What we really mean when we talk about likeable teachers

Debates about whether teachers need to be likeable never get anywhere because the idea of likeability itself misses the mark, writes David Murray

Debates about whether teachers need to be likeable never get anywhere because the idea of likeability itself misses the mark, writes David Murray

15 May 2023, 5:00

It was one of those ridiculously busy days. I was bustling down a corridor with an armful of exercise books when I came face-to-face with a student who had not been in my lesson earlier. Brought up short, I took a second to absorb the fact and felt the frustration of the day rise inside me. I stopped and called their name, drawing them out of the flow of bodies, away from their friends.

My initial annoyance flipped as I remembered that this student was having a really hard time of late due to factors way beyond their control. As I checked they were alright and said how pleased I was to see them in college, I swear their face changed. Those thirty seconds were by far the most important part of my very busy day.

That student was present in my next lesson, chirpy and ready to work. There is nothing unusual in this scene. It is mundane and it is replicated thousands of times every day all across the country. But everything about that exchange is essential.

It brought to mind an educational social media debate that flared recently about whether teachers should be likeable. As is often the case on social media, likeability was in short supply – and in no discernible relationship with the positions held by the contributors.

The heart of the issue is the fact that education is a profoundly relational business. Like all relationships, there is an indecipherably complex mix of factors at play when teaching works well. Teasing out the strands is hard and possibly even counterproductive.

I have been in schools and colleges where teachers have prided themselves on their stern discipline. These stony-faced pseudo-sergeant-majors seem to take to heart Machiavelli’s hoary old chestnut about being feared rather than loved and I sometimes question their motivation to teach.

Seeking the approval of students is a self-evident dead end

Then again, I also question any over-eager, wide-eyed teacher who desperately needs to be liked by their students. Insecure neediness often cries out from behind the façade of the cool teachers, and there is a sneaky manipulation in being likeable in order to bring about some desired result. This is likeability as a transactional tool and that feels dishonest. 

Anyone who teaches must, at some point, consider why they do what they do. Possibly on a Sunday night, right around the time that Antiques Roadshow comes on. After all, there are many reasons not to do this mad job.

Harder to reflect upon than why we do what we do in the way that we do it. If we do this honestly, we will probably soon find a whole range of wounded motivations driving our interactions with others, including in our teaching. After all, we always bring all we are to all we do.

Among our possible drives, seeking the approval of students is a self-evident dead end. As any therapist will tell you, it is an unhealthy displacement that cannot end well. We are not in the classroom for ourselves or our own gratification, but for the good of our students.

What students really need is to trust their teachers, and in the power-imbalanced, age-discordant relationship of the classroom, trust is most quickly built on a foundation of kindness. I suspect this is what we mean when we talk about likeability, a professional kindness that might involve discipline and might involve care but will certainly involve dignity, respect, empowerment, empathy and compassion.

Like many older teachers, I was schooled in the dark days of flung chalk and flying board rubbers. Violence was endemic to the classroom. Those were not kind days, and a lot of people received deep and long-lasting wounds in those schools. But there were kind teachers, and they stood out like beacons. They are the ones we still remember as we reflect on what motivates us.

Kind teachers still stand out today. The students can tell you who they are. Ask them some time; it’s instructive. Ask who the best teachers are, and then ask who the kind teachers are. I suspect you’ll find the lists overlap, and that likeability has little to do with it.

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    • Chris Bentley

      Agreed. Teachers (and parents) are most effective when they have ‘earned respect’ through being reliable, professional, kind and understanding – but not soft or self-obsessed.
      Children aren’t daft. I saw them work out a supply teacher in 10 seconds.

  1. A Palumbo

    ‘Warm strictness ‘ strictness in itself is not a negative thing. Laced with warmth, with intentions that are clearly fair and sincere, are usually sincerely received, reflected on and acted on. Been teaching for 30 years and this approach has never let me down.