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Children's Response to Teachers

Cedric Cullingford

Children have a very clear sense of what makes a good or bad teacher.

Journal issue: 

Children’s Response
to Teachers

Cedric Cullingford

University of Huddersfield


GIVEN THE CIRCUMSTANCES in which they operate I am often amazed how well teachers do. At the best of times, teaching is a very complex job. Far from dealing with physical symptoms of one person at a time, like a doctor, a teacher is trying to understand, enlighten, control and motivate the minds of about thirty individuals at the same time. The demands on those wishing to do a good job are great.

But the teachers do not have a chance to perform in the best conditions. Quite apart from the fact that they are dealing with large numbers and with a lack of support in terms of resources, they are having to put up with many outside pressures which diminish their status and their professionalism. In all the many studies of effective schools that have been carried out throughout the world there are a number of broad conclusions on which they all agree. Good schools depend on teachers who have a sense of ownership over what they are doing and a sense of shared purpose. Good schools depend on teachers having time to think and having time to share their thinking with other teachers at the school.

The problem for many schools is that the basic requirements for “good schools” tend to be ignored by those who control them. Instead of ownership and professional standards, we witness a centralised curriculum and batteries of assessments — most of which the teachers find meaningless.

The result of this is a host of disaffected teachers, and even more tellingly, disaffected children. Many pupils find school a meaningless burden that makes little sense to them. We therefore witness the growth of truancy where the pupils make their own judgment about their experience of school plain. But these are just the obvious manifestations of disaffection. There are many children who are excluded from school because of behaviour problems. What of those who psychologically exclude themselves, who play the game of mental truancy by pretending to work but who are day-dreaming; those who learn how to avoid work? And what of those who have been called the “invisible children”, the ones who have become accomplished at not being noticed, at doing the minimum amount of work not to get into trouble?

THE RESEARCH on which the findings of this article are based derive from two different types of study. Firstly studies about disaffected children — the truants, the bullies and their victims, the excluded and the unhappy who all have very clear (and negative) views of school — and secondly, studies of children in school, ostensibly happy and successful, whose views about teachers in both primary and secondary schools are not those of the failures but the successes. It is important not to dismiss their opinions.

If the results of some of this research make depressing reading this is not the fault of the teachers. It is important to understand the difficulties of being a teacher and the mind set of individual children growing up. In order to understand what to do we need to understand the worst as well as the best. The article will start with some of the negative aspects which emerge from children’s experiences, but it will end up with the positive.

Any understanding of the teacher’s job, especially through the actual experiences of children, needs to begin with the tension between the personality of the individual teacher and the role that he or she has to play. If the teacher does not play the professional role there are real difficulties in terms of discipline. On the other hand, it can be a shock for children to realise that the teacher is human.

Children, of course, are aware of this tension. They like to see if they can make a teacher step out of the role into something different. In Jan Mark’s short story children have bets (and counter-bets) on how long they can make the teacher stay off the intended task. Those children, called “jokers,” are the ones who try to test whether the teacher can share a joke and how far they can take it. The very charisma of a teacher comes from the tension between their public role and their private face.

Children naturally respond to personality as well as role. When one observes incidents of jobsharing, with one teacher taking the morning and the other the afternoon, we see how differently individual children react to both of them. The curriculum and the agreed teaching style might be the same but the children react differently and are motivated differently. Children are, in fact, fully aware of the tension between the person and the role. Sometimes they resent the fact that the teachers take their position too far:

She’s a bit bossy and a bit … she don’t talk to people, you know, the way we have to talk to them, like. Like we have to say please and she didn’t say please like we have to say please. (boy, secondary)

And sometimes they dislike the sense of the over-familiar.

It’s embarrassing. She comes past and winks at me. She comes around and calls me love and asks me to do things. I don’t know why I’m popular with people. (boy, secondary)

TEACHERS are constantly scrutinised and judged. The judgments are passed on from one pupil to another. Each child has comments to make about all the teachers and, indeed, those teachers they only know by repute. They do not always agree with each other about particular teachers, but they do agree on the characteristics of a good or a bad teacher. The problem for pupils in a school is that whilst they make judgments about teachers they are essentially in the hands of teachers, they are ruled by teachers and have to accept their place in the hierarchy. Trouble arises when they no longer do so.

From the children’s point of view, school exists for the sake of teachers, not for pupils. The children think of themselves as being there to give teachers a job, to justify their existence. They do not think of schools as being there primarily for them. They are aware of the immense power that teachers have over their lives and the difference they make:

… The work’s fun … because the teacher is nice and if you had a teacher who was horrible you wouldn’t want to get on and learn and if you’ve got a nice teacher it’s easier to learn. (girl, primary)

I don’t mind her being strict because she was kind. Mrs B. was terrible; she used to take it out on us. (girl, primary)

The difficulty for children is that schools automatically put all power into the hands of teachers. This is why the most plaintive cry is that “it’s unfair”. Children accept the need for discipline, but often experience it being carried out unjustly. All of them describe incidents when they feel the teacher is unfair. The phrase that all the children use is being “picked on”. As in the cases of being bullied, they feel themselves to be victims of unkind attention that draws out their being different

