'I'm not paid to like them'

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Does a teacher need to like all children in order to be effective?
Does a teacher need to like all children in order to be effective?

The dictionary definition of the verb to "like" is essentially to display a favourable opinion or disposition. 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. One of the most memorable quotes was when a teacher exclaimed: "I'm not paid to like kids - I'm paid to teach them."

If you break teaching down into its most simplistic form, that is, 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, we know that the disposition of teachers towards learners has a major impact on their willingness to engage and learn. Even the "traditional" no-nonsense, subject-oriented, results-focused teachers 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 his or her 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 his or her disposition towards the child, as in "I don't like that kid".

The logic that underpins this assertion supposes that it's human nature not to like everyone and that we are entitled to make judgments 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 through our choice of language, tone of voice, or actions.

The problem in such instances is 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.

Almost all parents treat their own children with positive regard. Regardless of what 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, but that they make it clear they still value the child as a person.

I believe 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 psycho-babble, it is actually possible to tease out its meaning in a way that translates very well 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.

Don Ledingham is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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