This article, written by Dr Charlotte Overgaard and Dr Jacqueline Mackaway, examines why kindness matters in teaching.
Kindness is not something we necessarily associate with teaching (Denial, 2019). Yet, our mission here is to promote kindness as a teaching practice.
In doing so we wish to advocate for students and those of us who are fed up with neoliberal, competitive logics that drive contemporary work and teaching practices in the academy. We know colleagues who already practice kindness, but live a double-agent life, hiding their kindness because the university has other expectations. Here, we expose kindness as a teaching practice, a way to design for care and as push-back. While we focus on students, we feel that kindness ultimately benefits staff too.
In higher education a doxa of careless-ness exists which posits learning as being about educating the rational, independent person (Lynch, 2010) and where the student is seen as largely responsible for their own success or failure (van Nistelrooij et al., 2014). Hiding behind standards and rigor (Denial, 2019), and by pretending that it is fair to treat all students the same, we ignore the lived realities of our students. Therefore, merits are conflated with ability. Students who perform well are thought of as gifted while those who do not perform equally well as are seen as lacking (Leathwood, 2005) in a competitive structure that only allows few to be top students.
For students, the push towards individualised approaches means that university structures dominantly require struggling students to self-diagnose what help they need and then locate that support (Brewer et al., 2019). Bosanquet’s (2017) appropriation of the word undercare summarises the situation in higher education quite well. It is a situation of ‘not neglect, just not enough care’ (Bosanquet, 2017).
Furthermore, many of our interactions with students are predicated on mistrust. For example, staff advise students to supply a doctor’s certificate or statutory declaration for every instance of disruption to their studies (Chuah and Camdzic, 2013), tell students how Turnitin will catch them cheating, and use unit guides to instruct students on what they are required and expected to do. The list goes on.
Students tell us that kindness matters
In June 2020, a small team of staff in Sociology and Gender Studies surveyed our students, but not to hear how they—as customers of their own education—rated their educational experience or us. Instead, we were interested in what kinds of course designs enabled students to succeed and ‘survive’ during the single largest obstacle to their educations, COVID-19, an event that clearly could not be blamed on the individual student, but was shared by all. Students pointed to flexibility as the main design feature that helped them through (Overgaard and Tack, 2020). More importantly, they identified a shift in sentiment where teachers’ mistrust and reference to rigid institutional policies, gave way to compassion, understanding and empathy (Overgaard and Mackaway, forthcoming). Students also identified that when teaching staff actively used that change in sentiment to modify their own teaching practices, students were better placed to succeed.
In case you are not willing to take our word for it, we have included some examples of what students told us. The majority of students told us of supportive staff and how instrumental front-line teachers had been to student success:
“Covid-19 even gave me a health scare at one point, but I pushed through knowing the lecturer/tutor would be available should I need anything”
“I recognised a deep desire from teaching staff to accommodate difficulties”
“I have multiple disabilities which always impact my studies. Additionally, I was incapacitated with a severely debilitating virus this study period. Despite that, I achieved better than usual and felt more supported than ever and far less guilt for asking for modifications or extensions because of the increased flexibility and understanding due to COVID”
“Thanks to the teaching staff being so understanding I managed to finish”
“I knew the lecturer and my tutor were available at any time if I needed help or extension; I think knowing how approachable they were allowed me to persevere and get my work in and done on time.”
“[Staff were] attentive to students wellbeing, which was increasingly important this semester. [Their] compassion and understanding made my experience […] so much more enjoyable.”
“Teaching staff were very attentive to their students well-being and made me feel at ease during such unpredictable times.”
“Although I never approached any of the teaching staff for help, I feel that if I did, they would be understanding.”
“I truly believe I would not have been able to complete [unit] to the best of my abilities this semester, had it not been for their overwhelming generosity and kindness.”
However, some students had not been met with understanding and they identified this as an obstacle to successful learning.
“I think the biggest issue was that some teaching staff (and fellow students) don’t understand how your mental wellbeing can impact your studies and way of life, and how some students during COVID were impacted simply by being out of their normal routines and especially how detrimental this was for our health, wellbeing, and motivation to study.”
I also feel as though the marking was harder for my law subjects and we were discouraged from applying for special consideration even if we needed it.
“I think the ability of teaching staff to recognise the needs of students was ultimately reduced due to the new learning environment. It was difficult in that students who had never learned fully online didn’t even recognise themselves what they needed to facilitate their study during COVID – let alone teachers.”
