What do teachers need? Empathy and a moral imperative

Scotland’s teaching watchdog highlights teacher qualities and the importance of the professional standards

What all teachers need? Empathy and a moral imperative

Research has recently highlighted that kindness is the quality that children prize in their teachers and now the chief executive of Scotland’s teaching watchdog – the body that commissioned the study – has revealed the attributes that he thinks all teachers should possess.

According to Ken Muir, chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), "empathy" and "a moral imperative" are essential qualities for an effective teacher.

Speaking to Tes Scotland, Mr Muir said: “The quality I think is more important than any other is empathy – having a genuine understanding of the context that children are in when they come to school and having that moral imperative to provide support to the full range of youngsters.

“That combination of empathy and moral imperative are the two things I would be looking for in anyone thinking of coming into the teaching profession. If you have neither of those you won’t make an effective teacher.”


Long read: What do pupils want from a teacher?

Short read: ‘Sickening’ racism still found in schools across Scotland

Related: ‘The traditional profile of student teachers is changing’


Mr Muir’s comments come as the GTCS consults on its refreshed professional standards and code for the teaching profession.

The messages coming through from the profession during the process of updating the standards were that they continued to be relevant and valid, as did the key values of social justice, trust and respect, and integrity, said Mr Muir.

Updating teacher standards

However, the GTCS heard that the standards were felt to be too long; duplication needed to be reduced; the language needed to be simplified; and they needed to be more practical, with more examples of how the standards worked in practice, he said.

In its report published back in 2015, Improving Schools in Scotland, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) praised Scottish teachers' professional standards for being “bold” and “inspiring”, but added that “there is a question of how deeply the GTCS standards have moved from theory to practice”.

Calls for better exemplification on one hand, but keeping the standards succinct on the other, were a challenge to marry, said Mr Muir.

Ultimately, however, the body had gone for a set of overarching values that were contained in the professional code and an introductory document to keep the standards themselves lean, he said.

The GTCS also planned, Mr Muir added, to launch a series of “professional guidance documents” around the same time as the refreshed standards were expected to be published in June. These would cover topics that teachers had highlighted as ones they struggled with like keeping safe online; professional boundaries and relationships; equality and diversity; and the expression of personal views.

He added: “We know that not every teacher sleeps with the standards under their pillow. The OECD said the standards were bold and supportive but they recognised it is more difficult to implement a standards framework than it is to set it out in the first place.

“One of the things we are proud of in Scotland is that the standards are written by the profession for the profession but it raised the question of how deeply standards moved from theory to practice and became embedded in the professional culture of Scottish education.”

However, the advent of Professional Update; professional learning taking on “far greater significance”; and the push from the Scottish government to empower the profession had raised the profile of the standards – and made them more vital than ever, Mr Muir argued.

“The professional standards and code actually form the basis of teacher professionalism in Scotland,” he said. “Everybody should be interested – including those that use the system – because they ensure our teachers are of the highest quality.”

The GTCS consultation on the refreshed standards can be found here.

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