Kindness

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 8 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, we are still not friends, 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 their understanding of me. When I said something in her class, she would get exactly what I meant. This is 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, 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 SuperTeacher, 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-more  clear, 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 the 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. I make it 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.

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11 thoughts on “Kindness

  1. I enjoyed this – you sound to me to have the makings of a first class teacher, and perhaps leader in due course? The things you say about kindness also apply to the relationship between school leaders at all levels Middle, Senior, head) and those with whom and through whom they work.

    Look forward to reading more of your writing in the future. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This reminds me of a some advice John Bayley gave, “Be a kindly adult.” To be mindful of this during every moment is absolutely necessary. The best lessons are only possible with kindness. Kindness will move the children to learn with you and they will realise your vision of perfect lessons.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Rufus

    This is a great post, and sends an important message. You have highlighted that which is too often overlooked in writing and research on teaching – relationships.

    Why is this overlooked? Perhaps because it is un-measurable? Perhaps it is not easily trainable? Perhaps there is little we can say about how relationships are formed with much certainty?

    It is interesting that you consider kindness as implicit in good teaching, such as valuing students’ ideas and having ‘high expectations’ (although there is something about this phrase that has negative connotations for me…!?). I often think that this must be where some (Maths) teachers consider their duty of kindness (is it a duty?) ends.

    However, what I consider the most important message in your post is the desire to teach your students kindness explicitly, for example through getting to know them as people – or at the very least acknowledging that they exist as people.

    The description of the guidance from your teacher you have felt throughout your life is touching: “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.” How do we wish to be remembered by our students in the distant future (if at all)? What effect do we wish our actions to have on our students’ lives?

    Although there is nothing measurable here, it is clear that relationships between teachers and students are of crucial importance. And here I do not mean ‘of crucial importance in order to produce better results..’, but just quite simply of crucial importance in teaching viewed as the practice of human development.

    I really enjoyed this and am looking forward to your next post.

    Danny

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  4. Thank you for sharing. An honest and open account of your reflections . Your thoughts about approaches towards your students resonated with me and it’s true , children don’t want to be your friend , they want a mentor who will instill a life-long love of learning in all aspects within the classroom. Kindness as you describe is just that , giving them rigour , challenge and droplets of enthusiasm . I absolutely live my job and feel honoured that children want to learn all they can in my lessons. That’s the best form of kindness any teacher can give to their pupils.

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  5. I agree with Jill – this kind of altruistic mentorship of others is vital in staff relationships too. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few other teachers who have mentored me with kindness and now I try to pay it forward to others. It is probably the most powerful tool we have both for pupils and staff.

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  6. An inspiring piece, such meaningful reflections as we reach the end of another year. ‘Kindness’ is key to relationships and when these are effective you are more likely to have stronger engagement with learning. This is true both in schools (pupils and staff) and with interaction in an online environment.
    Thank you for sharing your candid thoughts. All the very best for your practice in 2016

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The ‘culture of the classroom’ is all too often a phrase which easily rolls off the pen; I notice, however, how you seek to define your teachers classroom culture in terms of:

    “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’.”

    I find myself increasingly drawn to the overpowering importance of classroom culture in terms of wanting to encourage any teacher I work with to consider it. We can have all manner of resources, tasks, marking policies, assessment guidelines, strategies… but determining how these are all glued together through the co-construction (with learners) of a classroom culture is, for me, a fundamentally important consideration. What elements are seen as important? I go for constructs such as: honesty, trust, wanting learners to expect the unexpected, surprise, utilising different furniture arrangements which sometimes will involve a ring of chairs without desks to sit behind. All in all I want there to be an eclectic mix of ways of being whilst balancing this with commonalities such expecting learners to develop and use mathematical thinking skills, working on problems sometimes independently; sometimes collaboratively.

    I was also interested in the beginning of a paragraph which begins:
    “Casting my gaze across my classroom, I think to myself…”
    My interest stems from the notion that to create time, in the busy-ness of life in a classroom to cast your gaze, suggests a form of metacognition of Mason’s “noticing” and of Heathcote’s “Now time”. As a young teacher I also carried out such ‘gazing’ and always thought of my elder sister (by 7 years) whom I wanted her to see how her kid brother was doing.

    Turning to the end of the aforementioned paragraph:
    “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…”
    It seems to me that once we create such a culture we can be confident our learners are working in a classroom culture that focuses more on learning than upon me and my teaching. This is because the kind of planning one does is a key part of teaching and when we have learners responding in the way you describe then this is not a fluke it is a clearly thought-out way of being.

    Thank you for writing this.
    Regards
    Mike

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Inspiringly authentic and warm, Rufus. A pleasure to read.

    I hadn’t seen the 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.”

    which I think deserves some thought as a protasis (the first part of a syllogism; the second part is one’s own experience and the third, the conclusions one draws from these). I am not convinced by the necessity here. I certainly agree that teaching mathematics is a caring profession, requiring a balance of care for the learner and care for mathematics. Caring for the learner does not require ‘arm around shoulder’ or ‘making things easier’, but it does require sensitivity to the world of the learner. The thing is, I am wary of trying to enter to far into the learner’s world: they may not want me there, and at my age, it may not be fully or even partially possible. Yet the mathematical world of the learner and the world of mathematical thinking that attracts and absorbs me are shareable I think … but not by words as the primary medium. Rather by shared experience perhaps followed by reflection or narration.

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    1. Thank you.
      It’s nice you commented, your books influenced my approach to maths teaching. I studied my pgce at kcl under Jeremy Burke, and I was sorry to miss you at one of their atm meetings recently. I have a young family that takes up my weekends.

      You have highlighted the point that I am working on for a more academic essay. The syllogism you talk about is basically the structure of the essay.

      I would like to share some thoughts with you about this. First, I am using Paul Dowling’s analysis to illuminate the quote. Dowling might see the culture of the child/ student (and we’re only talking about the educational culture) as on a continuum from symbolic to habitus. That is to say that at one extreme children see education purely as symbolic capital to exchange for say, a good job or university course, and at the other extreme as purely something to help them grow, education for education’s sake.

      The culture of the teacher is then on a continuum from teaching to instructing. I would say that if the teaching lines up with the habitus, then we have an aligned pedagogic relationship and if the instructing lines up with the symbolic, then the same. Problems occur with habitus – instructing. Teaching – symbolic causes problems only when the teaching really avoids teaching to the test.

      My view is that most of my education has been instructing to my strong habitus, and the teacher I write about here was strong on their teaching, so we had a happy alliance.

      My general view is that students with a symbolic strategy will generally find a way to deal with most teachers but those with a strong habitus strategy might find all kinds of difficulty with a teacher with an instructing strategy.

      These are lines of thought of mine that are still in their primitive stages, still, I would love to hear any thoughts.

      Best, Rufus

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