Kindness in the classroom

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Whenever I take a class for the first time, I give them a talk. One of the points I make goes something like this:

Asking questions is important. It allows me to figure out what you know and what you don’t know, and it reveals misconceptions that I need to address. So asking questions makes my teaching better. However, to make use of this, I need to target these questions. So I usually won’t ask you to raise your hands because I’ll select who answers. And it also means that everyone must feel comfortable and relaxed when they answer. So I will never make fun of an answer and I will not tolerate any one mocking someone else’s answer.

There is certainly a place for humour in my classroom, but never at the expense of a student. The reasons are partly pragmatic: If students fear the reception their answers may receive, they will shut down and I won’t get the information I need to do my job properly. But it is also a moral position. Mocking the responses of students is unkind. There is enough unkindness in the world without it taking residence in my classroom.

Children are not naturally kind to each other all of the time. They can be quite cruel. They can make fun of each others’ appearance or mock each other over quite trivial things like not having the right brand of school bag. They have to learn socially acceptable adult behaviours and these seem to come with age and experience. One of the experiences that may lead to a more mature approach is the modelling provided by productive classroom interactions. I suspect there is often more unkindness when students work on group assignments than when the teacher is leading the class, and this is one of the reasons why I don’t buy into the notion of Utopian student-centred classrooms.

I am able to create a kind classroom environment because I ‘will not tolerate’ the alternative. And that requires me to have authority. It means that students need to be concerned about the potential consequences of challenging me on this principle. This is not arbitrary authoritarianism. It is the assertion of a benevolent authority in the pursuit of a clear, morally defensible objective.

It is therefore a slur to suggest that teachers who lead their classrooms and use whole-class, explicit teaching are in some way harsh and uncaring. Just like those unkind words in class, I am not going to tolerate it any more and I invite you to do the same.

This post was inspired by reading this article and then responding to this tweet.


8 thoughts on “Kindness in the classroom

  1. I think part of the problem we have is that we have grown up in a youth obsessed culture for a few decades. As a result, many adults are struggling to be mature and are stuck in their teenage years. This is a problem in education because the desire to be liked is there, sometimes without being acknowledged, and is acted upon – voila we have lessons on fidget spinners.

    Like you, I would be explicit in telling pupils what I am doing and why I do it. Not just for questions but in relation to how I care for them differently to their parents (this maybe more of a primary thing) for example. I find this approach works for the majority the majority of the time as they do understand what I am doing.

    I think it addresses the needs of vulnerable children too as it means they know why I am behaving the way I am and means they know where they stand, something that isn’t always happening at home. This means they are more likely to cope with the classroom environment and do well. The erratic nature of behaviour management in some schools, where rules are constantly negotiated makes it worse for such pupils not better.

  2. Your point about group-work is well-made. It also applies to children sitting around tables in primary school rather than facing the front (after the age of 6-7 especially), because that too facilitates unkindness and bullying due to close proximity and the teacher being unable to see everyone’s face. I eventually had to withdraw my SEND child from a school because of this.

  3. Great article and then to think I got some stick at a teacher’s convention about having non-negotiable kindness rules. I was told that this was unrealistic and stifling to the freedom of the pupils. I dare say it’s the other way around.

  4. Greg,
    This seems like one place where technology would be an asset. If students could enter their answers on a device you would get a record and for simple answers quick feedback on how they were doing. Classroom response systems (CRS) would seem to offer the way for students to answer without risk.
    However, I am not suggesting anyone be an early adopter. The ideal CRS system is probably not there yet and there are likely good and bad ways to use them so it is worth waiting for these to be figured out. For example simply using clickers and never having anyone tell the class their answer would seem to lose something. But the two pluses: being able to choose any successful answer for presentation to the class and ensuring any student can show the teacher their answer without risk of embarrassment seem to make CRS worth keeping an eye on.

  5. While I disagree with your point on group work and student-centered approach, I like the approach of modeling kind behaviour. I think too often I see teachers going for the joke with the students which will be at someone’s expense or just letting unkind words pass by as “banter” in the classroom (I’m High School so maybe some see the tolerance as OK there).
    At the start of each year, I’m always a little taken aback at how much students have been beaten into the corner when it comes to volunteering answers – this leads to me having to work harder than I expected to ensure that they feel OK to answer a question at all and especially if they’re unsure of themselves. I think this directed questioning with a spoken-rule about kindness is one of the key ways that I also break down those barriers.
    Too often people on the progressive side of the spectrum (of which I usually stand on – depending on the issue) think they have a monopoly on this. I guess that’s the difference between seeing it as a spectrum and a binary position – the other side becomes polarised and the antithesis of good.

  6. Totally agree with your Twitter response about creating a classroom culture where it’s okay to answer questions. That classroom culture should also include how we treat each other when the teacher can’t see – that’s one of the first things I address in my classes, as I like to use circles and sometimes I stand in the middle of it.

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