The 6 Habits of Talented Teachers

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Converse Trainers

John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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What do talented teachers do?

In a hurried and impersonal data-driven world it is easy to lose sight of what really matters. Teaching isn’t about getting pupils over the finishing line and obsessing over numbers. There isn’t a teacher on the planet that who would miss spreadsheets if they were to suddenly disappear overnight. Children have a skewed sense of reality if all we focus on are test scores.

Yes, qualifications are important but so are empathy and citizenship, two vital qualities that really demand our attention.

The 6 Habits

This is the focus of the book Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation by psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell.

In her decade long research, Marilyn looked at the intersection between empathy and citizenship and interviewed students who became engaged in social and environmental causes. They spoke about the empathy-building behaviours of their most effective teachers and she summarises these as six habits.

1. Create meaningful relationships with students

When children feel cared for then they naturally care for others. Talented teachers get to know their pupils, they appreciate them and respect them. When children feel the empathy of their teachers they give it back.

2. Nurture children’s self-efficacy through mentoring

A powerful sense of self-efficacy comes through the expert mentoring of teachers and spurs children on to help others and become change agents. Students found that teachers who did this well developed a belief in ‘self’ by:

  • Supporting and encouraging
  • Listening
  • Setting high expectations
  • Showing interest in students as individuals
  • Fostering self-decision-making
  • Providing another perspective during problem solving
3. Teach values associated with good citizenship

Teachers are empathy-builders because they focus on teamwork, cooperation, caring, kindness, service and the importance of getting along with each other. Children learn to be responsible citizens, they learn how to improve their communities and how to contribute to societal  issues.

4. Inspire students to be their best selves

Top teachers make a habit of empowering their pupils and teach them to become their best selves. They demonstrated the following qualities:

  • Passion and ability to inspire
  • Clear and articulated set of values
  • Commitment to community
  • Selflessness
  • Ability to overcome obstacles in life
5. Expose students to different opinions and worldviews

Teachers with empathy look outwards and encourage pupils to be curious. They help them to appreciate multiple perspectives and understand that others see the world through different lenses. They grow children’s intellectual, interpersonal and emotional boundaries by getting them to walk in the shoes of others. They combat prejudices.

6. Link curriculum to real world service activities

Teachers weave critical thinking, planning, organising and problem solving into their teaching and that means pushing pupils out of their comfort zones so they see and experience the world differently.

Kick Off Your Shoes

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, protagonist Atticus Finch teaches his children that,

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

No one can argue with that but actually doing it is a mighty tall order. But this empathy-building is the essence of great teaching. With so much hatred and confusion in the hearts and minds of others, empathy is the number one key skill we need to focus on. It builds bridges between individuals and groups, improves relationships  and contributes to wellbeing.

How about we step into the skin of someone else’s shoes?

The A Mile In My Shoes project is a must-see and do. The project is a living Empathy Museum developed with and commissioned by the Health Foundation.

The Empathy Museum is an interactive shoe shop box, an imaginative arts space devoted to helping us see the world differently. It uses storytelling  to explore how to view life from the position of other people in order to transform personal relationships, help tackle global challenges and open up the public conversation around empathy.

The idea is you put on someone else’s shoes and put on a pair of headphones and go for a walk and listen to their story. If you can’t visit the Empathy Museum then you can listen to some of the stories here, stories that focus on health and social care.

Taking inspiration from this project, why not get your students to record their own stories about what life is like for them. They could provide an old pair of shoes and students could wear them and listen to each other’s stories in exactly the same way that the empathy museum does it. Take a look at one of their videos and see if this can get you to think outside the box.

This is a powerful and playful idea: simple, immersive and engaging, it can help us get under the skin of each other’s worlds and experiences. If pupils can do it then can we encourage teachers to do the same?

It would be great to get an Empathy Museum based on the stories of all those in the education sector – just imagine the stories we could share? We need a Teacher Shoebox!

It might just does us all good within teaching to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes especially when we can be quick to criticise and blame others: their world might just come as a big surprise and revelation.

Everyone has a story – what’s yours?

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