The importance of people skills for teacher success

Enthusiasm, leadership, communication, empathy, self-evaluation, creativity, and emotional intelligence. These are just some of the twenty professional and people skills teachers need to develop to succeed. All these skills contribute to teacher wellbeing and a great classroom dynamic.

When asked about their biggest success, six out of ten teachers, in a study conducted by the Australian Journal of Teacher Education, focused strongly on behavior management, while nine out of ten said it was also their biggest challenge. A teacher’s ability to effectively engage students and manage the classroom dynamic is often a teacher’s personal indicator of success and reliant on great people skills.

The ability to manage a diverse group of students, many suffering from personal problems that impact their in-class behavior, is hard to teach. Universities and colleges are now taking the time to better understand an applicant’s people skills and professionalism. This understanding helps guide future teachers in navigating the challenges of the classroom and promoting wellbeing for themselves and students.

From primary to high school, teachers find themselves coping with racial tension, language gaps, immigration issues, economic diversity, and even student homelessness. So how do people skills and professionalism fit into preparing teachers for the challenges of the classroom?

Classroom behavior management and wellbeing explained

Gone are the days when managing a class meant keeping the loud ones quiet, the bad ones in-line, and helping the good ones succeed. Today’s behavior management is about integrating everyone into the lesson and creating a sense of belonging for all students. Then, it’s about finding a way to engage the entire class so that everyone succeeds as a group. It’s no longer about punishing those who break the mold, but finding a way to incorporate individual differences into a broader success story.

This ups the challenge for teachers. As an example, most Australian primary classes have 23 students on average. Some of these students have recently immigrated to Australia and have a wide array of cultural differences that need to be considered. Some did not get to eat breakfast before leaving the house and are having difficulty staying awake. Some are already receiving pressure from their parents to achieve academic success and are coping with that stress.

Teachers are tasked with ensuring the mental wellbeing of these students while they are in class, and ensuring their own mental health outside of the school. Mental and physical wellbeing is all about giving teachers the proper tools to succeed in the classroom and eliminate anxiety outside of school.

Empathy and emotional intelligence

A necessity for supporting students, but a hard skill to develop, is the ability to empathize with multiple students and situations at the same time. A teacher’s ability to understand why a student is misbehaving is crucial to understanding how to manage that student’s behavior. A sleeping student may have been awake all night taking care of their sick mother. Maybe their hard work should be praised, as opposed to punishing their tiredness.

So how can teacher training programs help in this regard? Well, the first step in improving empathy involves taking a critical look at how empathic a future teacher already is. By providing a diverse range of situations, and then discussing how an applicant would understand or react in the given scenario, a trainer can help those future teachers critically assess their abilities and biases.

Empathy, or emotional intelligence development is key for newer teachers. Being able to empathize with students’ difficulties helps a teacher create a sense of belonging for all students.

Overcoming communication difficulties

While no one would disagree that communication is key to teacher success, very few understand the difficulties newer teachers experience in bridging communication gaps between themselves and students, and between themselves and other teachers.

Newer teachers often have trouble communicating the challenges they face inside the classroom with peers and the administration. However, there is a very positive push in preparing teachers to use communicative strategies to engage with their peers and work collectively. Many personal development workshops now focus on increasing support for newer teachers by integrating them with more senior staff members who act as mentors.

Also, teacher training programs are recognizing trainees with weak communication skills early on and helping them develop this personal skill. Teachers who are more open about their classroom struggles, and more willing to seek assistance and guidance, are much more likely to report feeling positive about their career choice.

Understanding and implementing positive communication

Focusing more on the teacher/student interaction and learning how to positively communicate with pupils have also taken a step forward in teacher training. Future teachers are now learning how to turn negative conversations into positive learning experiences.

Instead of punishing behavior that challenges the classroom setting, teachers are now encouraging students to embrace their uniqueness, cultural differences, and individual approach to studying. Many classrooms have adopted the “Flexible Classrooms” model, where students can decide how they will engage with the lesson. Modern classrooms now have “quiet stations” for students who need alone time to absorb information, “group work” spaces to help the more talkative and communicative students, and other areas that fit the unique dynamic of each classroom.

This positive communication changed the narrative from “misbehaving students” to “different learning styles.” And this change is not just related to classroom layouts or just for students. New teachers are encouraged to share challenges and view them as a positive learning example.

Picking up on non-verbal communication

While this skill is often linked to navigating language barriers, teachers who excel in non-verbal communication are much better equipped at handling classroom behavior in general.

Teachers who excel at positive, non-verbal communication saw increased academic success and engagement in their classrooms. Energetic, exciting, and enthusiastic body language play a huge role in a student’s enjoyment, and the ability to retain information.  

Teachers also see that producing positive non-verbal communication is not enough. They must understand non-verbal cues. Students often give non-verbal hints about challenges they are facing in the classroom. A student who keeps their head down and never speaks may be having difficulty with other students and feel intimidated. Or, someone who never wants to answer a question needs extra help and does not need to be called out in front of the class.

Understanding non-verbal signs helps future teachers better address the needs of their students. This leads to a better classroom dynamic and a more positive work experience for teachers.

Mental and physical wellbeing for teachers and students

Teachers who excel in people skills are more likely to seek assistance in their own life as well since they are good at self-evaluation. This helps them understand when they need to make changes to improve their wellbeing.

To complement this, one of the recent pushes in education is to help teachers develop their wellbeing long after training has finished. Education boards are being asked to focus more on developing programs that help staff feel valued and supported.

The Australian Schools’ “Staff wellbeing  Tool Kit” is one such program. This five-month program, delivered in-house to schools, helps teachers understand and manage their own health and wellbeing. The program actively helps teachers to develop their people skills, and then use those skills to better manage stress and other issues.

People skills development and support

Recently, The Australian Department of Education has been investing in teacher training courses that look at how people skills shape great teachers, and help teachers improve student confidence and engagement. These courses range from “Engaging Students in the Classroom” to “Self-reflection,” and focus on engagement and wellbeing for teachers and students.

On top of courses meant to support teachers’ people skills development after graduation, institutions are also working to identify applicants with strong people skills before they begin their Bachelor of Education. This ensures that preservice teachers have a strong foundation to build on in their efforts to become successful teachers.

This positive push to identify future teachers with strong people skills, and develop programs that continue to develop these skills, is leading to a sense of belonging for students and a more positive experience for teachers. Hopefully, this trend of support and growth will continue.

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