Professional Kindness in the Classroom

Nan Bahr, April 20, 2021

Southern Cross University

Abstract

Kindness has been generally overlooked as a professional element in constellating a teacher’s attributes and skills. This paper takes an Iterative Thematic Inquiry approach to expose and discuss perspectives on the relevance of professional kindness for contemporary teaching. This critical inquiry, in four stages, provides evidence to support recommendations for attention to kindness as a professional standard across the teaching career. Specific attention is given to the role of initial teacher education and the supporting regulatory framework provided by the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers to develop professional kindness.

Key terms: professional kindness, intentional kindness, initial teacher education, professional standards

Introduction

“… the concept of kindness is singularly silent in accounts of teaching excellence, student satisfaction or professional values.… We must be able to speak
about such values as kindness in our professional lives.
” (Rowland, 2009)

I open this paper with a direct citation from Rowland (2009). Twelve years ago and counting, Rowland called for attention to kindness in teaching. Little has been explored on the topic since then. In this paper, I question what it takes to be professionally kind in the classroom and why it should matter.

Contemporary teachers have a lot to do in their role. We depend upon them to lead their students to be the best they can be. However, we do not give the students to teachers one at a time. Instead, we provide them to teachers in batches, a job lot if you will, sharing one thing in common, their age. Into that scenario, we impose several professional demands. One such direction is to ensure inclusiveness. We demand that teachers be inclusive in their practices, pedagogies, and engagement with each of their students. Inclusive teaching is a regulated requirement in Australia. Every teacher must be able to demonstrate inclusive practices to gain and retain teacher registration. It is kind to be inclusive. But kindness is not required, and inclusiveness is not the same thing. Yet, it would be the rare individual who didn’t expect a teacher to be kind, professionally kind. So what does this mean?

Professional kindness

Several different perspectives can be taken when considering the kindness of teachers. There has been scant literature on the topic, but the following types of views have been reported. First, that teachers demonstrate kindness by being courteous. Next, teachers must have an essential working kindness ethic; that is, they are kind people, not necessarily tied to their role as teachers. There is also the perspective that teachers can interact with students kindly or be kind by being fully attentive to their duty of care. Finally, and the topic of this paper is professional kindness.

Professional kindness is not the same as simply being a kindly, mild-mannered, or courteous person. It is not the same as making sure every student can be engaged in learning, as in the case of inclusivity. Professional kindness includes everything a teacher does to encourage, predict and plan for, accommodate, respect and respond to student emotional and learning needs. It encompasses the discretion, listening skills, and wiley cunning employed by a teacher to shape the learning potential and demonstrated understanding of every student in their class.              

Steve Broidy (2019) has written of the Kindness Oriented Teaching Ethic (KOTE), linking kindness in the classroom to the democratic goals of education. This occurs by establishing a democratic environment supported by appropriate policies, positive relationships and interactions between teachers and their students. This is essential work but misses the observation suggested here that professional kindness is not just about demonstrating a positive way to engage with others. That is, kindness, professional kindness, is directly relevant to all that the teacher does in their role.

Some researchers assert that teaching excellence requires professional valuing of kindness. Rowland (2009), for example, talks of kindness as being a requirement for teaching excellence. That is, excellent teachers are kind people that bring that value to their teaching. Once again, this perspective has a relaxed consideration of a teacher’s requirement to develop skills to be professionally kind.

The idea that kindness should feature more prominently in professional preparation for roles aimed at interpersonal service has been raised in nursing research. Holz (2009) discussed the concern that professional kindness could become misunderstood in home-care settings for nurses. In this work, the intent is to warn nurses about careful boundary setting when working with vulnerable people in their own homes. This is not really an issue of similar magnitude in classroom settings, but the fundamental acknowledgement of the place for professional kindness in nursing service is refreshing. In teaching, though, research into kindness in the classroom has focused on how kindness can and should be taught (e.g., Kaplan, deBlois, Dominguez & Walsh, 2016). This is tangential to the current discussion but helpfully highlights that kindness is not limited to a personal attribute. Suppose it can be taught and developed in children. In that case, there is no reason to exclude the idea that it can and should be taught and expected of teachers as a professional skill.

