Critical Teacher Competencies in the Modern Classroom

Critical Teacher Competencies in the Modern Classroom
To be an effective teacher, you need to be willing to adapt and then adapt again—for the duration of your career. The skills you once relied on may now be or may soon be obsolete. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry November 6, 2020

Increasingly, teachers are expected to have tech competencies in addition to pedagogic prowess. You'll need these essential skills to stay relevant even as technologies evolve.

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Some teaching competencies are evergreen. However, as technology has evolved, education has evolved along with it. Consequently, experienced teachers have had to update their skills and learn new competencies to cope with the big changes in classrooms.

Teachers today do more than teach the three Rs. They have to navigate social media, choose the best digital learning tools, field emails from parents, and—when circumstances demand—teach students remotely. Some teachers with master’s degrees or even doctorates find themselves out of their comfort zone if their degree programs didn’t touch on the growing intersection of 21st century tech and teaching.

Technology isn’t the only force changing how teachers teach, however. New educational theories are being posited and old educational theories are being disproved all the time. We’re only just beginning to understand how inclusivity (or a lack thereof) impacts student outcomes. And schools still have to meet a confusing array of federal and state-level standards, even though funding for education is constantly under threat.

A college degree, subject knowledge, and experience working with children are no longer enough. To be an effective teacher, you need to be willing to adapt and then adapt again—for the duration of your career. The skills you once relied on may now be or may soon be obsolete.

In this article about the competencies teachers need in modern classrooms, we cover:

  • Why is teaching in the digital age so challenging?
  • Do degree programs give teachers all the skills they need?
  • What are the most critical modern competencies teachers must have?
  • How can I develop these skills and traits in myself?

Why is teaching in the digital age so challenging?

Digital educational technology is nothing new. Schools began building computer labs in the 1980s, and now 89 percent of US students use digital devices and other learning tools in school one or more days per week. Most elementary school teachers are comfortable introducing young students to programs like ST Math, and 81 percent of teachers, 88 percent of principals, and 92 percent of administrators see digital learning tools in the classroom as very valuable. An even higher percentage support the increased use of digital learning tools.

However, one challenge good teachers face is that it’s hard to prepare for what’s around the bend because it’s not clear how emerging technologies will be applied in education. Right now, most schools are still using tech as a one-to-one replacement for textbooks, chalkboards, and other analog tools—even in high schools. Some technologies, like AI and machine learning, have the potential to personalize learning experiences on a massive scale, but only if teachers (and administrators) understand how that tech can be integrated into learning environments.

Then there’s the fact that we don’t yet know what works and what doesn’t. Bringing technology into schools seems like a no-brainer. Kids love screens, and parents love seeing the latest resources flowing into classrooms. We don’t know with certainty, however, whether tech is helping or hurting student performance. While some studies have found that technology can have a positive impact (especially in classrooms with less effective teachers), many more seem to agree that digital device usage and virtual learning have a detrimental effect on literacy and math skills. One study of millions of secondary school students by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that those who use more tech in school “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.”

Even teachers who make a point of staying abreast of technological developments in education face an uphill battle when deciding which technologies to integrate into their classrooms. A 2019 report released by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder found “questionable educational assumptions embedded in influential programs, self-interested advocacy by the technology industry, serious threats to student privacy, and a lack of research support” when researching the value of digital technologies in educational settings.



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Do degree programs give teachers all the skills they need?

Aspiring teachers who earn bachelor’s degree in education are taught about classroom management skills, educational psychology, learning styles, lesson planning, child development, instructional strategies, and student assessment and evaluation methods. Students in Master of Arts in Teaching, Master of Science in Teaching, and Master of Education programs take classes in advanced teaching methods and topics related to specific grade levels, subject areas, or student populations. However, the reality is that a single bachelor’s degree or master’s degree program can’t cover all the skills teachers need in-depth. That’s why most states make teachers fulfill continuing education requirements to maintain licensure.

The good news is that bachelor’s degree or master’s degree programs for teachers are beginning to address technology as a teaching tool and the challenges of integrating technology into K-12 classrooms. The bad news is that if you’re not enrolled in a program focused on digital issues (e.g., an MEd in E-Learning or a Master of Arts in Learning Design and Technology), these and related topics may be addressed only briefly. Many teachers graduate from their respective degree programs with a fundamental knowledge of digital tools and how to use digital technology in the classroom and pick up tech skills later in their careers as the need arises.

What are the most critical modern competencies teachers must have?

Audiovisual skills

You don’t need to be able to create and edit digital audio and video, but having audiovisual skills and being familiar with basic web editing tools can come in handy. Instead of relying on (and paying for) digital materials created by other teachers, you’ll be able to create video presentations, podcasts, infographics, quizzes, and websites.

Critical thinking skills

Decisions about which technologies are adopted in schools are often made by administrators who don’t see the impact of those technologies first-hand. It’s up to teachers to decide how to integrate that tech into their instructional plans. You’ll need to decide (sometimes on the fly) which gadgets, programs, and platforms add value to your lessons and which are disruptive or causing conflicts among students.

Digital communication skills

Communication is hugely important in teaching, and part of effective communication involves reaching students, parents, and colleagues where they are. Much of modern communication in teaching will involve digital platforms. The expectation is now that teachers are available around the clock. Teachers have to find the most effective (and least disruptive) modes of classroom communication and school-to-home communication, including email, a group chat, a blackboard system, or even texts.

Differentiation skills

The students in your classes may all live in the same city or town but come from many cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. When integrating technology into your classroom and your lesson plans, you need to be aware that your students’ lives outside of school and their learning styles will impact how readily they adapt to tech. You can’t just issue every student a tablet or laptop and call it a day. It’s up to you to learn to differentiate your instruction, so all students receive an equitable education.

Leadership skills

Great teachers lead by example. You can’t be timid when interacting with technology or resistant to new technologies if you expect students to try new tools enthusiastically. It’s up to you (and your school’s IT department) to take the lead when it comes to integrating digital tools into the classroom. When programs freeze or the class hits roadblocks when using tech, your reaction to those challenges will guide your students’ reactions.

Multitasking skills

An unfortunate side effect of technology in the classroom is that teachers are expected to provide tech support during lessons. This can be disruptive and frustrating, but it’s not that different from interruptions caused by broken pencil points, spilled glue, or shoelaces that don’t want to stay tied. Be ready to help younger kids unfreeze apps and get back to whatever screen they’re supposed to be on. You can even build a little time for tech support into lessons that incorporate digital tools.

Remote teaching skills

When COVID-19 hit the United States in early 2020 and school districts across the country sent students home, K-12 teachers with no prior e-learning training were called upon to teach remotely. Most quickly discovered that working with distance learners involves more than just teaching to a camera. Lesson plans and materials have to be adapted for an online audience, the pace of instruction is different, and it takes more work to keep students engaged.

Smart social media skills

Unless you want your students, their parents, and your district administrators to know everything about your personal life, you need to be very careful about what you share online and how you toggle your privacy settings on social media. Some teachers have private social media pages they create using pseudonyms or keep their media light and school-appropriate. Doing the latter means you set a good example if students go hunting for your social profiles—which they will. Remember, you’re a role model even when you’re not in school.

Subject matter skills

To point your students toward the best digital resources specific to the subject you teach, you need to have a firm enough grasp of your area of interest to find useful resources and identify which resources are repeating incorrect information. You’ll be able to not only guide students toward reputable sources but also teach them how to find, evaluate, and apply knowledge from those reputable sources for themselves.

Time management skills

Time flies when you’re having fun on screens, answering emails can take hours, and kids today may have shorter attention spans. It’s up to you to model good behavior in the classroom when it comes to electronics. Don’t let email time intrude upon teaching time, and don’t use screens as a crutch when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Kids are used to having screen time rules at home, so there’s no reason not to impose similar boundaries in the classroom—for your students and yourself.

Tool-finding skills

Your district may mandate what digital tools you can use in the classroom, or administrators may ask teachers to integrate tech into lesson plans without giving much, if any, guidance. It will be up to you to figure out what kinds of programs, devices, platforms, and resources will do the most to support the student learning process. Adaptability is key here. What’s cutting edge today will be out-of-date in a few years.

How can I develop these skills in myself?

Unfortunately, mastering these 21st-century professional skills for teachers isn’t as easy as enrolling in a master’s program. You’ll learn about the latest pedagogical techniques and educational theories in a Master of Arts in Teaching or Master of Education program. Still, the curriculum may not touch on the above skills. There are many good reasons to explore master’s degree programs for teachers; just be aware that very few dive deep into technology’s role in the modern classroom. This may be for the best, given how fast tech is evolving. By some estimates, teachers should be evaluating and updating their digital skills every three years.

The bottom line is that being a subject-matter expert with years of teaching experience under your belt doesn’t mean you’ll automatically excel at teaching remote students, using a smartboard, or finding age-appropriate video lessons for your classroom. Luckily, regularly updating the most important skills related to tech doesn’t have to be overwhelming. If you’re required to use technologies in your classes, you can learn a lot just by playing around with them.

You may meet professional development requirements by taking classes related to online learning or digital literacy. There are also lots of resources out there—including articles like this one and workshops—designed to get teachers up-to-speed when it comes to mastering tech tools for educators, teaching students to use digital tools, and helping them become savvy internet users. It may not be long before the tech-focused teacher training you’ve completed opens doors to teaching jobs in private and public schools that would otherwise remain closed.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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