I remember the first time I taught a class during my teacher training. I had observed an experienced teacher with the same group just a week before, and they had done everything she asked them to do without issue. Now that I was standing before them, however, I couldn’t even get them to be quiet enough to take the register!
I soon learnt, as I continued that rocky first few months in the profession, that there was a fundamental difference between the way that students interacted with someone they had a good relationship with, and the way they interacted with a stranger. You can see it in any school in the country when an unknown supply teacher enters the room to cover a lesson. If not total chaos, then certainly a low-grade turmoil usually greets the intrepid interloper. Boundaries are tested. Limits are pushed. Wars are waged.
What surprised me though, as I continued in my teaching career, was to see that there are even some established teachers within schools who still struggle to forge a productive relationship with their classes, despite having months, if not years, of experience with their students. You can hear these people yelling as you walk along the corridor, barking orders that fall on deaf ears or threatening ever-escalating punishments in order to coerce classes into doing what, with other teachers in the same school, these same children would willingly do as a matter of course. Indeed, there can be nothing more depressing for some teachers than to observe a class they are having difficulties with, behave like absolute angels with another colleague down the hall. A bad student/teacher relationship is perhaps even worse than having no relationship at all.
Luckily, this is not something I have had much of a problem with since that first placement school all those years ago. But to forge a productive relationship with my classes by the time I reached my second placement I did not look for help in books on educational theory or seek the advice of experienced teaching colleagues. Instead I found the wisdom I needed in an unusual place: professional wrestling and stand-up comedy.
I have been a fan of professional wrestling since I caught a glimpse of my first Wrestlemania as a child. The minute I saw Jake “The Snake” Roberts DDT The Undertaker onto the concrete floor of Indiana’s Hoosier Dome only to have the apparently “undead” Undertaker sit straight up as if he wasn’t hurt at all, I was hooked! And now, twenty-five years later, over the decades of watching wrestling, I have seen many new athletes rise up the ring-ranks from rookie to headline act. In wrestling, your popularity with the crowd is known as “getting over”, and it is this relationship with the people paying money to see you which will make or break a career. A good guy that no-one wants to cheer for, or a bad guy that no-one wants to boo will not get far in the industry, whereas someone who fires up an arena with emotional connection as soon as they step foot through the curtain could see themselves earning millions of dollars a year.
Although the exact alchemy of what exactly is going to work with a particular building full of people day-to-day is an inexact science, what has been shown to be true time and time again is that the thing which connects most with crowds is honesty. In wrestling, most people wrestle as characters (known as “gimmicks”), and gimmicks are inherently dishonest. (The Undertaker wasn’t really dead. Jake “The Snake” was not a snake.) However, the gimmicks which work best consistently seem to be those based in the reality of the person portraying them. As “The Rock” once put it: a good gimmick is a person’s real personality “with the volume turned up”. So while the Undertaker wasn’t really dead, he was legitimately eerie-looking and liked all things macabre; while Jake “The Snake” wasn’t a snake, psychologically, he was devious and dangerous like one, and it showed in his eyes and the way he spoke. Take a man called Steve and call him “The Ringmaster” and his appearance at an arena will be greeted with indifference; take that same Steve and let him talk from the heart about his frustrations with his boss and how he thinks he’s better than everyone else, and we get “Stone Cold” Steve Austin! While a parade of wrestling nobodies tried and failed over the years to impress, the ones who were able to turn their true selves into something an audience could grasp became legends.
And this lesson from wrestling was also demonstrated in my second passion – comedy.
One of my favourite comic actors is Bill Murray, and, like other comedy legends – Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, to name but a few – he had made his big break on the long-running US TV series, Saturday Night Live. However, what I was surprised to find out as I read a history of the show, was that when Bill Murray first turned up on TV, the audience didn’t really like him. He was the “new guy” and they missed Chevy Chase, who Murray was there to replace. Bill Murray – future comedy icon and a personal hero of mine – was struggling! But then somehow he went on to become one of the most beloved SNL cast members of all time. How did it happen?
Well, the change happened when SNL producer, Lorne Michaels told Murray to introduce himself to the national TV audience. So that’s exactly what he did. Bill Murray literally spoke as himself on camera, not a character, and said to the viewers, “I don’t think I’m making it on the show,” before asking them “if you could see it in your heart to laugh whenever I say something” (noting it would not just make life easier on him, but it would be a big help to the “widowed mother” he was supporting).
This same idea soon became a standard feature of Saturday Night Live’s numerous cast changes over the years: finding ways to introduce viewers to new faces by giving the performers the opportunity to do individual personality pieces where they could reveal aspects of their true selves to the TV audience. Be vulnerable. Be real. Lorne Michaels used the same approach with the cult classic Canadian comedy show, Kids in the Hall, which he also produced, ensuring that, amongst the skits and sketches, were plenty of individual to-camera pieces by each of the five troupe members, speaking not in character but as themselves. Once we felt a personal connection to Bruce, Dave, Mike, Kevin and Scott, we were happy to indulge them in whatever weird ideas they wanted to show us. All these years later, I will still watch anything those five actors are in!
