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‘I try to be a kind teacher – not an arm-around-the-shoulders friend – but one who understands my pupils’

This maths teacher prioritizes a classroom environment in which students are encouraged to say what they think and not what they think he wants to hear

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The person who has made the biggest impact on my life is a teacher. When I think of her, it is kindness that strikes me as her greatest quality. This is a kindness that I have encountered from no one else; needless to say, it has been a huge influence on my teaching.

Having taught for eight years, the idea of teaching with this form of kindness still resonates within me as strongly as when I first encountered it. So how did this kindness manifest itself? Primarily through lessons. I found the lessons engaging, thought-provoking, challenging, exciting, occasionally exhilarating; I found that I learned more than I ever had before and I was stimulated to learn a lot more. It is clear to me that the consideration given to how we were taught, the choice of activities that were given to us to do, what the teacher said, the expectations on us from her, perhaps I might call it "the culture of the classroom", was a supreme form of kindness. This was a teacher of some experience who had reflected on and honed her practice.

This was not kindness as in being "nice". There was no arm around the shoulder, there was no making the work easier. I think it was actually the opposite of that. We were expected to persist with challenging work, to be both independent and collaborative. There was no friendship, I didn’t need or want that; she was friendlier with other students. When I think of how she might think of me, I think she would want me to be happy, to be a good person, to be enjoying life, to be doing my best. I am still in contact with her, and we are still not friends, but she guides me, challenges me and in so many ways makes it clear that she has the highest of expectations of me.

The last element of this teacher’s kindness that I want to talk about is her understanding of me. When I said something in her class, she would get exactly what I meant. This was unusual to the point of unheard-of for me. It brings to mind a Basil Bernstein quote:

“If the culture of the teacher is to become part of the consciousness of the child, then the culture of the child must first be in the consciousness of the teacher.”

My culture was certainly in the consciousness of this teacher. Through my experience in general and my years as a teacher at comprehensive schools and one pupil referral unit, I understand the culture of children in general when it comes to education to mean the following: extremely high expectations of themselves, extremely high expectations of teachers, capable of learning, capable of kindness, capable of generosity and the ability to constantly surprise you in the classroom.

All of this has influenced how I teach. I see learning maths as a wonderful opportunity for young people. More than that though, I know from my experience that learning can be a transformative process. I want to reflect on my classroom now, in an inner-London comprehensive, and ask, what am I doing to teach my students with kindness?

I put thought into my lessons and then reflect on how well they went, improving them for next time. I am not Super-Teacher, I do this informally, sometimes with a lot of structure, a lot of the time just putting things together and refining them in my head. Perhaps that’s what teaching comes down to – "it’s the lessons, stupid."

Casting my gaze across my classroom, I think to myself, "If this was a class at the best school in the country, is this what it would look like?" Recently, I think I’ve been getting there. For me, this looks like students settling down to challenging work, persisting through their problems, with an atmosphere of alert engagement. It looks like students putting thought into the questions I’ve asked them, discussing it with their peers and articulating in an ever-clearer, mathematical way their ideas. It looks like students following clearly my explanations and challenging them if they don’t understand or accept part of it. It looks like students taking pride in their work and trying to communicate their ideas in a way that is clear to anyone who reads it. It looks like students coming up with their own ideas and explanations that the class as a whole can benefit from.

When the students speak in class, I put effort into taking on board what they are saying and trying to contextualise that in my understanding of them. There are general principles to my understanding of young people as I have mentioned, also there are strategies I use to get to know them. I use a "student get-to-know" sheet, I talk to the students about their work and their likes and dislikes in maths, about where they think their strengths lie and so on, and I record this on the sheet. I soon have notes on every student I teach and this helps to build the relationship. It is a priority to make my classroom an environment in which students are encouraged to say what they think and not what they think I want to hear.

I’m far from perfect as a teacher; I’m proud to say that I try to be a kind one.

Rufus Johnstone is a maths teacher in London. He tweets as @rufuswilliam and blogs at

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