04/04/2012 11:22 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2012

What Qualities Make a Successful Teacher?

Think about teachers that changed your life. What did they do differently than the rest?

When I was 8 years old, I had a crush on Ms. Cafarella. Whoever did the best on her exam was invited to her house to play soccer in her yard, eat dinner, and then gorge on rocky road ice cream. And in front of the classroom, you had 10 seconds to pick out two others to join in the festivities; she would randomly select another. In our fear mongering culture, where we worry about teachers hugging children, think about how many things in that sentence would never happen today. This is not a story about molestation. It's about a teacher who made it very clear that accomplishments, big and small, were to be celebrated. It was the first of many classes where I started to talk, a lot.

When I was 10 years old, the lobes of my brain exploded when I took English. A middle-aged man in a tweed jacket circled around the room as if he was about to wrestle the first one of us to stand. While doing this, he took a piece of paper out of his pocket and started reading. It was poem about punctuation marks. An ode to the semi-colon, a fit of rage toward exclamation marks. I didn't know what to think, all I knew was that my contract of how you are supposed to behave in a classroom expired. Here was a guy that was consistent in his inconsistency. He sang portions of his lectures. I was allowed to put advertisements in my stories. We were told to create comic books, where every word mattered. It was here I learned that questioning authority is not a bad thing -- it's the only way to create and innovate.

Perhaps we can't replicate these two teachers, who might be outliers. Not everyone can stand in for Robin Williams in the Dead Poets Society. Not everyone has a gregarious, playful, rebellious personality. Thankfully, science has been attempting to uncover what makes successful teachers. That is, teachers with classrooms of kids that pay attention, plead to ask questions, kick ass on exams, and easily make friends.

To unlock the mystery of successful teachers, scientists have been siting patiently in the back of classrooms observing, taking surreptitious notes, and just acting creepy. In my colleague Dr. Timothy Curby's case, his creepiness led to a damn interesting finding.

Yes, it's important that teachers are kind, supportive, and enthusiastic. Some teachers tend to be more positive than others, and a positive school climate is linked to better child outcomes. All of that positivity that permeates happiness books and seminars has some truth to it. But don't go overboard, as Curby found something that was even more important: emotional support consistency.

If we get rid of the jargon, the story makes perfect sense. The typical pre-kindergarten teacher is extremely positive and supportive of their kids. Yet, just like any other human being, sometimes they lose their cool. They might be pleasant and nurturing one moment, and later, as the nose-picking, whining, and drama wears them down, they might become angry and irritable. Some teachers oscillate madly between these extremes in a single day. We might call these teachers emotionally fragile. Other teachers are quite flexible, as they remain cool, calm, and collected in nearly every situation. Teachers who create a stable climate have kids that score better on tests, learn more, and a year later in kindergarten, other teachers describe them as more well-behaved, less anxious, and socially astute.

For the skeptics, such as myself, you might be unimpressed. So let me count the ways why this is important.

1. Being a positive person and creating a positive climate was less important than being a stable source of emotional support in the classroom. Creating happy teachers is not the answer.

2. Other things important to children's achievement and social success included gender, racial group, education level of mothers, living below the poverty line, and how well children did the last time they took an intelligence test. Even when you account for all of these issues, emotionally consistent classrooms are still linked to children's achievement and social success.

3. Teachers were not asked how consistently they tend to act in the classroom, they were observed. In fact, 694 classrooms were observed. Thus, this is not about a handful of teachers trying to look good by saying the right things.

The lesson is straightforward. Kids live in a world of novelty and uncertainty, and they are doing their best to figure out how to make sense of it. Why do you think kids will watch The Care Bears movie over and over again? It gives them a slight iota of mastery in a chaotic world. Teachers can help by providing some consistency. Same with parents.

Don't make the mistake of confusing consistency with tedium. There is always room for regular doses of intrigue and challenge. Just make sure that you are equally dependable as a safe haven for children to return to and fuel up as needed.

For more, see:
Curby, T. W., Brock, L., & Hamre, B. (in press). Teachers' emotional consistency predicts children's achievement gains and social skills. Early Education and Development.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University who regularly give keynotes and workshops to business executives, organizations, schools, parents, retirees and health professionals on well-being. He authored "Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life" and "Designing Positive Psychology." If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops related to this topic or others, contact me by going to