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Teacher Credibility: If You Build It, They Will Learn (Here’s How)

By Dave Stuart Jr.

We’ve all heard the hoo-yah speeches before, the feel-good stuff like, “Be a teacher your students believe in! Be someone they know can take them where they need to go! Make them know that you will make a positive difference in their life! If they believe, they can achieve!!!”

Figure 1: Etymology of the word credible.

Figure 1: Etymology of the word credible. Literally, when you’ve got teacher credibility it means that your students believe in you.

Fantastically, however, this theme of the importance of having our kids believe in us isn’t totally trite nonsense. According to the largest meta-analysis in education research history — and, according to some claims, the largest review of literature ever conducted — teacher credibility is a powerful force. (For some context on the word “credible,” see Figure 1.) This extensive analysis, headed by John Hattie, is based on data from over 50,000 individual studies and 250 million students. You can find excellent treatments of this work in Visible Learning for Teachers (2011) and, most recently, in Visible Learning for Literacy (2016). (That latter book, co-authored with Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, is the one I would most recommend based on its relevance and user-friendliness.)

Teacher credibility, in Hattie’s list of practices that affect student achievement, is “on the top of the list” of practices that can be applied by any teacher in the world (as compared to practices like drama programs, which can’t have limited applications) [1]. And that’s why I’m telling you about it — every one of us can work on what follows. As Fisher, Frey, and Hattie explain, “The dynamic of teacher credibility is always at play.” [2]

So what does it take to have teacher credibility? Four things, according to Hattie: trust, competence, dynamism, and immediacy. Let’s break each down.

Trust

Do your students believe that you genuinely care about their personal and academic development? Do they trust you? Do they believe that you trust them? If you can answer yes to these questions, that’s good. If your students can answer yes to these questions, then that’s perfect.

How to build it:

  • Remind yourself that you got into teaching not to catch kids doing wrong, but to give kids opportunities. Tell your students this, reminding them that you got into this for them.
  • Tell your students the truth about their performance, even when it is a hard truth. The youngest kids I’ve personally taught are sixth graders, and I found youngsters that age are just as hungry for adults to tell them the truth as my ninth graders are.
  • Communicate care. This post about my grandfather may help: “I Love You and I’m Proud of You” — What Dean L. Stuart Taught Me About Teaching.
  • Search within yourself for feelings of animosity or apathy about your students. If those are there, your students aren’t so dumb that they won’t at least catch a whiff of them. In this case, roll up your sleeves and work at genuinely caring about your kids — even the ones who have hurt or offended you.

Competence

Are your students confident that you can help them succeed? Do they see that, most of the time, you deliver information accurately? Would they say that you appear prepared?

How to build it:

  • Especially in the early years of your career, give yourself time for robust lesson planning. I don’t care what your bulletin boards look like or other superficialities until you can clearly think through a lesson from start to finish.
  • Analyze how you speak to students using Erik Palmer’s PVLEGS, paying particular attention to Poise.
  • Shoot for the shortest path in lesson planning, which Doug Lemov explains in Teach Like a Champion 2.0. “The goal in teaching is to take the shortest path from A (lack of knowledge and understanding) to B (durable long-term knowledge and understanding), so the primary criterion for evaluating a lesson should be “How quickly does it get me there?” Sometimes, alternative criteria — how clever, how artfully designed, how inclusive of various philosophies, even how enjoyable to teach a given lesson might be — can distract us from choosing the methods and lesson designs that get students most quickly and effectively to the goal. So it’s important to strive to keep in check the part of us that wants to evaluate lessons on how self-actualizing they were to teach or how well they demonstrated some theory [or how smart they made us look.] (Lemov, p. 147).” When kids experience efficient, effective lessons, they know you’ve got your stuff together.
  • Have something ready for kids to do right when the bell rings. If kids are aimlessly waiting for you to take role every day, something’s amiss. (Also, wasting one minute per day all school year long means three wasted hours by the end of the school year. C’mon!)

Dynamism

Can students detect your (genuine) passion for a topic? If you are genuinely excited about the material you’ll be teaching, then your students will be, too.

How to build it:

  • Trying to fake your way to teacher cred isn’t what I would recommend. Instead, if you come upon a topic or unit you don’t enjoy, the trick is to work at finding a passion point somewhere within it. I’ll share two personal examples:
    • I don’t enjoy Fahrenheit 451, but since it’s a part of our English 9 curriculum, I’m not going to be a jerk and disregard the district curriculum. After all, some people really enjoy Fahrenheit, and it’s a book that will challenge my kids and give us some fodder for comparisons between the world of the novel and the world we live in. Wait… I just found two things that I can be passionate about when teaching Fahrenheit: the fact that it’s challenging (and I’m passionate about my students getting access to challenge) and that it’s relevant for analyzing contemporary society.
      • Bonus: I can build some trust with students by sharing with them at the start of the unit that, indeed, I don’t really like this novel but we’re going to work hard at it anyway!
    • When this blog started, it was primarily about the Common Core and written by a guy who is far from a standards lover. But the CCSS was a pressing issue, it was affecting a lot of teachers and kids, and I was passionate about finding a way to commandeer it into something positive. I just pictured all of the kids sitting bored or confused in classes where teachers didn’t understand how to own the Common Core and make these standards make sense to their students, and that’s where I found my passion for the topic; I started approaching it from the angle of “This is going to affect people badly unless enough of us do something,” and I started to care about the CCSS from that angle. I think my readers could tell.
  • In terms of how you speak, focus on getting rid of Likes, Ums, and Other Distracting Behaviors. Also, work on Life (another of Palmer’s PVLEGS elements).

Immediacy

Do your students feel like you are relatable? Like you are with them? Like there is an urgency to what you’re teaching?

How to build it:

  • Work on eye contact (another of Palmer’s PVLEGS bits). Your goal should be to connect eyes with every kid, during every instructional segment, every day. (Band teachers with your 9 million kids per class, don’t throw things at me.)
  • Tell personal stories relevant to what you’re teaching (but please don’t become the teacher who spends 20% of every class period telling long-winded stories; filibusters are bad for Congress and bad for kids).

Do you see how you ARE trustworthy and competent already? Do you see how you can help make your passion for what you’re teaching detectable, and how you can break down barriers between you and your students? If you just put some thought into these four things, then you are way ahead of the pack and all those worries about “not being expert enough” can dissolve away.

In fact, any lack of expertise you see in yourself may itself be an asset — you’ll have an easier time developing immediacy, or feeling the pain your students feel and genuinely wanting to assuage it.

Takeaways

I hope this post showed you two things:

  • First, that you are credible. Right now, write down a sentence explaining why that’s true, why one or more of the components above is a reason that your students can believe in you.
  • Second, that you can become more credible. Write down a sentence explaining one way in which you intend to work on your teacher credibility this school year.

Feel free to share those sentences, or other thoughts, in the comments.

Footnotes:

  1. Quotation from Fisher, Frey, and Hattie (2016), Visible Learning for Literacy, p. 10.
  2. ibid.

Thank you to Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie for Visible Learning for Literacy; before reading an early manuscript of that book, I hadn’t come across “teacher credibility” and its particulars.

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