Intuitively we understand what constitutes unkindness in teaching. A teacher who races ahead with explanations ignores students’ queries, makes derogatory comments, is impatient and mean, is unkind. A teacher who sets work that is too hard or stigmatises or hurts any class members feelings is being unkind. It should not be difficult to describe the approach and skills of kindness in teaching by examining the converse. Yet, we do not seem to require it. We relegate the requirement for kindness to the suite of native personal attributes of each teacher rather than a professional standard.

Kindness as a professional standard

The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST) (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2021) provide the regulatory framework for Australian initial teacher education accreditation of course design and standards for assessment of teachers’ professional performance as they approach complete registration and across their career (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2021). Each jurisdiction adds additional requirements for teacher registration for teachers’ systemic employment in their State or Territory.

The APST outlines 3 teacher professional domains, 7 standards, and 37 focus areas with descriptor statements for each career stage from graduate, proficient, highly accomplished to lead teacher status. The three domains group the standards into categories for professional knowledge, practice, and engagement. Within the professional practice domain is standard 4: “to create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments”. Of note, kindness is not explicitly mentioned as a requirement for teachers at any career stage or in any additional expectations required jurisdictionally.

Standard 4 implies that kindness might be a factor for professional expectations, specifically the focus area 4.1. Focus area 4.1 requires knowledge of inclusive and positive interactions with students. However, as a graduate, the requirement is only to “identify” inclusive practices, not actually demonstrate them. This is true of all the graduate standards (Bahr & Mellor, 2016). However, even at the proficient career stage, where there is a requirement to demonstrate performance, the need for kindness is not explicit.

A proficient teacher, a status attained after a successful probationary period, is required to demonstrate positive and supportive interactions. This goes some way toward kindness, but a positive interaction does not necessarily suggest demonstrated and professional compassion or empathy.

A positive interaction can occur without explicit care for the person or each student’s learning needs. If inclusive practices are to stand as a proxy for professional kindness, then it has been reduced to a notion of simple positivity. In fact, displaying a positive demeanour is not always the kindest and empathetic stance for a teacher. Clegg and Rowland (2010) argue that kindness in teaching cannot be regulated or prescribed.

This suggests that kindness is an attribute that is not open to objective noticing. The unfounded premise is that it is not something that can be discussed, developed or consistently applied. Further, that kindness is not available to measurement or codification. A contrasting and refreshing view is argued by Binfet (2015), who writes about intentional kindnesses in classrooms. Binfet focuses on acts of kindness that teachers may perform in their role and the general and specific benefits. This position calls for greater investigation and discussion, taking us beyond the simple notion that kindness can be identified as either present or absent.

This paper’s proposition is that teachers’ professional kindness can and should be objectively identified. It can and should be a recognised professional standard as one of many Australian Professional Standards for Teachers’ requirements. In fact, teacher professional kindness can and should be recognised as a fundamental and core attribute for entry to, and progression through, the profession. The research question for this investigation was:

In what ways does kindness manifest in the professional practices of teaching?

Research approach

This study’s research approach was Iterative Thematic Inquiry (ITI), a relatively new approach to qualitative research described by Morgan (2020). The fundamental epistemology, pragmatism, pays attention to the linking of beliefs and understandings to actions. That is, that truth is found in the results when a belief is enacted. In this case, that learner experience is enhanced when kindness is demonstrated. The approach employed an adaptation of the four phases of ITI designated by Morgan as: “assessing beliefs; building new beliefs through encounters with data; listing tentative themes; and evaluating themes through coding.” For this study, a critical autoethnography is included in the first step to make explicit and to assess data for evident beliefs and to identify likely themes, followed by a limited interview stage, to confirm and evaluate emergent themes.  Essentially there are two stages to this research: a critical autoethnography; and limited semi-structured interviews.

