How understanding teacher personality type might help us in the COVID transition back to school

by Jeanie Davies

Teachers are certainly at the eye of the storm at the moment and an overriding message from Unions seems to be hellbent on putting on the brakes to a return to school.  Depending on viewpoint we can see this as a mealy mouthed, self-centred response to the current crisis where other front-line workers have stayed on-guard; or a safety conscious, person-centred stance in the protection of hundreds of thousands in a sea of conflicting information and mis-understanding.

“But what if we could look at this through a different lens…”

But what if we could look at this through a different, to recognise traits common within a majority of teachers that might allow us to see what the current situation and messaging from the government is triggering in schools.

Having used the Myers Briggs personality type indicator (MBTI) in schools for many years I have noticed that a majority of teachers tend to have a S (Sensing) and J (Judging) tendencies.  Please don’t get caught up in those two words; this does not mean that people with these traits are more sensitive or judgemental. Instead it means that these traits tend to be much more at home with order and structure, like to take things pragmatically step by step, may value tradition and proof, like systems and procedures and feel at home planning and scheduling.  People with these personality traits much prefer orderliness, completion of tasks and control.

In a time when every aspect of this has gone out of the window – the very nature and structure of schools from timetabling, to being in school-shaped buildings, to the usual form of classroom and structured interactions of register taking, line forming, hand raising and assembly has been ripped from beneath teachers. It is not surprising that a body of people who value structure and constancy will react in a highly anxious way – probably more so that people with personality traits that are naturally more spontaneous, chaotic and disordered.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I am by no means brushing every member of the teaching profession with the same personality type, we are each individual and there are many that are more maverick, disordered and nonconformist, but to look from a larger perspective of a majority type can enable some insight.  Understanding the very nature of people whose values are built on stability means that the messaging has to be more in-line with this thinking, otherwise we find ourselves in in uproar.

The current messaging is loose probably for many reasons, we are building a ship as it sails and making fast, granular, thought-through decisions is paradoxically hard.  There is something also in the messaging that allows the freedom to make your own local decisions, right for your staff and community.  However, enabling a workforce who are excellent at working within the parameters of a structure rather than dreaming the structure in the first place means that this messaging is daunting; particularly when getting it wrong feels like it might risk lives.

How do we therefore move our courageous and caring, altruistic and intelligent, but possibly cautious and structured, orderly and predictable teaching workforce through this?

How do we therefore move our courageous and caring, altruistic and intelligent, but possibly cautious and structured, orderly and predictable teaching workforce through this?

  • Acknowledgement that deep aspects of what people value have been ripped away
  • Kind holding and discussion as we move through this
  • Harnessing the power within the teaching community to build robust procedures 
  • Clear and granular direction at school level – an algorithmic approach 
  • Constant recognition of the different approach needed at this time
  • Curious understanding of each person’s concerns 
  • Empowerment though kindness and ensuring people can talk this through
  • Take away the managerial and competency-based fear of doing it right – know this is a time for having a go and seeing what happens 
  • Allowing staff to place themselves on a spectrum of risk in relation to the virus and catering for the groups within this – for example offering PPE where required, shielding those who need it
  • A mantra of bumpy times ahead, cool heads needed, open to new thinking 

We must acknowledge that the challenge is great and counter to our natures but we can learn and develop when we are so deeply out of our comfort zone – and boy is that where we are as a profession at the moment.