Dispositions for Good Teaching

By Peter Connor

Gary R. Howard, (2007) founder and president of the REACH Center for Multicultural Education in Seattle, has spent the bulk of his career exploring the "qualities of personhood" that dispose teachers to excel at their craft when placed in highly diverse environments.

In Dispositions for Good Teaching, a Journal of Educational Controversy article, Howard describes four primary qualities which, embodied in a teacher's makeup and character, significantly enhance the likelihood of yielding quantifiably better learning outcomes. Those who adapt and consistently exhibit these qualities are the ones who consistently produce positive student experiences. He calls them teacher dispositions.

A Disposition for Difference

For teachers, a disposition for difference indicates a level of cultural competence—a capability for recognizing and acknowledging the different realities created by the multicultural diversity in a contemporary classroom. It also indicates the comfort level they have in their own personhood—racial, religious, gender, and sexual orientation identities—without which, navigating between the different realities would be more difficult.

Being well disposed to difference is a key element to being an effective teacher and a positive influence in the lives of students. Being black or white, male or female, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, religious or not, isn't the issue. Being disposed— in a meaningful, sincere and sensitive manner —toward addressing the issues created by such identity markers is, however. Those who are are simply better, more effective educators: Those who aren’t impede the process of preparing students to participate effectively in the world around them.

A Disposition for Dialogue

Having a disposition for dialogue indicates a curiosity and interest in other people, a willingness to explore the similarities and differences that both set individuals apart and tie them together. Howard identifies two equally important kinds of dialogue related to the profession of teaching.

The First—a professional dialogue between colleagues—opens the door to both professional and personal growth. Regular teacher-to-teacher dialogue provides a means by which to absorb and process the teaching attitudes, beliefs and practices between peers, and an opportunity to compare, learn, and grow from the exchange.

Within the peer environment lays the opportunity for a probative, intellectual honesty unlikely to be found outside the collegial forum. Teachers poorly disposed to this sort of dialogue are generally going to be less helpful in advancing the collective efforts of a faculty engaged in making institutional changes that improve overall student outcomes.

The Second—an in-class dialogue between teachers and students—is just as important to personal and professional growth. Authentic teacher-to-student dialogue opens the door to the ebb and flow of a two-way street, the opportunity to learn from those you teach. It also provides an opportunity to incorporate the life experiences of a diverse group of students into the teaching process in a manner benefiting all.

Infusing the contributions of multicultural students with dialogical respect creates a tangible sense of security, an intellectual safety zone in the learning environment wherein students are able to explore the subject material at hand without fear of their individual differences being an impediment.

A Disposition for Disillusionment

The ability to dis-illusion oneself—the ability to discover and shed illusions—is a natural attribute of the curious. Far from leading to despair, it is an empowering force. Those who have it are less fettered by the dogmatic shackles that group communities into social enclaves hostile to one another.

Having a disposition for disillusionment indicates a willingness to look over the fence of one's own cultural backyard; an ability to scrutinize communally held beliefs and points-of-view on what is good and worthy and right for whether they really are or not. The world around us is in constant flux and taking a wider, more flexible, less assumptive perspective is often the wiser, more productive approach.

Combined with the dispositions for difference and dialogue, teachers with a disposition for disillusionment are more culturally responsive in diverse environments than those who are not, which is not to say that they eschew their own particular identity, but that they value it nor more or less than they value the identity of others.

Disposition for Democracy

Howard concludes his article with a section describing a disposition for democracy. Teachers so disposed are teachers who recognize that the backbone of democracy is an even playing field and that a democratic society thrives only when its diverse populations are equally prepared to participate.

Students educated in diverse, multicultural environments thrive best when their teachers are disposed toward, difference, dialogue and disillusion. Students under such tutelage have the best chance at being successful and are best prepared for moving society on an evolutionary path toward a truer, more inclusive democracy—one increasingly more dependent on dialogue and community then hierarchy and confrontation.

This is a great article, with lots more food for thought than described here. For direct online access, click Dispositions for Good Teaching.


Howard, G.R. (2007, Summer). Dispositions for Good Teaching. Journal of Educational Controversy. Retrieved October 29, 2007, from http://www.wce.wwu.edu/Resources/CEP/eJournal/v002n002/a009.shtml