Critical autoethnography

Recent work by Boylorn and Orbe (2020) outlines the origins, development and currency of critical autoethnography. Critical autoethnography extends from fundamental ethnographic research, which attends to the qualitative analysis of data to identify themes, interrelationships, and cultural significance. And it builds on autoethnography, which draws attention to the researcher’s personal experience and narrative, to a new combination that acknowledges the researcher’s stories and the cultural and external contexts of its enactment (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011). In this way, with a critical autoethnography, we consider illustrative accounts of the researcher’s experience and the review of others’ experiences within that context with particular attention to the shared cultural significances of events (Boylorn & Orbe, 2020). Therefore, critical ethnography as a start point for the ITI approach acknowledges and embraces the researcher’s bias and beliefs in examining how kindness manifests in teaching professional practices.

Participants

The researcher

For the ITI process, I became a participant researcher for the first stage of the investigation. I am a late-career educator with over thirty years of experience across Australia’s schooling and tertiary sectors. My principal classroom teacher specialisations have been within the performing arts, although I have also taught senior sciences. My most recent experience with classroom teaching concepts has been through my role as an initial teacher education specialist responsible for assuring the efficacy of the design, development, and implementation of teacher education programs. For the critical ethnography, I relate two stories to illustrate my experiences with kindness in the classroom, efficacy and impact for learner experience. I highlight themes to frame the second stage of the ITI, data from semi-structured interviews.

              Interviewees

For the second stage of the ITI, I examined two interviewees’ perspectives on stage one’s exposed themes for professional kindness.

Annabelle (pseudonym) is a secondary school girl aged 17. She is a year 11 student of a state secondary school in southeast Queensland. She has been a student of this school for her entire secondary schooling since year 7. She studies the “essential” streams for maths and English with vocational subjects (Media, Art, Construction, Fitness).

Ben (pseudonym) a 20-year-old male pre-service teacher in his final year of teacher preparation and is studying toward a Bachelor of Education (Secondary) at a Queensland higher education institution. He is an academically minded person with an expressed vocation to teach. His secondary teaching specialisation areas will be French, Music and Legal Studies. However, he is keen to work with lower primary children, having enjoyed his interactions with junior students during practicum.

The participants were invited to describe the elements of teacher professional kindness and outline how it can be demonstrated and observed. This limited interview stage was designed to highlight teacher professional kindness’s to support recommendations for its overt requirement in teacher education and practice.

Study Phase 1: Assessing beliefs and emergent themes

My first reflections are on a story about vicarious classroom kindness I experienced as a regular classroom visitor from a higher education academy. By relating my witness of kindness, I can comment on the observed intent of the kindness, the immediate relational and behavioural impact for the student and the teacher, and the broader experience and impact of the class’s culture.

I knew the classroom teacher well and had visited her class many times to work with the pre-service teachers she was supervising. I considered her a colleague, and we collaborated on teacher education and development matters. She volunteered to supervise every practicum block. At one time, she requested to be allocated pre-service teachers who were struggling as she felt she could help make a difference. This was an unusual request but shows her sense of commitment to the profession. For this story, though, the teacher had not yet started with a pre-service teacher. I had visited to talk about a previous student’s report. I was observing her class as I waited to meet with her. I was outside the classroom, and I don’t believe she, or the students, knew I was there until much later.

This was a junior secondary humanities class, and they were energetic and chatty. It was late in the lesson period, and they were preparing to finish the lesson and go to lunch break. The teacher, a veteran of some twenty years at the same Brisbane metropolitan, middle income, public secondary school, used all her skills to settle the class and set the homework. After the bell, she released the students. They raced away, except for a handful of more slowly progressing but excited class members: a group of three girls and a girl who seemed to be by herself.

The teacher asked the girls what they were going to do this lunch period. An energetic exchange took place about an audition for the school musical. The teacher noticed the lone girl and included her by asking her if she had ever been in a school production. She said something like, “yes, she had enjoyed being in them at her old school”. The teacher suggested that the group take her along to the audition with them, even if only to watch. They said they’d love to, and the lone girl brightened noticeably and left with the others.

The teacher saw me at that point and said something like, “… new girl, just need to get her settled. I knew she was a performer. I think she’ll be ok with those girls”.

