Foundational Teacher Skills Are Soft Skills

By Dr. Ron Young

Crucial skills of the most effective teachers today are very different from those of twenty years ago. Long gone are the days of one room school houses with a handful of students where reading, writing and arithmetic were enough. It takes more than expertise in one academic field to be an effective teacher. Knowledge is still important, but today’s teachers must also possess the right  soft skills to be successful.

The complexity and rapid evolution of knowledge that teachers are expected to convey and the “bundles of habitual action tendencies” that teachers are expected to communicate in order to be effective are growing exponentially. In today’s world, a different breed of teacher is required. Let’s explore some recent research and findings about the skills possessed by the most effective teachers. The results may be surprising.


Dr. Todd Whitaker is professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University and one of the nation’s top thought leaders in staff motivation, teacher leadership and principal effectiveness. He has authored more than 30 books including the national best seller, What Great Teachers Do Differently. He found that accurate self-reflection and awareness of how one is perceived by others are the most important skills of effective teachers. According to Whitaker (2013), it’s not about knowledge, degrees or experience, but “instead it is about what they do, especially people skills, consistently. Great teachers know their students and connect with them.” Knowing your students is more important than knowing your subject.

There has been a shift in the research findings since the mid 1990’s. Previously, research reported that the most important aspects of teachers were classroom reward structure (Ames & Ames, 1984), (Ames,1990), classroom organization (Rosenholtz & Wilson, 1980) and curriculum (Mayer, 1992). Mayer examined the appearance of three cognitive approaches to curriculum (learning as response acquisition, knowledge acquisition and knowledge construction). More recently, researchers are shifting their focus away from behavioral or cognitive approaches, and instead, are focusing on the quality of the teacher–child relationship. For example, the concept of “pedagogical caring” (Wentzel, 1997) has been the subject of more recent research. Carol Murray (2016) wrote that “nothing drives learning as powerfully as eye contact, touch and voice – the essential elements in the pedagogy of care.”


Researchers are now highlighting the importance of caring and closeness in student–teacher relationships (Birch & Ladd, 1996, 1997, 1998; Murphy, 2016; Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991; Goldstein, 1999; Niemiec & Ryan, 2009; Wentzel, 1997). According to Birch & Ladd (1997), teacher-child relationships characterized by closeness or dependency were related to students’ adjustment to school. When the teacher-child relationship was dependent the child’s academic performance, attitudes about school and engagement with school were negatively impacted. Teacher-child closeness, a healthy relationship rather than a dependent one, increased the likelihood of the child liking school, wanting to attend school and self-directedness.  

One theory of motivation, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is concerned with supporting  natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways. Niemiec & Ryan (2009) presented evidence from SDT that when the teacher-child relationship utilized intrinsic motivation and autonomous extrinsic motivation, the student experienced optimal learning and increased engagement. Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier & Ryan (1991) also reported on the positive impact of applying SDT to the field of education. They found that when teachers promoted “an interest in learning, a valuing of education, and a confidence in their own capacities and attributes” the result was high-quality learning, conceptual understanding and enhanced personal growth and adjustment. Furrer and Skinner (2003) found that “Relationships to teachers are considered especially potent because of the many roles teachers play, for example, as a potential attachment figure, as a pedagogue, as a disciplinarian, and as the final arbiter of a student’s level of performance.”

The best teachers are those who are both very human and very professional, both student-centered and subject-centered. Dr. Dale Linton, Associate Professor of Education in the School of Education, wrote: “Effective teachers seamlessly blend together positive personality traits, content knowledge, and pedagogical skillfulness coupled with an in-depth understanding of their students and their learning needs.” Studies of student opinions of positive teacher qualities have found that students “want teachers who are qualified, experienced, and knowledgeable about their content areas; who possess a set of desired relational skills; and who know how to teach and to create and manage a safe and effective learning environment.” He found that the number one teacher quality repeatedly referenced and desired involved teachers who were highly relational and invested meaningfully with students on multiple levels – academically, socially and spiritually.


The Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship in collaboration with Georgetown University (The Center) identified seven top qualities of effective teachers. While there are numerous different ways to teach effectively, the most effective teachers have certain characteristics in common. They recognize that they are a role model for their students, and they know how to integrate the learning style needs of their students with the material to be taught. The top qualities they identified are:

  • Positive – They are confident enough to view students as teammates, not adversaries. They realize the importance of keeping students motivated and recognize that different students are motivated by different things. Teaching is a serious and important profession, but they know how to have fun in the classroom, and know how to balance focus on lesson plans with being creative and innovative.
  • Prepared – They understand that in the same way students are expected to do homework and prepare for class, teachers are responsible to do the same. If they are unclear about a concept, they review it prior to class. They do not procrastinate until the morning of the class to prepare.
  • Organized – The most effective teachers prioritize the content they will communicate in order to cover the most important concepts in class. They facilitate the integration of their work, including reading, labs, exams, papers, lectures, etc. Helping students synthesize information and experiences from each of those contexts helps them to learn how to think about the subject rather than simply memorize the facts.
  • Clear – The most effective teachers become experts in their subjects so that while they probably know more about the subject than most, they can simplify it and present it in a way that is easily digestible for their students.
  • Active – The most effective teachers recognize that lecturing is not the best way for students to learn material. They allow time in class for activities other than traditional lectures by employing tactics such as using small groups to problem solve and engaging with the material.
  • Patient – The most effective teachers realize that teaching is a process, not an event. It’s much more than presenting content and moving on to the next thing. Both teaching and learning are hard work. What makes the light of learning come on in one student is unlikely to work with every student. Being frustrated when it feels like the light will never come on for a particular student only short circuits the teacher’s ability to teach and the student’s ability to learn.
  • Fair – The most effective teachers know the importance of setting clear expectations, applying them consistently and being willing to admit when they are wrong. Once the standards are set, they know it is essential to apply them equally and consistently, and they do not play favorites.

In an article appearing on, Janelle Cox called attention to 21st century skills that teachers should possess which includes: Adaptability, Confidence, Communication, Team Player, Continuous Learner, Leadership, Organization, Innovative, Commitment, Ability to Manage Online Reputation, Ability to Engage, Understanding of Technology, Know When to Unplug, Ability to Empower and Imaginative. Also on, Jacqui Murray reported that effective teachers have certain classroom management characteristics such as they care, they listen, they are knowledgeable, they are flexible, they teach students in ways that communicate to them and they are committed to a student’s success. They do not blame the student for not learning, rather, they look to how they could adjust their teaching style to match the students’ learning style.

The columns in the following table list the skills that each of the three authors believe effective teachers exhibit, and the rows reflect the skills with similar content. This mapping is based on the entire content of the authors’ explanations of skills. Note that each of the skills identified by the authors are soft skills.

Foundational Skills of Effective Teachers
Janelle Cox Jacqui Murray The Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship
Adaptability They Teach Students in Ways That Communicate to Them; Positive; Organized; Active; Patient
Confidence They Are Flexible; They Are Committed to a Student’s Success Positive; Patient
Communication They Teach Students in Ways That Communicate to Them; They Listen; They Are Knowledgeable Prepared; Positive; Clear; Active; Patient; Fair
Team Player They Care; They Are Flexible; They Are Committed to a Student’s Success Clear; Active; Fair
Continuous Learner They Care; They Are Knowledgeable Active
Imaginative They Are Flexible; They Are Committed to a Student’s Success Prepared; Positive; Active; Patient
Leadership They Are Committed to a Student’s Success Organized; Clear; Active
Organization They Care Prepared
Innovative They Listen Active
Commitment They Teach Students in Ways That Communicate to Them Prepared; Organized; Active; Patient; Fair
Ability to Manage Online Reputation They Are Knowledgeable Organized
Ability to Engage They Care; They Listen Positive; Clear; Active; Patient
Understanding Technology They Are Knowledgeable
Know When to Unplug They Care; They Listen; They Are Flexible Positive; Organized; Patient
Ability to Empower They Care; They Listen; They Are Flexible Positive; Clear; Active; Patient; Fair

Note that none of the foundational skills of the most effective teachers are hard skills like subject matter expertise, scope (the depth and breadth of content to be taught at certain grade levels), sequence (the order the content should be taught for maximum learning) or pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching academic subjects or theoretical concepts). While these hard skills are certainly important, they are not the skills that characterize the most effective teachers. The critical skills listed in the above table are the soft skills that set the most effective teachers apart from the rest.


There has been a shift in the foundational skills associated with effective teachers. In the past, the skills that distinguished effective from ineffective teachers were classroom reward structure, classroom organization and curriculum. Today, the focus has moved to the quality of the teacher-student relationship. Put simply, today’s students care more about how they are treated than how they are taught. Effective teachers communicate important aspects of caring and are invested in their students’ success. There is no disputing that the foundational skills required of today’s effective teachers are soft skills.  

While it is clear that effective teachers require soft skills, PAIRIN’s recent white paper identified how the intensities of various soft skills can contribute to the context in which teachers thrive by noting skill differences in public school teachers compared to charter school teachers. To explore this topic further, you can download the white paper here.


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