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Of Quality And Qualities by Mark Wilson

Teacher qualities matter at least as much as teacher competences, and we shouldn’t forget it.

True foundations?

The way in which teachers are assessed is supposed to enhance the quality of what they do. As part of a recent wide-ranging study entitled Applications of Quality Management in Language Education (Language teaching 46/03 July 2013 – available online), Frank Heyworth offers an overview of international frameworks currently in use for quality assessment in teaching. All of these describe teacher competences as a combination of values and attitudes, knowledge, understanding and skills. There’s a problem, though – most of them are heavily loaded towards knowledge and skills, rather than what is, I suggest, actually fundamental to everything else: teacher qualities. These are sometimes implied under “values and attitudes”; but not enough to stop me feeling a need to write this article.

The long-term effect of a teacher on their students’ learning is an intricate mix not only of what they know and can do, but also of what they are like as people – their human qualities. It is how they harness these qualities in combination with their knowledge, expertise and experience that furnishes them with what might be called their “working wisdom”. It is this working wisdom taken as a whole that makes a teacher good at teaching; and it is in the personal qualities that its true foundations lie.

The unassessable domain

Unsurprisingly, assessment requires things to be assessable. All that is not assessable can not be evaluated. This does not mean that those things which are not evaluated should not be valued. There is quite a lot of stuff in this unassessable domain which is not only worth valuing, but is actually central to what language teachers do. “Valuing” is different from “evaluating”. The latter stops at judgement; the former implies appreciating, cherishing, and a desire to nurture. It is valuing which is ultimately more important, if quality is truly the aim. We do ourselves a disservice if we allow our assessment mechanisms sufficient mission creep as to eclipse this.

This does of course beg a multitude of questions. What exactly are the desirable qualities? To what extent are they measurable, observable, describable, or teachable? If they are not, should we act as if they don’t exist? Or are not important? Can they be relied upon to “just happen”?  Can they be cultivated? How could such a thing as appropriate or desirable standards ever be identified? Imagine observers having to write reports in which they were required to rate teachers on how sensitive, fair, caring, humorous, diligent, reasonable, decent, “present”, reliable, inspiring, tolerant, trustworthy, patient, benign, flexible, warm, or full of integrity they were. Oh dear. Forget it.  Let’s shrug our shoulders and ignore the issue.

Are we really willing to be this “ignore-ant”?

The paradox, and why it exists

The paradox is this. Most people in the teaching world would agree that teacher qualities like the ones mentioned above contribute in a crucial way to a teacher’s long-term effectiveness; yet these qualities are not explicit in quality-oriented assessment frameworks, and the consensus is rarely if ever articulated.

There are good reasons for this: any assessment of qualities would be subjective, and could only ever happen over a considerable period of time. So on the one hand it is impossible to use them prescriptively, and on the other they do not lend themselves to “snapshot” assessment (for example, observation of a small number of lessons or bits of lessons). There is also a third reason: a general assumption that these things should go without saying, or ought not to count for teachers any more than they do for surgeons or lumberjacks. Sure, it’s great if your plumber is a nice guy, but so what? But consider the nature of the job. For a language teacher, the nature of the human relationship with the object of their attention is fundamental to the outcome. In this respect teaching has more in common with the arts; and yet we allow checklist culture to treat it as if it were an applied science.

Addressing the paradox

There is a paradoxical answer to this paradox: use a list. Not a checklist whereby a ticked box counts “for” or an unticked one “against”, but merely a point of reference, a backdrop, a counterbalance to reductionism. Not an evaluating tool per se, it would simply establish what is valued in the place of its use. Users of such a list would essentially be saying: “On the one hand, don’t ask me to evaluate whether a person has these qualities, nor to what extent. I can’t avoid having an opinion, but I have no right to regard it as a reliable or definitive judgement. But on the other hand, don’t ask me not to be aware that these qualities are important, and that all the best teachers possess them.“

The only place I have found anything approaching such a list in the frameworks mentioned by Heyworth is in the Competency Framework for Teachers produced by the regional government of Western Australia – easily Googled, and well worth a look. This lists “professional attributes” on page 10 of the document.

The core

Neither competence-based appraisal nor impressionistic appraisal by a single reporter tell the truth about a teacher’s value and their contribution to quality. Working together, they stand a better chance of doing so, If we want quality in IH schools, then by all means let’s respect qualifications and practice which are testimony to knowledge, skills and professional commitment; but let’s also maintain awareness of the primacy of the human qualities which underpin them. Which way round do we want things to be? I’d like to think that IH schools would support a “qualities-valuing” culture which nurtures the growth of competence, rather than a competence-fixated culture in which qualities are seen merely as fortunate adjuncts. I hope I am not alone in thinking it’s an important distinction to make. It’s not merely that the less tangible things have value – it’s that they are at the core of quality.

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