There’s a quote in Adam Grant’s excellent book, Originals, that stands out – particularly when read through the eyes of an educator:
“In the deepest sense of the word, a friend is someone who sees more potential in you than you see in yourself, someone who helps you become the best version of yourself.”
This is not just true of friends.
In the deepest sense of the term, a great teacher is someone who sees more potential in their students than their students see in themselves, someone who helps their students become the best version of themselves.
That is our goal.
There is a very unusual type of statistic kept in professional Australian Rules Football called a ‘one-percenter‘. A one-percenter is a statistic that recognises an action by a player that entails just a little more effort or courage than normal.
An example of a one-percenter is when a player chases the ball-carrying opposition player over an extended distance. Even if the player is unable to catch or tackle the ball-carrier, the added pressure applied because of the chase is deemed valuable. These one-percenters, in themselves, often have very little apparent impact on the game, in fact they can easily go unnoticed, but collectively they can change the result.
The best educators tend to make an artform of one-percenters. The next chance you have to see an outstanding teacher in action, try to see beyond their content expertise and refined pedagogy and you might observe things like:
- their ability to subtly shift the energy in the room;
- an almost imperceptible nod of gratitude to a child who has again helped another student;
- a well-timed, self-deprecating joke to defuse anxiety;
- an extraordinary level of organisation, readiness, adaptability and withitness;
- an enhanced ability to ‘think like a student’, to empathise, and to inspire;
- an absolute present-mindedness, the sense that there is nothing more important than this lesson, this child, this moment.
In football and in teaching, it’s true that, sometimes, it’s the ‘big’ moments that matter – the great goals, the amazing lesson. But ultimately, the most respected and valued footballers and teachers are the ones who turn up authentically again and again, and really commit to the one-percenters.
If you had to distill and identify just two, simple guiding principles that underpin the most successful school corporate cultures, it may well be these:
- Continuously expect the highest standards of integrity, authenticity and professionalism from yourself and your colleagues.
- Be compassionate. Behind the face of every one of your colleagues, is a personal struggle that you will never fully understand. The struggles of some are bigger than others’, but we all have them. Whilst we aim to be at our best at all times, because we are human, we cannot be.
Successful cultures don’t rely on us being at our best – all the time. They rely on us turning up and doing our best – all the time – despite our struggles.
Having had the opportunity to interview, work with and meet some of the world’s best teachers, one of the most striking similarities is just how average they are – or to be more precise, how balanced they are.
Great teaching is not about leveraging extreme talent or skill. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Great teaching is about developing access to a broad spectrum of capacities, strengths, and character and prudently choosing the right point on the spectrum to mindfully guide in-the-moment decision making and behaviour.
In the same way that the best chefs add a little sweetness to sour ingredients to create a beautifully balanced dish, the best teachers balance the following:
- confidence and humility;
- planning and action;
- assertiveness and letting go;
- excitement and serenity (calmness);
- fostering achievement and allowing failure;
- providing support and nurturing independence.
The ancient Greek temple of Apollo bore the inscription ‘Meden Agan’ – meaning ‘Nothing in excess’. The Greeks knew that a virtuous life, a good and happy life was one characterised by moderation and balance. Great teachers know this too.
The world would be a a little bit less interesting if we all liked the same music. A colleague recently attended a heavy metal music festival – and loved it. That’s strange – to me. I love music and have listened to enough heavy metal to know that I just don’t get it. In fact, the more I listen to it, the less I think I like it.
Human preference is a very complex thing. Undoubtedly, our experience and personal history influence the food we like, the art we enjoy and where we like to go on holiday. But, increasingly, we’re finding that personality and even genetics also play a role in everything from our like or dislike for bitter coffee to our temperature preference.
This is why there is no one specific style of teaching that is best. When I had the opportunity to interview some of the world’s best teachers for a writing project in 2011, there were certainly some consistencies between them all such as their unwavering sense of their own values and a their deep personal investment in knowing each student. But these world-class educators were all very different in style – some radically so. In fact, it was often their comfort with their idiosyncrasies that made them stand out.
There is certainly good and bad teaching, but there is no inherently good or bad style of teaching.
If anyone ever criticises your teaching style or suggests you need to do things differently – they might be right – we need to remain open to feedback – but they might be wrong. They might just have a different preference. And if they’re the type of person who likes heavy metal – don’t listen to anything they say! 😉