A little honesty, humility and, above all, kindness

A little honesty, humility and, above all, kindness

Recent Guardian article (http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2014/nov/22/secret-teacher-fear-sick-leave) and comments about teachers’ workload on Twitter have made me reflect on one underlying issue that many teachers would avoid at all costs to confront – culture of fear at work place.

John Tomsett (http://johntomsett.com/2014/12/06/this-much-i-know-about-the-madness-of-treating-colleagues-punitively), Headteacher at Huntington School in York, has commented on such issue whilst priding (rightly so) his school in their motto: Honesty, Respect and Kindness. Indeed, having witnessed and experienced the paralysing effect of a culture of fear at work place, the only antidotes seem to me are none but a little honesty, humility and above all, kindness.

Grandiose vision without action will ultimately remain a shimmering mirage, nothing more, if the workforce is not inspired by a common goal and a collective consensus. Knowing how to inspire an entire workforce is the Holy Grail for all leaders. In an intellectual work place such as a school, inspiration requires delicate diplomacy and intelligence. Such skill is a complex mixture of innate charm and wit, plus people skills that have been acquired through years of working with diverse personalities.

But, there is a far easier way to inspire. Let our moral principles guide our everyday actions: be honest, show humility and dispense kindness liberally. After all, in essence, teaching is a moral deed. Most would agree that we have come into teaching because we want to do good, to individuals, to groups and to society.


Honesty makes pretence look like a painted maypole. “Open door” policy may underline a democratic principle. However, if freedom of expression without fear of persecution is not guaranteed, the door may just as well be bolted with a sign, “Enter at Your Own Peril”, staring and snarling at any well-meaning Earl of Kent.

A punitive system will only succeed in creating a culture of fear, then dishonesty is festered. In turn, dishonesty becomes the strangler of trust and promoter of suspicion. Without trust, there can be no real harmony that fosters genuine good-will in supporting each other in times of need or in professional development. “Covering my back” becomes everyone’s motto and everyone does just enough to stay out of trouble – nothing more. It has also been suggested that punitive accountability (http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2014/nov/29/secret-teacher-cheat-target-levels) has also resulted in cheating. There is no desire or time for imagination, creativity and innovation.

We all make mistakes at some points in our career. The question is, are we honest enough to admit our faults and seek remedies humbly and honestly? Are we prepared to show that after all we are merely mortal? After all, it is human to err. Or are we convinced that we are better than anybody who walks the corridor?


As suggested in Harvard Business School Review (https://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader/ar/1) that “self-awareness” is the first one of the five components of emotional intelligence that is found in many effective leaders. Goleman (2004) explains: “People with strong self-awareness are neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Rather, they are honest—with themselves and with others.”

Not to be confused with weakness, humility underlines a person’s ability to recognise her or his limitations. As in a workplace that is constantly under the threat of being judged by others as anything but “Outstanding”, acknowledging one’s own limitations is almost considered to be career suicide. Accountability has no room for self-deprecation; appraisal penalises humility. In order the advance our careers, somewhere along the way, we have mistaken Machiavellian Iago and Flamineo as our role models of relentless, ruthless and remorseless approach to success.

But, humility is a virtue that exposes egotism as pitifully narcissistic, ultimately self-destructive. I would like to think that most teachers, freshly qualified or experienced, display a greater affinity and admiration to leaders who expresses his/her indebtedness to his staff rather than to someone who collects all the glory but deflects any blame.


Try to answer the following simple questions honestly and truthfully:

What would you do, when your staff are stressed due to workload?
1) Chastise them
2) Ignore them
3) Resolve the situation

What would you expect teachers to do when pupils are stressed due to workload?
1) Chastise them
2) Ignore them
3) Resolve the situation

When your staff are struggling, you
1) threaten them with incompetency procedure
2) tell them to man up, or
3) show genuine empathy and support?

When your pupils are struggling, you
1) threaten them with detention
2) tell them to man up, or
3) show genuine empathy and support?

Have you found that you treat staff and pupils differently? Have you thought about why and what makes you take a different approach? Do our actions leave us open to accusations of inconsistency or hypocrisy?

I suspect, many of us would admit readily that at one point or another – despite our noble intentions – we all have done things of which we are not particularly proud. Instead of chastisation and scapegoating, we can always try a little kindness to each other when we fall short of our or others’ expectations or even make some mistakes.

If “tenderness encapsulated in icy caverns of a cruel heart” is a universal gift, then what one can do is share this special gift universally.

Therefore, above all, a little kindness will go a very long way. Sometimes, that is all we need – an acceptance that our lives do not and must not revolve around work exclusively. Work is important, but so is our health, so are our relationships and so is our sanity.

“Empathy”, unsurprisingly, has been identified as the fourth component of emotional intelligence shared by great leaders (Harvard Business Review, 2004). Defined as “the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people” with a “skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions” (Harvard Business Review, 2004), empathy is one virtue that alone can potentially turn an otherwise unforgiving school into a caring community.

So, a little honesty, humility and, above all, a heck of a lot of kindness. They are my British Values.

Next time when we give feedback to colleagues, praise them as if that were the most inspiring lesson that you have ever had the privilege to observe. Discuss and agree with them on areas that they wish to improve even further, then co-construct strategies – for both parties – to try out.

Together, we can make our schools a more human place for work and learning.


About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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