You can see the same technique used in soaps like Eastenders whenever they introduce a new character. While the first appearance tends to be a loud, broad brush-stroke idea of who the new person is to get their fundamentals across to the audience – and often the viewer is left worried about how this new cartoon of a character is going to assimilate into the established reality of the show – a few episodes later, we learn something humanising about the cartoon – perhaps discovering a secret from their past, or a relationship or trauma they are involved in – and before our eyes they stop being something obnoxious and intrusive on our screens and become three-dimensional human beings; someone we’re willing to give a chance.
Which is ultimately what we as teachers are asking our students: give us a chance. Give us a chance to tell you something amazing. To show you how to do something you didn’t know you could do. To make you think about something in a brand new way. To teach you and unlock whole new worlds you didn’t even know existed!
And just like a new wrestler walking down the aisle to the ring, or a performer bursting onto our screens, we will be met by an audience of people all predisposed to be sceptical. To put their guards up and not want to give us that chance. And whether it is the classroom or the stage, the way to win a crowd over is the same in every case: have something to show them worth seeing (your pedagogical and subject bonafides), but most importantly, show them you’re someone they want to see it from.
I’m fairly sure this is the reason the majority of contemporary entertainers have significant social media presence: I know for sure there are people I now regularly consume the products of in the entertainment industry just because I grew to love them on Instagram, or on Twitter. Like the person, and you’ll like what they do.
The best way I heard it put was from Billy Crystal when he was interviewed by Marc Maron on the excellent WTF podcast back in 2016. Early in his career, Crystal performed a set which was seen by heavyweight producer Jack Rollins. Despite the audience seeming to respond well enough to Crystal’s set, Rollins said he didn’t care for the performance because Crystal didn’t “leave a tip”. By this he meant “you did a lot of bits…but the audience had no idea about who you were when you left the stage. You didn’t leave a tip…that little extra something that you leave because it was good…so they say “I like the guy who did the thing…he’s a nice man”…you never once said “I”, “I think, “I feel””. The advice that night changed Crystal’s entire approach to comedy. He moved away from hiding behind characters and spoke more about who Billy Crystal was, putting himself in the material. Leaving a tip. Without that fundamental change, we would not still be talking about Billy Crystal today.
My advice to teachers looking to form a more productive relationship with their students is to leave them a tip. What the tip is, is up to you. It could be a personal story relating to the topic you’re teaching, it could be running an extra-curricular club that shares one of your personal interests, or it could be simply showing the passion you personally have for your own subject and talking a little bit about why you are so passionate. But whatever it is, that tip, that little bit of yourself which accompanies your teaching, will be the thing that “gets you over” in the classroom and elevates you from simply being a stranger standing in front of young people wanting to talk to them about something they are not necessarily open to hearing about, to being someone they are genuinely interested in listening to. Someone they will be willing to give a chance.
When I reached my second placement during my year of teacher-training, I was ready. I had a lesson on miracles with year 11 and began by showing them a real photograph of my actual grandmother. I then told them a complete lie about how she had been wheelchair-bound until one day a strong feeling overcame her that she would be able to walk if she went to church. I told them how she took step by painful step and miraculously reached the church unaided, walking for the first time in years! The lesson was about David Hume, and people’s credulity when it comes to testimony of miracles, but for me the real lesson was that as soon as the students saw that glimpse into my own real life – a picture of my real grandmother smiling innocently on the PowerPoint screen as I blatantly lied about her – they were hooked by my every word. And when they found out (fairly soon into the lesson) that I had completely lied to them, they were only more interested in what I had to say, trying to figure out what was real, and what was not?
When I admitted that I had felt so guilty about lying and had actually called my gran up the weekend before to clear it with her in advance, I left them a tip, and taught them happily and without incident the rest of my placement.
If you’ve read this far, consider how much your reading this post had to do with seeking out advice for how to forge better relationships in the classroom, and how much has it to do with feeling like you know me a little better now from what I’ve revealed in this post (I like wrestling; I like Bill Murray, SNL, Kids in the Hall and Eastenders; I lie to children about my own grandmother…etc.), so you gave me a chance?
Since that first placement all those years ago, I have made sure to leave tips with every class I have ever taught, and I have never had to fight to be given a chance to teach since. If you find yourself still struggling to be heard in your own classroom, and wondering what you can do to engage and enthuse your students, think about leaving them a tip. After all, we know it works the other way round. We’ve all had that nuisance student who is the bane of our existence in the classroom who we suddenly see in a new light once we see them in a different context – a school trip, representing the school in a sporting event, participating in a club – and realise there’s more to them than just a bad grade and a few annoying questions.
Remind your students that you are a real, 3D human being – and give them the respect of remembering the same about them – and believe it or not, they will treat you like one.