Great primary teachers wanted. Must have GSOH

2nd January 2015 at 00:00
Pupils value kindness, calmness and a sense of fun in classrooms

"Must have GSOH, be calm and caring, and share my interests." What sounds like an entry in a lonely hearts column is in fact the list of qualities children value most in a primary teacher, according to an award-winning research project.

Pupils want teachers to be measured and for conflict to be resolved through "harmonious relationships", the study shows. Young people also want to be able to talk to their teachers about problems, feelings and emotions.

Humour is very important, too, according to pupils taking part in the study. "She's having a laugh with us because she obviously notices that we've tried hard," one boy said of his teacher.

West Lothian probationer Steven McHarg provides these insights in his study of pupil-teacher relationships that jointly earned him the George D Gray award (bit.lyMcHarg). The prize is given annually to an undergraduate student teacher by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) for the best dissertation in Scotland.

Mr McHarg based his study on interviews with 17 pupils aged 9-11. From them, he learned that they believe good teachers take an interest in children's personal passions, often building teaching around them. They also care about students' well-being beyond the school gates.

One girl said of her teacher: "Yeah, if you were upset or something, she when my friend had a really sore head, she was making sure that there was going to be someone at home when she went back at the end of the day."

The best relationships with children exist where teachers are "calm, reconciliatory, trustworthy and encouraging", according to the study. "Seeing children as people with unique interests and motivations, and responding in a relaxed manner with an observable sense of humour, may allow teachers to foster better relationships with them, which in turn may guide pupils to a variety of more positive school outcomes," it says.

Conversely, teachers who shouted and criticised were seen by pupils as "highly stressed, unfair, uncaring and detached", the research says. Students were also less likely to clarify misunderstandings by asking questions, as shouting "hinders the natural flow of dialogue in the classroom".

"Significantly, the more teachers were perceived to shout at children, the poorer children rated their relationships," the study states.

Pupils feeling unfairly disciplined is a consistent sign of poor relationships. The study says: "It would seem that communicating teacher motives and intentions to pupils is a central aspect of being perceived as `fair', which in turn appears an essential building block of the most positive relationships."

Although research frequently suggested that effective learning relied on positive relationships between teachers and pupils, the views of students were not always prominent in reports, Mr McHarg said as he received his award.

"My hope was to find some significant areas we might reflect on, and hopefully improve relationships with pupils in the future," said the University of Edinburgh student, now a probationer teacher at Letham Primary School in Livingston. "I hope that other teachers find this research as useful as I have."

Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders' body AHDS, said the findings would resonate with most teachers. He added that getting pupils on board and improving their work required relationships that were "consistent, open, genuine, interested and caring".

"Shouting is a tool like any other," he said. "There are times when it is necessary, but if you use it for the wrong job the results are unlikely to be desirable."

Mr McHarg, 26, shared his award with Stacey McKillop, 22, a probationer teacher at North Lanarkshire's Holytown Primary School. The University of the West of Scotland student explored how primary teachers could meet the needs of looked-after children.

Both dissertations were "excellent examples" of the high-quality research that was becoming a more popular form of teacher professional development in Scotland, said GTCS chief executive Kenneth Muir.

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