What I saw was a professional response to a student who needed connection. I noticed that the teacher brought her background knowledge of the child’s strengths to the exchange and that she matched the child’s needs to the profile of the girls she introduced.  This was professional kindness. It was clear, objective, and based on expertise and knowledge. There was an instant effect on the sense of belonging and identity needed for the new girl to adjust and transition into the new context. The act was outside of class time and was not part of the lesson, but it was a professional intervention. The new child and her new friends learnt that the teacher was interested in them all. A positive relationship was supported for all. Given the way the scene played through, it was clear that this act of kindness was planned and intentional professional behaviour.

My next story was about my own experience of kindness as a student myself many years ago. So potent was the event for me that nearly 50 years later, it still is a strong memory.

I was a year 12 student and relatively young for the grade. My parents had divorced, and my mother was single parenting while holding down three jobs. I would accompany her for the night shift at a nearby aged care residence, sleeping in one of the residential suites. It was pretty much just mum and me and a tattered teddy bear named Milo.

My class and I went on a camping trip to the Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges in South Australia, a five hour trip from our school. The camp was over, and we were about to leave when I noticed that Milo had disappeared. I didn’t want to say anything lest the classmates would think I was childish, but I was quietly very distressed. We left the camp sans Milo.

The tour bus and another car as the “safety” vehicle provided by one of the teachers for the trip formed a convoy. Some kids were sniggering at the back of the bus while we were travelling along. One of the teachers decided to try and find out what the fuss was about. When they returned to the bus’s front, they discreetly asked me if I was missing anything when I packed to come home. I reluctantly told them I was missing my bear. At this stage, we had already been travelling for about 3 hours. At the next stop, the teacher had a conversation with the teacher-driver of the “safety” car.

We arrived back at school and were collected by our families. Nothing was said to me about Milo until later that evening. Then I received a call from a teacher to say that the safety car had gone back to collect Milo and they would give him to me at school the next day. This retrieval must have added an extra six hours of driving to their trip. The commitment, discretion and compassion that they showed in retrieving and in returning Milo was incredibly kind. But was it professionally kind?

I believe that the actions of the teachers as a team and individually was professionally kind. They used professional discretion to make sure I was comfortable. Although I did find out later that the mean kids were individually counselled. The teachers understood the lost item’s significance and went out of their way to ensure balance was restored.

A critical analysis of these two stories provides insight into the landscape of professional kindness. I assess the key elements that comprised professional kindness to be:

  • professional background knowledge of the lived experiences and emotional connections for the learner,
  • professional understanding of the interpersonal dynamics of a group of learners,
  • professional understanding of the potential emotional and learning impact if no action was taken,
  • professional discretion, and
  • intentional kindness.

The professional kindnesses were observable in both cases and had a direct and positive effect on the target student:

  • establishing a kind and respectful relationship between student and teacher,
  • assisting, through discretion, the connectedness and sense of belonging of all students.

These stories most likely represent everyday kindnesses in the professional lives of these teachers. Professional kindnesses such as these may be as common as noise for some but are the relationship glue fundamental to effective teaching.

In my critical examination for the component themes, I find three interrelated processes for intentional and professional kindness.

(1) The kindnesses extend from professional knowledge and understanding of the learner.

(2) The kindnesses emanate from a professional understanding and empathy for the need to act restoratively, promoting the learner’s emotional balance.

(3) The kindnesses are professionally generative in that they promote the positive relationships required to support an inclusive learning culture.

These are three processes that connect professional expertise with professionally framed acts of kindness that promote learner emotional equilibrium and positive learning culture and context for all. In this first stage of the ITI then: the ethnography considers the implied perspectives contextual stakeholders; the autoethnography reflects on the researcher’s lived experience and impacts from the events; and the critical autoethnography adds consideration of the interpersonal intentions, reactions and interactions that create the event. Together we can draw relevance for the a/effect on the learner and the contextual cultures that frame their learning.

Phase 2: Encounters with data

I engaged in semi-structured interviews with the two other participants using the themes emerging from the critical autoethnography to structure the discussion: perspectives on the role of professional knowledge; the role of professional understanding and empathy for the restorative need for emotional balance; and, the impact of professional decisions to act on learning culture and experience. The interviewees were asked to reflect and describe how a teacher might be kind and report on the impact of kindnesses that they may have experienced. These were open-ended questions. The interviews took place in the participant’s own homes, were recorded with permission, and conducted with informed consent. Ethical clearance was obtained from the Human Research Ethics Committee of Southern Cross University (Approval Number: 2021/032). Each interview was complete in approximately 15 minutes. The conversations were transcribed for analysis.