One student cited above referred to this shift in sentiment and practice as kindness. To us, this word sums up a disposition, a way of being oriented towards the world and students. But as it should be clear from the quotes it is also a practice, here a teaching practice that can be activated and used to produce better learning experiences and outcomes.
Joining a growing movement of those who push back
This insight about kindness in teaching practice set us on a mission to investigate if others had made similar discoveries. It turned out that students already knew that kindness mattered before the onset of COVID. It is teaching staff who have been late to fully realise the potential of kindness to support student learning (us included).
Writing from the U.K., Clegg and Rowland (2010) wrote persuasively of kindness as a pedagogy in 2010, which their students identified as a marker of good teaching. Clegg and Rowland (2010) used kindness as an argument against the dominant discourse of independence and narrow visions of ‘rationality’ in the neo-liberal university. According to Clegg and Rowland (2010), kind acts require the teacher to identify with the concerns of the student. A good teacher will attempt to see things from the perspective of the student and think beyond an instrumental approach to teaching. It more than just a “technical judgement of utility” (Clegg and Rowland, 2010: 724) and it is not enough to just feel kind. A pedagogy of kindness can also be distinguished by what it is not. It is not: performance of ‘due care’ or ‘due diligence’; leniency or ‘softness’; a sentiment, empathy or intentions only (Clegg and Rowland, 2010). “A pedagogy of kindness does not dissolve the demands of knowledge” (Clegg and Rowland, 2010: 725), and is not about getting the highest student satisfaction ratings. Finally, it is not “based on an assumption we know what students need better than they do” (Clegg and Rowland, 2010: 724).
More recently, a piece by Cate Denial in Hybrid Pedagogy (Denial, 2019) has sparked a more widespread discussion of kindness as a teaching practice, especially in the U.S. Speaking about a Pedagogy of Kindness, Denial (2020) asserts that a kindness pedagogy entails believing students as well as believing in them.
One of the people who has thought about teaching practices for a long time, is Dr Jesse Stommel (Stommel, 2017; Stommel, 2021; Stommel, 2014). Writing from the perspective of critical pedagogy and therefore linking teaching to issues of social justice, widening participation, equity and fairness, he points to a number of ways that allow us to enact kindness on an everyday basis. With 31,600 followers on Twitter, he is leading a small revolution in education from his base in the U.S., urging us all to push back and promoting ungrading rather than grading, which he sees as particularly harmful to students (Stommel, 2017; Stommel, 2021; Stommel, 2014).
We are joining others in Australia who push back though care and kindness. Here at MQ, Dr Agnes Bosanquet pushes back via her Blog, The Slow Academic, and Dr Phil Chappell has recently secured funding to further investigate ways to engage students in collaborative inquiry (Chappell, 2018; Chappell, 2021) while at the same time promoting kind teaching practices . We also benefit from following the work of Dr Sally Baker from UNSW who is currently writing a book on (the lack of) care in universities.
Some concrete suggestions to activate kindness
There can be no obligation to activate kindness. But if you have read this far, and you have been convinced that kindness matters, we want to suggest some easy ways to get started. There are more radical ways, too, but we start with the most accessible, small changes to practice. We draw directly on various resources provided by Jesse Stommel and Cate Denial who both run training sessions for wide audiences (find them on Twitter – that is where we found them).
Start with Hello, how are you, make sure the first thing students encounter is a human. Higher education can and must provide something different to Siri. Be human, humanise education.
Model the whole person by giving students a glimpse of your life. For example, tell them that you try not to answer emails on weekends, because you have a family. That signals to students that we understand they have whole lives too.
Create relationships, make an effort to get to know students and if that is not possible, let them get to know you. Help them get to know each other to foster a sense of belonging and connection.
Create multiple points of entry, such as synchronous, asynchronous, text, video, discussion. This is kind to students who have caring responsibilities, disabilities, jobs.
Draw on students. They are a resource. For example, ask them to help set the ground rules of class interactions, ask them to help draw up marking criteria or identify topics for syllabi. It seems crazy that we claim to deliver student-centred learning, yet never invite students to have even the smallest input into their own education.
Try to reduce anxieties, for example by using positive/encouraging language. Example: ‘think about which skills you already have that you can bring to the project’.
Signal trusting in. Think about what you are signalling to students. When we considered our own material, we found ourselves to be guilty of not signalling any trust in students. In one unit guide, the word required was used 27 times and expect 13 times, clearly signalling that we did not believe in students to be interested or self-motivated. If you need to direct students, use ask rather than require and can instead of must.
