will make them stand out in the minds of their students as exemplary educators.


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University of Idaho
Table 1

Twenty Top Qualities Attributed to Exemplary Teachers
by Education Majors

1. Caring, compassionate, empathetic --

2. Warm, kind, friendly, sociable, familiar --

3. Fair, treats students equally --

4. Enthusiastic, excited about subject --

5. Organized --

6. Flexible, cooperative --

7. Makes subject matter clear for students, provides
concrete examples --

8. Patient, tolerant --

9. Humorous, funny, makes learning fun --

10. Easy to talk to, approachable --

11. Disciplinarian, controls classroom environment, --

12. Knows subject matter, has a wealth of information --

13. Knows how to motivate students, inspirational --

14. Entertaining, can hold the attention of the class --

15. Provides help to students outside of class --

16. Uses varied methods of instruction --

17. Creative, innovative, inventive, has fresh ideas --

18. Has high expectations, provides challenges --

19. Communicates clearly, good speaker --

20. Respectful of students, values their opinions --

Table 2

Top Ranking Characteristics of Exemplary Teachers Selected
by Male and Female Pre-Service Educators and Percentages
of Males and Females Selecting Each Characteristic

Females (n=86)           Males (n=51)

Enthusiastic             Enthusiastic
56%                      41%

Respectful Of Students   Knows Subject Matter
37%                      41%

High Expectations        Respectful Of Students
36%                      39%

Humorous, Funny          Humorous, Funny
35%                      39%

Provides Outside Help    Entertaining, Holds Attention
34%                      35%

                         Easy To Talk To, Approachable
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Author:Mowrer-Reynolds, Elizabeth
Publication:College Student Journal
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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