Interview 1: School student

Annabelle, when asked about teacher kindness, said:

“A kind teacher shows students that they want to be more interactive. They say encouraging things and try to help. It matters that teachers are kind because I wouldn’t want to be at school if I didn’t feel encouraged to do the work.”

In this brief statement, Annabelle clarifies that she understands kindness to be something about how a teacher behaves; that is, it is observable. She proposes that kindness relates to the work the teacher has set her and associated encouragements. This suggests that the teacher’s curriculum choices and pedagogy are elements in the kindness she experiences. Finally, Annabelle relates the experience of kindness to her motivation to study. The interaction she has with the teacher is not limited to her sense of inclusion or sense of worth but extends to include her value in the classroom context.

Against the phase 1 themes, Annabelle focused on the teacher’s understanding and empathetic responses designed to encourage and support the learner with their learning tasks. So, for Annabelle, the visible professional kindness was evident in the interactions’ nature and tone. The idea that these might derive from professional knowledge about the learner did not occur to Annabelle and is probably the most invisible of the elements of professional kindness.

Interview 2: Pre-service teacher

In the second of the interviews, Ben considered kindness in teaching as a part of the teacher’s responsibility to create a positive environment by demonstrating kind habits. This aligns with some of the research perspectives on kindness that separate it from a broader professional skill and a personal attribute, a set of values based habits and behaviours. But more than this, Ben also saw kindness as a part of the teaching role in his statement that:

“Teachers show their kindness in the way they go about teaching, the language they use, and the way they interact with students both within and outside the classroom. It encompasses everything, including demonstrating the behaviour they expect.”

In this, he identifies kindness as being professionally generative. It underpins the establishment of a positive learning culture through the teacher’s measured interactions with the students.  Ben also considered the link between kindness and catering for learning needs and motivation of the students:

“A teacher who demonstrates that they are kind to students tend to foster learning attitudes and work ethics amongst them. Whereas teachers who do not take into account the importance of kindness and courtesy tend not to foster the same habits in their students’; which therefore creates a very destructive environment…the students are not happy and where there is less likely to be a positive learning outcome with the class.”

In this extract, Ben suggests that kindness is observable, that it is connected to the teaching decisions made by the teacher, and has an impact on the learning outcomes. Ben makes the case that kindness is professional, not simply a considerate manner when interacting with others. However, while Ben has again considered professional kindness’s generative nature, he has not evaluated the place for professional understandings and empathy required to foster the students’ work ethic. Ben wanted to be clear that there was a distinction between inclusive practice and professional kindness, Ben explained:

“There is overlap between being an inclusive practitioner, but there are parts of being inclusive that are not the same as being kind. Demonstrating the practices and habits that you’d expect out of your students is not necessarily related to being inclusive. Still, it does relate to kindness, and some areas are related to both, such as the language and activities that are used in the classroom to interact with students.”

So in this excerpt, Ben has shown that inclusive practice is more about ensuring all students can engage with the learning. This comment goes to the role of professional knowledge and understanding for intentional kindnesses. For Ben, kindness is about ensuring that the design and the interactions are conducive to learning.

Ben made direct reference to both the roles of professional knowledge and understanding and empathy in his reference to kindness in lesson planning:

“Lesson planning …what teachers need to consider with their lesson planning is whether or not their activities and instructions and layout of the classroom are such that they (students) feel welcome to express themselves, be themselves and ask questions. A supportive learning environment.”

For Ben, kindness dependent on professional knowledge was apparent in designing and implementing learning activities. This was largely unrecognised by Annabelle, perhaps due to her student perspective. Ben, like Annabelle, commented on the understanding and empathy required for professional kindness and the intentional generative impact for learner experience and general class culture.

