There are many ways of going about teaching. Still, one aspect that we need to talk openly about is the importance of kindness.
A teacher can be effective, efficient, inclusive, and strategic. Still, unless they are professionally kind along with these things, the learners suffer. To illustrate, a fictional (but familiar) story:
Sarah struggles with maths, always has. Until this year, Year 9, she has been in a special support class for maths. For the first time ever, she has been placed into a mainstream class. She was very proud of herself at her ‘graduation’ from one stream to the next. Her parents made a fuss of her for her achievement. In her new class, she tried hard, but the pace of the mainstream class was faster than in her previous experience. Her confusion snowballed, things moved too quickly for her, and she was too embarrassed to speak up. When she first asked the teacher what she should do, a quick retort of ‘I've just explained this’ closed her down. The test for the first unit came and went, and the marks were being distributed. ‘Sarah, you received the worst mark of the class; I will need to discuss this with your parents,’ was announced loud enough for everyone to hear. Sarah was mortified.
When I think about Sarah's teacher, my mother's words echo in my head: ‘Before you speak, ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?’
In this story, clearly, Sarah's teacher was patently and generally cruel, but I suggest they were professionally unkind. It was true: Sarah had failed the test, but one that was based on an undifferentiated unkind pedagogy and assessment approach. It definitely wasn't necessary to publicly reveal her achievement, and doing so was an act of general unkindness.
How, then, has this teacher been professionally unkind? They were unkind in their display of a lack of compassion when designing or executing pedagogy, their professional ignorance in either disregarding or not informing themself of the background of their student and empathetically adjusting their approach to assessment, and by their indiscretion with feedback.
In sum, this was more than a demonstration of failure to include. This was professional unkindness that interrupted a student's capacity to learn, perform well in assessment, and be a resilient and motivated learner.
My view is that kindness as a general trait for all people is essential, but it is applied expertise for the teacher. Teaching is not at all like almost every other profession in this respect.
Professional kindness is required when designing for learning, enacting pedagogical choices, selecting curriculum and shaping assessment approaches. It is the conscious application of compassion and empathy to smooth the challenges to engage with each student's learning.
A teacher builds learner self-concept, resilience, and engenders humane values for each of their students, touching on the heart of our society well beyond their classroom, and they do this mindfully and through their applied and professional kindness.
I'm not the first to connect the importance of kindness with teaching. Steve Broidy (2019) has written of the Kindness Oriented Teaching Ethic (KOTE), linking kindness in the classroom to the democratic goals of education. He explains that this occurs by establishing a democratic environment supported by appropriate policies, positive relationships and interactions between teachers and their students.
This is essential work, but misses the observation suggested here that professional kindness is not just about demonstrating a positive way to engage with others. That is, kindness, professional kindness, is directly relevant to all that the teacher does in their role.
Some other researchers assert that teaching excellence requires professional valuing of kindness. Stephen Rowland (2009), for example, talks of kindness as being a requirement for teaching excellence. That is, excellent teachers are kind people that bring that value to their teaching. Once again, this perspective has a relaxed consideration of a teacher's requirement to develop skills to be professionally kind. Rowland, sees kindness as relevant only for the excellent, whereas I argue that it is a fundamental requirement for any effective professional.
Armed with my research question: In what ways does kindness manifest in the professional practices of teaching? I received ethical clearance from Southern Cross University Human Ethics Committee to ask two people for their perspective on this – a high school student and a pre-service teacher. The high school student said:
A kind teacher shows students that they want to be more interactive. They say encouraging things and try to help. It matters that teachers are kind because I wouldn't want to be at school if I didn't feel encouraged to do the work.
Kindness in this instance was considered to be observable behaviour linked to the set work, but also that it is dependent upon personal encouragements and positive interaction led by the teacher.
The pre-service teacher said:
Teachers show their kindness in the way they go about teaching, the language they use, and the way they interact with students both within and outside the classroom. It encompasses everything, including demonstrating the behaviour they expect…There is overlap between being an inclusive practitioner. Still, there are parts of being inclusive that are not the same as being kind. Demonstrating the practices and habits that you'd expect out of your students is not necessarily related to being inclusive. Still, it does relate to kindness, and some areas are related to both, such as the language and activities that are used in the classroom to interact with students.
Two key points here are that kindness is present in the professional choices made by the teacher at every turn, and that is aligned with, but different from, being an inclusive practitioner. Both of the interviewees, without prompting, made strong arguments that kindness is an absolute necessity for teachers. Their descriptions of how a teacher needs to be kind demonstrate my point that kindness is applied and professional expertise.
This professional kindness requires deep professional knowledge of each student as a learner combined with a careful and compassionate assessment of their developmental and conceptual needs.
Being professionally kind depends upon excellent relationship and interpersonal skills that reflect the diagnostic understandings of the teacher for the self-belief, motivation and academic capabilities of their student. The kind teacher engenders trust, is discreet, gently encouraging, and differentiates for every aspect of their art in a way that exudes compassion and valuing of the individual.
This should not just be the preserve of the ‘excellent’ teacher. This is simply effective teaching. But, surprisingly, we don't require it. There is no reference to kindness, compassion or applied empathy in any of the Australian professional standards.
We ask many things of teachers in those 37 Australian Professional Standards for Teaching (AITSL, 2020). Still, we miss a couple and I assert that kindness as a requirement is one of them. The Australian Professional Standards for Teaching describes the requirement for teachers to demonstrate their ability to create safe, supportive and inclusive environments. Yet, professional kindness is more than these things. In fact, it is different from them.
We live in extraordinary times, with violence, intolerance, systematic oppression, and prejudice. There is no better time to call for our profession to embrace humane values and to express them through kindness in our professional work. It is essential and ought to be a requirement – a professional standard.
AITSL. (2021). Professional Standards for Teaching. Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. https://www.aitsl.edu.au/teach/standards
Broidy, S. (2019). A case for kindness: A new look at the teaching ethic. Stylus Publishing.
Rowland, S. (2009). Kindness. London Review of Education, 7(3), 207-210.
Review the article and make a list of the aspects of professional kindness highlighted by Professor Nan Bahr. Thinking about recent interactions with your own students: Which of these aspects of professional kindness do you consider to be your strengths? Are there any areas where you need to improve?