If a teacher didn’t like you they’d be picking on you all the time and telling you off. (boy, primary)

Always picking on me, saying it was always me — and if I say I don’t, getting me into trouble. (boy, secondary)

“They”, the teachers, keep “picking on” children. Sometimes it’s particular ones, but all pupils have experienced this. The result is that all pupils have experienced a strong sense of fear; of personal hurt. The very role of the teacher can cause traumas:

When I talk with Mrs W. my voice goes all funny. I don’t know. My tongue goes all twisted. I get a bit nervous. (girl, primary)

Mrs W. was terrible. She used to take it out on us. I can remember doing a “K” and I used to do the big “K’s” in the Infants and I couldn’t do the little “K’s” it took me a long time and then when I was trying to learn something, the dinner bell would go and I’d get ever so upset at the dinner break because I thought I might be kept in. Once I was trying to read a word and I couldn’t find out what this word was and I went to Miss. It was “the” and because I couldn’t read it I was ever so frightened because she kept going on and on and on. (boy, primary)

THE SUFFERING that children undergo is not intentional. Few teachers deliberately set out to hurt feelings. But given the nature of their role and the power invested in them, and combined with an imposed curriculum and the need to control large classes, it is not surprising that all children’s experience of school includes some painful moments. After all, they are constantly being tested, to see if they fail to answer correctly. Even the most bland of open questions — “How are you today?” — is treated by pupils as a closed question to which they have to guess the right answer. “Why is she asking me this? Why me? What is she going to ask next? What does she want?” They are so accustomed to simple right or wrong answers that the whole tone of school suggests that they are either measuring up to standards or failing. For all children at sometime in their school life school suggests failure. For some children, school always suggests failure.

Teachers are the ones who impose the standards that children need to meet. Teachers are the ones who set the tasks designed always to be a little bit more difficult. The children are, therefore, alert to their own failures and those of others. They feel that teachers are imposing a burden on them rather than helping them:

The teachers might tell you “Come on, get on with that work, sit there and be quiet.” (boy, primary)

And they just go “go away”. (girl, secondary)

Even the language symbolises the roles that teachers play. The most commonly used word by teachers is not “no”, or “be quiet”, but “right”, a signal word meaning anything from “stop” to “listen to me”, to “And now we’ll start something new. Right!”

From the point of view of children, the phrase most commonly used by teachers is “Do it again”.

SO FAR, the comments have been about teachers whom children consider to be fairly normal. Children might prefer some teachers to others, but consider it a normal part of the experience of school to suffer a bit from them. But these teachers are normal if we contrast them with a case study of a teacher whom all the children who suffer from him agree symbolises all the worst characteristics of teachers.

Children are very clear about what makes a bad teacher. Analysing their experience of such a case in a secondary school points up exactly what goes wrong when a teacher cannot work out proper professional relationships, when personal feelings undermine true judgments.

The first characteristic of a bad teacher is the lack of belief in the children or their work:

It upsets me when he shouts. He shouted at me once and I felt upset. He said my work was rubbish. (girl)

He said that it really was horrible and she might have to do it again and she burst out crying. (girl)

Most children try desperately hard to please the teacher and dislike having their work demeaned. It is easy to undermine confidence by pouring scorn on what is produced or inventing impossible targets.

Such attacks on children’s work partly arise because the teacher creates conditions in which it is impossible to work. No-one can properly concentrate; the fear of not doing well enough undermines standards:

I get kind of very nervous and when he shouts I’m sort of edgy and then I make mistakes … he says it’s ‘cos of us he shouts, but I don’t think it is really. (boy)

There is clearly a constant tension in the air which derives from the uncertainty about what the teacher will do next.

This impossible working atmosphere stems from the arbitrary nature of the teachers’ regime. The teacher indulges his changes of mood:

He goes bright red when he tells you off and you try not to laugh, and he goes calm and then he suddenly starts shouting at you. So we don’t talk at all, we just get on with our work, not even looking around. (girl)

The teacher is not consistently firm but arbitrarily angry. He is clearly not in command of his own feelings, which he indulges:

He shouts a bit when he gets angry — he really does shout. Once he got really angry with us — I don’t know why — and he said “Whenever your class comes in, it always makes me angry.” We didn’t know why he said that. (girl)

He does get angry if we ask after he’s explained something — he’s often in a bad mood. (boy)

Children detect a lack of control over himself. They realise that he is not just being angry as a way of maintaining discipline, let alone raising standards of work. Their terror comes about because his assumptions about their behaviour and their work border on the pathological. He is bad-tempered rather than strict.

ONE INSECURITY that children feel in this arbitrary regime is not knowing who will be picked on next. The phrase being picked on is one that children use when they are victims of a bully. This teacher uses his authority to create tension in making arbitrary judgments.

Anything we do — every peek — he shouts at another person that’s right near you. It can be … well, I know I am a bit silly now … but a bit scared. You dunno what he’s going to do, turn … I put my head down and prayed. (boy)

He’s always picking on other children in our class and it’s not fair on them, and you never know who he’s going to pick on next. (girl)

Nothing causes such difficulties for children than this abuse of power. Instead of their belief in fairness, they are confronted with a regime that does not make sense. With their own best judgments they cannot really understand why he becomes angry or why he suddenly picks on individuals. They don’t know who will be the next victim.

