The best teachers make their students feel.

Have you ever watched a master at work while they deliver to an audience? It could be a presenter, a public speaker or a classroom teacher.

The whole audience is breathless. You, and everyone else, are doting on every word. No one is fiddling with their watch or daydreaming or whispering to the person next door. Everyone’s on board. Crucially, their message is being heard. People will go away from this inspired to learn more, try something new, or change the way they look at the world. The moment will live in people’s hearts and minds.

Now contrast this with the vast majority of lessons, assemblies, conference events and so on. Even if there are no outward signs of distraction, engagement is low. You’re watching but are you listening? You’re nodding but are you thinking? You get what they are trying to say but you’re not compelled to act or agree or become a champion. There is a sort of dull rot to the room’s collective consciousness. Everyone has to be there, but only because they don’t have the bravery to stand up and walk out.

Now think of this feeling times 100 and you get most secondary schools.

I wish teachers were taught this on day one everyone could stop listening to dull presentations. Life is too short for dull presentations.

Let me explain by way of analogy first. I come from a background in wine. I have spent time with many different winemakers in many different vineyards. My father is a popular man in the trade. Anyway, there is an expression that is universal to all these producers. You can make bad wine with great grapes, but you cannot make great wine with bad grapes. It took me many days picking grapes to really asorb this message. Feel free to re-read it. The crux is that without great viticulture and grapes, there is no possibility of success.

The same is true of educators. There is no possibility of success unless you get some things right first. Without emotion, any teacher is dead in the water. A failure before they even start. Without trust and strong relationships, the grapes are dead on the vine.

Everyone is present, but only because they don’t have the bravery to stand up and walk out.

Now, when I was training to teach, people bombarded me with lots of techniques to maintain classroom authority and be a successful teacher. Every teacher that walked past my gave me some kind of advice. The Bible of teaching a la TeachFirst was Teaching Like a Champion (TLAC) by Doug Lemov and boy did I know it.

TLAC, affectionately known among all trainees, has forty-nine principles. I knew them all. Each week I would perfect a different routine. I worked on how to greet the kids at the door. How to start the lesson in the most efficient way possible. How to ask questions randomly to keep everyone on their toes. How to wait for answers to give optimal thinking time. I could go on. None of it made me a particularly good teacher.

Now I know better. The problem was I was stuck on the specifics before I had my foundations. To go back to my analogy, I was learning to ferment the wine with mouldy grapes. Regardless of my lesson structure, I failed because the kids didn’t believe in me, nor trust me. They had no connection to the topics I was teaching. They didn’t feel anything.

The truth is teaching and learning are an emotional business. The best teacher is not the most well-structured, or smooth, or efficient. Sure there is a place for effective knowledge transfer. But the best teachers – the teachers that you remember for years after you say goodbye – are the ones who made you feel something. These are the ones who create lifelong learners and happy young adults. They are the ones who enjoy their jobs and the kids company. I wish I heard this when I first started teaching! If you are trying to teach something, plan how you want to make them feel first. Then, and only then, look at the specifics.

Let’s take climate change, for example. You can do all the PowerPoints in the world, every day for a year if you like. Use all the new-fangled swooshs and animations. Nobody is going to listen to you. You can put up all the doom statistics and spine-tingling warnings. It is not going to touch the sides because your audience is not feeling anything. The solution: make them feel the power of nature and experience its wonder. I do not know one person who has spent a long time in nature and fully appreciated the birds and bees that doesn’t want to protect it. Not one. You can talk all you want about how we must work with nature, not fight it but instead let them try something like surfing. It only takes one smash of a wave to realize there is no contest.

How do you teach an overconfident boy to be more humble? My suggestion wouldn’t be that you sit them down and lecture them on the virtues of humility, “Jonny, the thing is, you don’t know everything and it’s a real turn off to potential friends….”. No. Instead, let them take up boxing or something similar. All the bravado and “I’ll go down to no-one” is quickly replaced after a short spar or lap round the field. Better yet, let them stay and learn the value of hard work. Then they can feel the value of listening and training hard. I remember sitting down with a headmaster in a group. He wanted to show us the challenges of being a leader. He didn’t talk much. Instead, with a gleeful smile, he split us into pairs. He gave person one a blank piece of paper with a pencil and person two a picture (to be concealed from their partner). The challenge was for each pair to accurately represent the picture without showing it. Person two had to describe it and person one had to draw what they heard. Then the timer started. Let the fun begin. At the end, among all our mangled drawings, we saw his point. You can have a perfect picture in your head but it is difficult to transfer this message – with all its detail – through words. It’s amazing how people can misinterpret what you say. We were only doing a picture of Venice, imagine what it is like to talk about ethos or culture.

So I repeat, by way of plea to my fellow educators: if you are trying to present something, plan how you want to make them feel first. Then worry about the details. Teaching maths I found many different ways to make someone feel its power, mystery and fun. I often like showing misleading graphs when teaching statistics. Each time I would happily grin until the class could work out how they were being duped. Drawing circles and measuring the ratio between the circumference and diameter, I used to love sharing my excitement. How could it possibly be that this weird number (3.14…) keeps coming up? Is maths created or does it exist as part of the universe? Many times I gave students a particularly difficult problem to solve and did not give them the answer even at the end of the lesson. I told them not to tell each other lest they ruin the surprise. Let everyone feel the frustration but also jubilation of true problem solving.

People never forget how you make them feel, according to Maya Angelou. I want to add though: feelings are important because they sustain us. They motivate action. They make us look deeper. If you are looking to make an impact, best not forget it.

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