The Big Secret of Good Teaching

March 2012

There’s a basic undeniable truth about teaching which is inherently unscientific and that is the fact that we learn best from the people we like.

Go with the flow. A school of fish swim as one. So should a class.

Therefore it seems to me that the most important thing a teacher can do is be liked. At least for the most part. Now this clearly goes against what books, courses, and training manuals say about teaching, which is that you need to understand second language acquistion theories, pedagogical terminology, and technical aspects of classroom management. But greater than all this is the basic human factor. It overrides all others.

The human factor is why we admire and trust leaders who can communicate. It’s why we idolise good actors. We need people with heart. Strange as it might sound, as humans we have less personal need for people with brains. Intelligence is useful in life but being super-intelligent, especially to the detriment of everything else, is not. Attitude is more important than a fixed genetic trait like IQ, as a determining factor in the outcome of one’s life.

This is something Malcolm Gladwell expands on quite well in ‘Outliers’. Being tall does not automatically make you a good basketball player. There are other factors including dedication, determination, practice, and passion — all of which boil down to attitude. Likewise brains do not always equate with success in life, success with people, or success as a teacher. What’s needed is the ability to get on with people. No man is an island and we live in a world of other people. We need them as much as they need us. This is truer today than it has ever been.

Holmes & Watson
We need Watson. Watson is us. He has a heart. He has human qualities like common sense and courage. The story has to be told through him because Holmes is so brilliant we find it hard to identify with him.

We like people we can see ourselves in. We’re attracted to people like us. That’s the fundamental of it. So as a teacher it doesn’t matter if you have done all the courses and have read all the books. The foundation is a practical one: being a likeable person. If you can be that first and foremost, then you can teach.

Once you demonstrate the people skills, then you can learn all the techniques and best practices — which we do need to learn to become masters. But an experience of the world and an ability to connect with people cannot be bought. If you develop this, then you are immediately and naturally in a better postion to command attention and engender learning.

As a teacher trainer, if I see someone with people skills but his or her technique is poor then I’m not half as concerned as when I see someone soberly doing their work but without much intimacy with the people in the room and without much in the way of a smile. I know that the former is a problem of knowledge and skills, while the latter is a problem of attitude and habits — and that can be much harder to fix.

The trick is in trading places with the people in front of you and imagining yourself as them. That’s the basis for communicating well. It means recognising the students as valuable and important people in the world who share an equal standing with you. If you do that, they will willingly recognise you as someone to listen to and learn from. It’s an equitable relationship. It’s fair. We all need attention and we all feel insignificant if we don’t get it. It’s like when you forget a student’s name — it makes them feel kind of worthless for a moment.

“Only connect! ... Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” ~ EM Forster

If you can see things and feel things from the postion of being that person or group then you become one with that person or group and that quality of rapport is worth gold in the classroom.

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” ~ Henry Ford