He finds different people. First he picked on D, and then there’s two boys who sit together. He’s always picking on them, and there was one boy called Gary and he made him move and he didn’t even do anything — I don’t know what he did — I think he dropped his pen and went to pick it up. Who’s he going to start on next? (girl)

THE RESULT of all this bad temper, self-indulgence and undermining of children’s confidence is not only a lowering of academic standards but a classroom of children who despise the teacher. The children fear him but do not respect him. There is something essentially ridiculous about a teacher who goes bright red and shouts at everybody. This is why, despite themselves and their insecurity, the children have to stop themselves laughing — “you try not to laugh”. At the heart of the brutal lies the ridiculous.

But there is something in the teacher that children despise even more. His singling out of individuals, and his attempts to explain himself signal an attempt to strike up some kind of personal relationship, however twisted. At the centre of the lack of control is a strong desire to be understood, even to be liked:

and then in the end he tried to be all nice to her and as if he hadn’t done it. (girl)

and he started, like, being more friendly, and saying “I’m your friend”. I don’t think that’s right — you go crawling back to a child after you’ve started at them, just to become their friends. (girl)

What the children describe might be an extreme case, but it is an extreme that points up the characteristics of an ineffective teacher. The children’s work is put down, and their self-confidence undermined. There are no clear and consistent rules of behaviour being followed. The picking on individuals, the loss of temper, the emotional tension, and the attempts to be liked all point up the teacher who is not playing a proper role and who damages the motivation of children.

He starts telling people that they’re not very clever, and their work isn’t good and all that. (girl)

SUCH A CASE makes one look with more understanding and more admiration at all those who are effective teachers — firm and consistent, caring for the children more than themselves, having the patience and intelligence to explain complex matters to around thirty individuals — all of different abilities, temperament and styles of learning.

Children are equally clear about the characteristics that are typical of good teachers. They have observed and judged, compared and contrasted over many years. Even the pupils who are most disaffected with school remember some good teachers; just as all have experienced bad ones. When one puts together a synthesis of children’s views of effective teachers certain strands emerge.

The good teacher is someone who shows a genuine interest in the pupils. This manifests itself in two ways. The first is the ability to combine firmness with humanity. Teachers know they must enable their pupils to work. This means that they impose a regime that respects discipline and fairness. In fact children consider a certain amount of strictness as an essential:

With a good teacher you can get on better, but with a soft teacher you can’t do much. (girl, secondary)

At the same time children expect the teacher to have a human side, to be able to share a joke

— the other side of charisma:

It’s nice in Mr D’s class. He always makes jokes and things.… (boy, secondary)

Children expect the teacher both to play the professional role and to reveal that they have a real personality — not as a self-indulgence, but as a sign of self-confidence. But what they most respect is the second characteristic of the good teacher and that is the ability to make things interesting. There are two main signs of this. One is the ability to explain; to communicate clearly and to show an interest in doing so:

If you still don’t understand, you can go up to her and she explains it. Like fractions or anything you don’t understand. Now I do because she does them again with you and shows you. (girl, primary)

The other sign is the ability to vary the teaching methods, by giving children clear tasks, by including games and challenges rather than sticking with routines:

Learning your tables isn’t fun, but doing things is. (boy, primary)

In fact, children are very clear about the typical characteristics of the effective teacher. They are, in many ways, in the best position to know. They also have a clear insight into what makes some teachers fail. Just as the tension between the personal and the professional can be effective, so it can get out of balance and cause both unhappiness and failure in children.

The task of the teacher is never an easy one. The comments of the children make this very clear. Having an understanding of the bad and the good is not enough in itself, although it is at the heart of any improvements one can make to the lives and achievements of children. Having understood, we need to know how we can enable teachers to do their best, not by assessing them, by labelling them good or bad, as seems to be the modern way, but by giving them the conditions in which real teaching and real learning can take place. Good teachers are, after all, of great significance.


Cedric Cullingford is Professor of Education at the University of Huddersfield, Holly Bank Road, Lindley, Huddersfield HD3 3BP. The research referred to in this article is published in:

Cullingford, L. (1991). The Inner World of the School. London: Cassell.


Cullingford, L. (1995). The Effective Teacher. London and New York: Cassell.

The two classic texts on effective schools in the U.K. are:

Mortimore, P., Sammons, P., Stoll, L., Lewis, D., & Ecob, R. (1988). School Matters: The Junior Years. Wells: Open Books.


Rutter, M., Maughan, D., Mortimore, P., & Ouston, J. (1979). Fifteen Thousand Hours — Secondary Schools and Their Effects on Children. London: Open Books.

An interesting source for the “invisible children” is:

Pye, J. (1989). Invisible Children. New York: Oxford University Press.

For more on jokers, gangs and bullies see:

Pollard, A. (1985). The Social World of the Primary School. London: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

The Jan Mark story is in:

Mark, J. (1990). Feet and other Stories. London: Puffin Books.