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Volume 23, Number 4
July/August 2007

In Search of That “Third Thing”

Education programs strive to define—and develop—the professional dispositions that make a good teacher


In a memorable scene from the 1970s film The Paper Chase, Dr. Kingsfield, the imperious Harvard Law School professor, halted a class discussion, reached into his pocket, and said to the film’s student protagonist, “Here is a dime. Go call your mother and tell her you will never become a lawyer.” Impressive, sure. But is this tendency to insult and intimidate students the kind of disposition that would qualify him to teach in a public school classroom?

Most people think of dispositions in the psychological sense, as innate personality attributes like cheerfulness or irritability. But in the world of teacher education, “dispositions” refers to the personal or interpersonal qualities that a candidate needs to develop in order to become an effective teacher. Mary Diez, a professor of education at Alverno College in Wisconsin, who has long been involved in the effort to set standards for teacher certification, describes dispositions as that “third thing” beyond skills and knowledge. She and others argue that the development of appropriate professional dispositions—such as open-mindedness or sensitivity to all children’s needs and strengths—is an essential qualification for would-be teachers.

In recent years, states have begun to include dispositions along with skills and knowledge in the standards they set for teacher licensure. Accrediting organizations now require that teacher-education programs assess candidates’ dispositions along with other professional qualifications. As a result, these programs are grappling with ways to define, assess, and develop candidates’ professional dispositions—efforts that have proved challenging and sometimes hotly controversial.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.