A South African perspective on what makes a great teacher

Professor with students working togeteher on computers
Kathy McKnight
Kathy McKnight
2 Dec

Tucked away amongst the nearly 900 pages of last week’s latest OECD ‘Education At A Glance’ report was a statistic that, though not an immediate headline grabber, should be of no less concern to anyone committed to education. It read that the global teaching profession is getting older: in 2013, 36% of secondary school teachers were at least 50 years old.

It’s a statistic that alas might not surprise you. The attractiveness of the teaching profession has been crumbling worldwide for a long time; too much interference, not enough pay, too much pressure, overworked and undervalued. Yet it’s a trend that is at odds with the growing international consensus – that no factor is more important to education standards than the quality of the teacher. As leading education researcher John Hattie writes in his recent research: the education interventions with the biggest impact almost always relate back to the teacher.”

Cue then a new appetite from many countries to look afresh at teaching: recruitment, training, standards, evaluation, development… it’s a broad appraisal. And as many have argued, any reassessment must begin with an agreed understanding of the knowledge, qualities and skills teachers need to possess to be considered effective. In other words – what makes a great teacher?

To contribute to this understanding, we’ve been surveying parents, high school students, teachers, principals, researchers, and policy-makers in 23 countries. The first results we’re sharing are from South Africa, where it seems that who you are and how you behave are valued more for teaching than what you know.

Asked to list the qualities and skills critical for a teacher to be effective, South Africans prioritized dispositions over subject matter knowledge and pedagogical skills. Patience, kindness, and compassion toward students came top, followed by dedication to teaching, reliability and punctuality.


Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 15.24.41

It’s a picture that remains consistent, no matter how you split the pie. Public vs private schools primary vs secondary grades, and males vs females all shared a strong belief in the importance of the right mindset.

Indeed this bias to temperament is surprisingly pronounced. Less than 5% of the total survey responses indicated subject matter or curriculum knowledge as important attributes of a teacher, and just 2.1% pointed to pedagogical skills. Interestingly, school principals were more likely than teachers to endorse the importance of subject matter knowledge, classroom management, knowledge of learners and learning, and lesson planning.

The importance placed on dispositions may reflect an underlying belief that, without them, a teacher’s subject matter knowledge and pedagogical skills will not be enough. There is a significant body of research indicating that teacher dispositions – especially a caring attitude, sensitivity to student differences, democratic values, and a commitment to the profession – are strongly related to student success. And conversely, that teachers who do not naturally possess a spirit of perseverance and resilience will be more likely to emotionally detach themselves from their student’s welfare, sometimes as a self-protection mechanism against stress.

Our survey results echo research from Pretorius (2013), who found that South African teachers felt that “…only those with a genuinely suitable character and personality should be teachers … The long-term impact of a negative teacher is equally powerful and deeply damaging to the lives of our children”.

There may also be something pragmatic at play here; that many teachers in South Africa struggle to move beyond the basic “survival skills” of classroom management. In their study of South African teachers from 2000, Harley and colleagues noted that: “… policy imagines the classroom as a place where the teacher is naturally respected and where there is spontaneous co-operation and discipline from learners…But research shows that for many teachers, the need to keep discipline is the most important factor…”

As I’ve written elsewhere, these survey results should not be used to create a checklist definition of effective teaching. As others have cautioned, teaching should not be reduced to a rigid list of behaviors and skills. The job is complex and the variables require as many variations of styles and approach. But if we can start to engineer some broad agreements as to the sort of person who would likely flourish as a teacher, then we can more easily identify them, know how to develop them, allow them to be more effective, and so give everyone more reason to value them.

To learn more about the full research findings email me at kathy.mcknight@pearson.com


Kathy works in our research team, looking specifically at the factors that make education systems work well. Connect with her on Twitter – @McKni8

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