Does a teacher need to like all children in order to be an effective teacher?
The dictionary definition of the verb to “like” is essentially to display a favourable opinion or disposition towards a thing – in this case children. Yet in conversations with teachers throughout my career I’ve met with resistance to the notion of having to “like” in order to be able to teach. In fact one of the most memorable quotes was when a teacher exclaimed “I’m not paid to like kids – I’m paid to teach them!”.
Which leads me back to the original question – is it possible to teach without displaying a favourable disposition towards all children? If you break teaching down into its most simplistic form, i.e. the effective transmission of information from the teacher to pupil, then one can see how the disposition of the teacher is of no consequence. Yet for those of us who have been pupils we know that the disposition of the teacher towards us as learners has a major impact on our willingness to engage and learn. Even the “traditional” no-nonsense, subject-oriented, results focussed teacher can show through their actions that they care about every child in their class – and the learners respond accordingly.
The reality of human nature is that we tend to “like” people whom we find pleasant or value. In that sense our tendency to “like” is conditional upon the appearance or behaviour of the person. In the classroom this can take the form of a teacher changing their disposition towards a child in direct response to the child’s behaviour. But what if the child does not respond to the teacher with equitable response? What if the child’s behaviour is inappropriate? Surely the teacher is entitled to change their disposition towards the child to one where they can legitimately change their disposition towards the child both an implicit and explicit manner, e.g. “I don’t like that kid”
The logic that unpins this assertion supposes that it’s human nature not to like everyone and that we are entitled to make judgements about those whom we will treat with positive regard. So if in our classroom there is a child who does not conform to our expectations or standards of behaviour then we can legitimately express our disfavour either through our choice of language, tone of voice, or actions. The problem in such instances is that that most children can cope with being told off or punished as long as it’s fair. However, all too often the teacher will give an additional “punishment” through a noticeable shift in their disposition towards that child on a permanent basis, such a shift is picked up by the child – and just as importantly by their peers in the class.
The Scottish education system is founded upon the concept of “in loco parentis” – in place of parents – which is intended to guide the practice of the teaching profession. Almost all parents treat their own children with positive regard – in fact regardless of whatever their child might do they will continue to treat them with enduring warmth and not be deflected by the human frailties of their child. Such an approach can be referred to as unconditional positive regard. The true teacher adopts the perspective of the parent and is able to step beyond the reflexive response to dislike the child for their actions and separate the behaviour from the person. Such a stance does not mean that the teacher ignores or condones poor behaviour – in fact quite the opposite – but it does mean that even in the midst of dealing with an incident they make it clear through their own behaviour that they still value the child as a person.
I believe that a person’s capacity to treat children with unconditional positive regard lies at the very heart of what it is to be a professional teacher. Although, at first glance, the term smacks of psychobabble it is actually possible to tease out it’s meaning in a way that translates very well in to the Scottish classroom.
If I am to be allowed one dream it would be that every teacher, leader and professional person connected with Scottish education set out firstly to treat every child with unconditional positive regard, and secondly, to treat their colleagues in a similar manner. What a place we would have created!