Ben was much more able to articulate his beliefs and perspectives than Annabelle. His responses were more detailed and nuanced. However, it is essential to recognise that Ben, as a pre-service teacher, has already begun his induction and exposure to the vast array of preparations and decision-making required for leading learning. So for him, much of what would not be apparent to a novice observer is clearly identifiable, performative aspects of the role. In a sense, he is an expert observer.

Reflecting on the research question that has guided this project:

In what ways does kindness manifest in the professional practices of teaching?

I suggest that professional kindness manifests in intentional actions designed to strengthen a teacher’s working relationships with their student/s, establish a context conducive to learning, and act for the restoration or assurance of emotional balance and motivation for the learners. It involves professional knowledge, understanding and empathy beyond inclusive practices in establishing an environment that is kind and positively generative for learners and learning.

Conclusion

Kindness in daily life, for general interpersonal interactions, is complex. The motivations, the objective, the established relationships between the people involved, including the power relationships, are intertwined and variable. In everyday life, kindness is bestowed from one person to others. It may or may not involve the subjugation of the kind person’s needs or personal capital to strengthen another.

Professional teacher kindness is less complex. The motivation and objectives are set by the teacher’s professional role; the positive reinforcement of the working relationship forms one of these goals. The teacher does not exchange any professional or personal capital in the action. Professional teacher kindness may be as simple as designing an experience to foster students’ success through the curriculum or the pedagogy. And professional teacher kindness is intentional and direct.

Yet professional kindness may not be noticed by a novice observer. Ben and Annabelle have demonstrated this effect. Annabelle focused on the notion that kindness in teaching was effected by a fundamentally kind person. However, Ben was able to identify the less visible processes of the teaching role; the planning, designing, and professional preparations that intentionally shape the context for kindness.

The notion that a teacher’s preparatory work is often unconsidered and unnoticed by a novice has been discussed in other research into the nature of teaching quality (Bahr & Mellor, 2016).  Like teacher quality, general kindness, in terms of being a kind person, eludes precise description. In the attempt to describe, it tends to diminish the concept. It is possible that the focus on inclusive practices in the professional standards was considered sufficient by the authors of the regulatory framework. Though the findings of this Iterative Thematic Inquiry on the matter have demonstrated that intentional and professional kindness is more than inclusive practice, it should be articulated as a requirement for the professional and articulated as a requirement in the professional standards.

References

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, (2021). Professional Standards for Teaching.  Retrieved from https://www.aitsl.edu.au/teach/standards

Bahr, N. (2016). Teachers how should we know you? Independent Education, 46(3), 11-13.

Bahr, N. (2016). Dr Seuss and quality teaching Part 1: Today you are you. Teacher Magazine. Retieved from

https://www.teachermagazine.com/au_en/articles/dr-seuss-and-quality-teaching-part-1-today-you-are-you

Bahr, N. & Mellor, S. (2016). Building quality in teaching and teacher education. Australian Education Review No. 61. Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne, Vic.

Binfet, J. T. (2015). Not-so Random Acts of Kindness: A Guide to Intentional Kindness in the Classroom. International Journal of Emotional Education, 7(2), 49-62.

Boylorn, R. M., & Orbe, M. P. (2020). Critical autoethnography: Intersecting cultural identities in everyday life. Routledge.

Broidy, S. (2019). A case for kindness: A new look at the teaching ethic. Stylus Publishing.

Clegg, S., & Rowland, S. (2010). Kindness in pedagogical practice and academic life. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 31(6), 719-735.

Ellis, C., Adams, T. E., & Bochner, A. P. (2011). Autoethnography: an overview. Historical social research, 273-290.

Holz, C. L. (2009). When Professional Kindness Is Misunderstood: Boundaries and Stalking issues. A Case Study for the Home Health Clinician. Home Healthcare Now, 27(7), 410-416.)

Kaplan, D. M., deBlois, M., Dominguez, V., & Walsh, M. E. (2016). Studying the teaching of kindness: A conceptual model for evaluating kindness education programs in schools. Evaluation and program planning, 58, 160-170.

O’Rourke, P. (2020). A Case for Kindness: A New Look at the Teaching Ethic. Critical Questions in Education, 11(1).

Rowland, S. (2009). Kindness. London Review of Education, 7(3), 207-210.

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