Trust students. We tend to start from a place of engrained mistrust. Instead, when a student says, ‘my grandmother died’, believe them. After all, it is more hurtful to doubt one genuine mourner than let one liar get away with it. When they say they need a one-day extension, trust that they know better than you about their need for the extra day. When we remind students to ‘not cite Wikipedia’, and to not cheat, we signal that we believe the worst about them and their motivations. Instead, tell students that they can seek help from you, that we trust them to be able to do the work and that your job as a teacher is to help them with things they do not master (yet). There is general agreement that it is not useful to rely on detection and that support and relationships with teaching staff (yes really!) deter students from cheating (Bretag et al., 2019).
Following on from the previous points, use open-ended assignments with the purpose of letting students co-create if the purpose is to demonstrate knowledge. Suggested text: Your first assignment is to show me what you have learned so far in [GEND1000], using any medium. That means you could create art, a manifesto, a zine, a map, a rap… the sky is the limit.
Scaffold assignments. E.g.: ‘please propose the project to me in a Word / Google document by so and so date’. This allows students to work on and get feedback before it matters (to their grades, that is).
Do not do harm to your students. Relationships and wellbeing should always take priority over compliance. Betray the spirit of policy, even if you are not prepared to break the word. Also, it takes much less time to simply say ‘yes, of course’ to an extension request than to deal with the special consideration process.
Charlotte and Jacqueline both teach and research in the Discipline of Sociology. Please reach out if you are interested in what we do, have inputs, or just to let us know that you also want to push back.
Bosanquet A. (2017) Undercare in the academy. In: Bosanquet A (ed) The Slow Academic [Online].
Bretag T, Harper R, Burton M, et al. (2019) Contract cheating and assessment design: exploring the relationship. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 44: 676-691.
Brewer ML, van Kessel G, Sanderson B, et al. (2019) Resilience in higher education students: a scoping review. Higher Education Research & Development 38: 1105-1120.
Chappell P. (2018) Inquiry Dialogue: A Genre for Promoting Teacher and Student Speaking in the Classroom. In: Burns A and Siegel J (eds) International Perspectives on Teaching the Four Skills in ELT. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 97-110.
Chappell P. (2021) Inquiry Dialogue and the Balancing Act to Invigorate Our Students’ Minds. MindBrainEd Think Tank: Student-to-Student 7.
Chuah S and Camdzic J. (2013) Access and Inclusion: Carers in Higher Education. Sydney: Students’ Representative Council Disabilities & Carers Collective, Univesity of Sydney.
Clegg S and Rowland S. (2010) Kindness in pedagogical practice and academic life. British journal of sociology of education 31: 719-735.
Denial C. (2019) A Pedagogy of Kindness. Hybrid Pedagogy: the journal of critical digital pedagogy.
Denial C. (2020) An Online Pedagogy of Kindness with Cate Denial. In: Nave L (ed) Think UDL. Podcast about Universal Design for Learning.
Leathwood C. (2005) Assessment policy and practice in higher education: purpose, standards and equity. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 30: 307-324.
Lynch K. (2010) Carelessness: A hidden doxa of higher education. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 9: 54-67.
Overgaard C and Tack S. (2020) Studying during COVID-19: insights from Sociology and Gender Studies students. Macquarie University Teaching Blog, Teche.
Stommel J. (2014) Critical Digital Pedagogy: a Definition. Available at: https://hybridpedagogy.org/critical-digital-pedagogy-definition/.
Stommel J. (2017) Why I Don’t Grade. In: Stommel J (ed) JesseStommel.
Stommel J. (2021) Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning. In: Ross C (ed) Ungrading with Jesse Stommel.
van Nistelrooij I, Schaafsma P and Tronto JC. (2014) Ricoeur and the ethics of care. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 17: 485-491.
Dr Charlotte Overgaard has taught in the Discipline of Sociology since 2011. When she is not pushing for kindness as a teaching practice, she focusses her research on the boundary points of paid and unpaid work, care work and welfare states. She currently works with colleagues in Sociology on a number of topics, including international student housing and immigrant care workers.
Dr Jacqueline Mackaway has taught an applied research unit in the Discipline of Sociology since 2015. When she is not pushing for kindness as a teaching practice, she focusses her research on the nature of work and employment, including the future of work more broadly. She has also published extensively on work-integrated learning (WIL).