Henry Hepburn

Like it or lump it, likeability is an important quality in a teacher

A headteacher has been lambasted for arguing that being liked is a vital quality in an educator, but he’s right to emphasise this byproduct of doing the job effectively, writes Henry Hepburn

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Should a teacher be likeable? Rod Grant thinks so. The head at Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh believes that not only is likeability important but “the most important aspect of being a teacher is to be liked”.

When he shared this view in an article on the Tes website earlier this week (bit.ly/GrantTes), it met with predictable scorn from some quarters. And, as always on social media, some reactions suggested that not everyone had got round to reading Grant’s nuanced explanation of his position.

“So you can be liked and be rubbish at teaching anything … But hey that’s OK cos your kids like you,” read one scathing response on Facebook.

Some bought into a false dichotomy of teacher personalities, with steely disciplinarians in one camp and needy snowflakes in the other – the latter being the pedagogical equivalent of Gordon Brown desperately trying to woo the youth vote by professing his love for the Arctic Monkeys.

That’s to miss Grant’s point. Being liked, he believes, is the byproduct of effective teaching – with effective teaching, in turn, hinging on the quality of relationships with students. It’s not about desperately trying to ingratiate yourself with young people (has that ever worked?) but rather earning their respect over time. As one online commenter suggested, this really is a long game: students may not realise how much they liked you until many years after they have left school.

At school and university, I liked many teachers and lecturers – although in some cases I certainly didn’t fully appreciate that until years later. They were a diverse range of characters, although some things bound them all: mutual respect between student and teacher, and an expectation of high standards.

Integrity and authenticity

There was Mrs Petrie, a young drama teacher at Oldmachar Academy in Aberdeen, who won us over with her zest for her subject, but who also taught me an important life lesson when I nonchalantly turned up one day having not learned my lines for a school show. The dressing-down I received (an uncharacteristic display of anger) resonated all the more because of how much I liked Mrs Petrie.

There was also Mr Gibb, our taciturn guidance teacher, who ran the chess club and was the personification of that game’s quiet intensity. However, when he learned that the chess team in our school – which had only opened a few years previously – had unexpectedly won 4-0 against a private school with a long chess heritage, Mr Gibb startled us by punching the air and hissing “Yesssss!”, before normal service resumed. Beneath that impassive exterior, Mr Gibb really cared.

And there was the University of Glasgow lecturer who was widely disliked by students for the red pen he seemed to scrawl liberally over every essay he ever received, and for his forthrightness about the deficiencies of those essays. But he rewarded original thought, having no interest in seeing his own opinions regurgitated for him. Getting a good mark from him gave me the confidence to pursue my own ideas, after previously trying to second-guess what lecturers wanted in an essay. His lugubrious demeanour and unfiltered criticism may not have made him instantly likeable, but he has been a lasting influence, and my respect for him has only grown over time.

So, should teachers be likeable? Absolutely. Likeability is not the character defect it is sometimes dismissed as. To be likeable is to have integrity, to be authentic, to be caring. As Grant puts it, the result is that students will work harder, be “more readily inspired” and have a better idea of their own aspirations.

And what’s not to like about that?

Henry Hepburn is news editor at Tes Scotland. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn