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Teachers' 'moral virtues' should be valued in the classroom, study argues

Teachers believe kindness and honesty are among their main character traits, but do not rank them among the most important qualities needed for the job, research reveals.

The finding comes from a study by the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre, which calls for a greater emphasis to be placed on teachers’ “moral virtues” and claims this has been overshadowed by a “relentless” focus on academic achievement.

In the study, which questioned 546 teachers, respondents were given a list of 24 qualities and asked to pick the six that best described a good teacher.

The most popular choice was fairness, picked by 78 per cent. Creativity came second with 68 per cent, followed by a love of learning (61 per cent), humour (53 per cent), perseverance (45 per cent) and leadership (40 per cent).

Teachers were then asked to pick six qualities they believed they possessed. Fairness, creativity, a love of learning and humour remained in the top four slots, but perseverance and leadership were replaced by honesty, chosen by 50 per cent of respondents, and kindness, chosen by 49 per cent.

Professor James Arthur, head of the School of Education at the University of Birmingham, told TES: “From our research it was clear that teachers would like to be valued for being kind and generous, but the system effectively forces them into thinking about other qualities.

“If you live in a situation in which you’re judged by league tables, the things you value in a good teacher may not be the same as the moral virtues you believe you have.

“Rather than providing the type of education they would like to provide, teachers are doing what they believe the system is asking of them.”   

The report argues “moral virtues” are at the heart of the profession, because teachers are “engaged in a process of constant judgement and arbitration that requires ethical judgement throughout the day”.

However, it finds that many teachers are not given time in the workplace to “reflect on the best way to practise moral virtues”.

It warns of a “relentless focus on academic achievement, qualification and measurement” and says this won't prepare children for the challenges they will face beyond school.

“Nor does it necessarily allow space for teachers to exercise their creativity and love of learning, or to build the kind of relationships with students that create an environment conducive to building character,” the report adds.

Professor Jonathan Allen, director of initial teacher education at the UCL Institute of Education, said: “The divergence [between teachers’ own qualities and those they believe to be important] will be explained at least in part by teachers' personal constructs of self: it is a brave soul who claims to be an excellent leader; to claim to be kind or honest is not nearly as self-aggrandising.  

The report’s emphasis on character and virtue was “important and valuable”, he added, and he had “some sympathy” with the suggestion that teachers felt these aspects of their work were “squeezed”. 

The findings come amid a government drive to encourage “character education”. In December, education secretary Nicky Morgan announced a £3.5 million grant scheme for character education projects and said she wanted Britain to be a “global leader” in teaching “character and resilience”.  

Related stories:

In praise of society’s last moral guardians – 5 September 2014

Be guided by your moral compass – 29 June 2012

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