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Kindness in teachers

By Kate Hilpern

Kindness is the single most important quality that students want in their teacher, according to a survey by TES. Only nine per cent thought being knowledgeable was important.

‘Kindness’, ‘compassion’, ‘understanding’, ‘caring’ and ‘not being shouty’ are words and phrases that we hear time and again from students at the schools we visit when we ask them about the virtues their favourite teachers. ‘Anyone can swot up on a subject and know everything about it – a good teacher has to have so much more,’ one student recently summed up.

Yet when we talk to parents, kindness and its associated traits come up in their musings about the good and the great teachers at their offspring’s school far less frequently – certainly at secondary school level. Being knowledgeable, on the other hand, is often seen as the be-all-and-end-all. ‘The teachers at my daughter’s school are fabulous. They’re subject specialists and well-informed  what more can you ask for?’ said one.

Time for a rethink on parents' part, perhaps?

In the TES survey of 586 children aged six to 15, which was carried out by YouGov, a kind nature was backed by 27 per cent of students as being the trait they most valued in their teacher. Good listening skills were seen as important by 15 per cent, while organising fun lessons, or being funny, was rated top by 13 per cent and 10 per cent of children respectively.

Other surveys have resulted in similar findings, including around humour – something that again chimes with our experiences. ‘He’s really funny,’ children will often say with a smile, telling us what makes their favourite teacher shine. Let’s face it, most adults don’t relish attending humourless meetings and lectures, so why would kids (who are known to smile and laugh a heck of a lot more times every day than adults) feel any differently?

Children want to be inspired by their teachers. They want topics to be brought to life. But most of all, they want to connect with their teachers. They want to feel comfortable around them. They want to feel like their teacher cares.

With mental health problems spiralling among the younger generation – and youngsters really feeling the pressure around their studies - this matters more than ever. If you feel your teacher is kind and nurturing, you will feel more able to go to that teacher to talk to them about problems.

No wonder the word kind features so often in school values. And yet we see too many schools where the teachers don’t even greet the students in the morning or smile when they look at them. At one school (not in the Good Schools Guide) that I recently visited, the teacher didn’t bother turning round from the whiteboard to say hello to the children when they entered the classroom in the morning and when he did, it was to shout at them to be quiet. As I walked out, another teacher was opening the outside door to let her class in – she grunted at them, offering more of a sneer than a grin.

Kindness has to come from the top. Only then can it filter through the whole school. And it’s not just the teachers that need to embody kindness for it to be genuinely engrained in the school’s culture. ‘My daughter wanted to give Easter presents to 17 different members of staff, from teachers to dinner ladies and cleaners and to me that sums up [the school]’, said one parent recently at a school we reviewed – the result of the level of compassion and humanity which her child felt at every single turn she made within the school.

Schools like this get it. Kindness is at the core of their ethos. And, as we know from the schools we see on a daily basis, that there are many of them. ‘Notice me,’ young people are crying out. ‘Ask about me’. ‘Show you care about my life.’ That’s what really matters to today’s youngsters about their teachers. Only then are they really ready to learn.

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