Being ‘nice’ is not the sole purpose of teaching

Being ‘nice’ is not the sole purpose of teaching

Back when I first trained to be a teacher in the 80s, early career teachers were given one piece of advice, ‘Don’t smile until Easter’.

The reasoning behind it was that often, young teachers went out and tried to be too friendly, too early with their students. And while being the students’ buddy might have seemed like a good idea, the reality was very different.

Many students — keen to do minimum work and have maximum fun — instinctively knew that the too-familiar teacher was a pushover. Once an educator had lost classroom status, it was virtually impossible to regain it.

Thus, by being told to be firm at first, teachers were encouraged to engender respect from students as a priority. This would help set up a classroom environment that enabled all students to work and learn.

After this, we could take our foot off the strictness brake a little. And, then, accelerate more into a slightly friendlier approach while still maintaining appropriate boundaries.

In my experience, that advice proved to be spot on. Once you’d established a warm but still firm presence, then the students thrived — safe in knowing the rules but also aware that you genuinely cared about their learning journey.

These days our awareness of the importance of good relationships between teachers and students is much more front of mind. That’s good in some ways, but I think we’ve jumped the shark a little.

One only has to glance over social media to see the types of teachers who are truly valued. For example, teachers who send home regular notes of praise to students? They are seen as ‘better’. Also, teachers who act more like a friend to their pupils can be seen as superior to those who don’t.

Sure, it’s important to be caring and interested in students’ wellbeing. But there are other qualities in teachers that are equally important.

Some which I rate highly? Being firm enough to the wayward students, to manage their behaviour so that everyone has a chance to learn.

Being confident enough to give constructive criticism, so students are provided essential feedback to improve their skills and reach their potential. Being measured enough in praise and reassurance, so that the students don’t become too reliant on regular external reassurance, and fail to develop inner strength.

Even speaking in a voice that’s not overly emotional is an important trait. Sometimes I hear teachers of very young students talk in a sickly-sweet voice, particularly to young female students.

While I understand it’s with good intentions, I wince at the patronising tone and wonder how much it impacts a student’s sense of independence. It’s the voice that also is used sometimes for older people, and it’s just as insulting to their dignity.

Good teaching has to involve some correction of each student, regularly enough for them to get used to it. Why? If they don’t learn that they can cope with being corrected, then they are likely to live narrower lives, not taking risks for fear of being critiqued.

Judgement of teachers is rife now. Those who insist on students receiving a consequence, give constructive criticism, or fail to provide sufficiently regular flattery? These teachers risk being judged as ‘mean’.

This false dichotomy — nice or not nice — doesn’t do the profession, nor their students, any favours.

Your child is going to lack independence if they can only work with teachers or managers who put extreme effort into flattery and reassurance, but are short on expectations.

Sweet teachers may seem ideal, but those adopting the sweet spot between warmth and long-term skill development? They will be truly life changing for your child.

Takeaway for parents

Your child has a new teacher or coach? Rather than just asking if they are ‘nice’ try these things.

· Talk about the benefits of different personalities in their teachers.

· Tell them about a teacher or coach you had, who was tough, but taught you a lot.

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