3 Steps to Be a Better Teacher or Speaker

Every teacher has bad days. Days when the lesson flops, when the students don’t listen, when the teacher’s effervescent passion has lost all its fizz. Leaders of all sorts experience the same type of frustration when their presentations fail to grip their audience.

The easy response is to blame someone else. Teachers point to the laziness of their students. Bosses point to the lack of drive in their employees. Blaming the audience always makes the speaker feel instantly better, because it means he doesn’t have to change anything. He did his part, but the audience just didn’t show up.

This is a comforting response, but it’s all wrong.

Stupid wrong.

I recently watched a talk given by Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic since 1979 (the year I was born!). Zander masterfully demonstrates how to awaken passion in others.  He argues that true teaching isn’t about communicating data, but about awakening young minds to new possibilities.

Here are the three points about effective teaching I took away from this talk:

  1. Trust the capacity of your students. In Zander’s words, the teacher must “not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realize whatever he’s dreaming” [6:00ff]. The teacher has to trust that his students are capable of accomplishing great things in the classroom. There are incredible possibilities resting in each student, like gems in a mine. The teacher must learn to look at his students the way a sculptor looks at a block of marble or a farmer sees a field of wheat. He has to see the latent beauty hiding under the chaff. And if he can’t see it yet, he must trust that it is there.
  2. Awaken possibilities in your students. At the end of the talk, Zander explains the role of the conductor. He says, “The conductor doesn’t make a sound. He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful…My job was to awaken possibility in other people” [17:30ff]. In the classroom, the teacher is the conductor.  She doesn’t make the music; she draws it out of the students, just as the conductor evokes a symphony from the musicians. The sculptor’s eye sees the figure hidden in the marble, and her hands bring it forth for everyone else to behold. Likewise, through her character and skill, the teacher brings to life the latent possibilities of her students. Her power comes from her ability to make her students sing in harmony with her vision.
  3. Take the blame for bored students. Now let’s apply all of this to the failed lesson in the opening paragraph of this post. Who’s to blame? If our teaching had been effective, then our passion would be contagious. If this hasn’t happened, then we’ve failed to awaken the possibilities of our students. We’ve failed to do our jobs as teachers. The students aren’t buzzing with passion because we failed to communicate it. Their mediocre response is most likely the result of our mediocre delivery, lame preparation, and bland presentation. No one can get excited about baloney on white bread, so if our students don’t respond well to the meal we’ve prepared, then we need to figure out how we screwed up the recipe.

Every teacher has bad days. Thankfully, the teaching life is full of grace and second chances. Tomorrow, the students will be back in their seats, sitting there with all their hidden potential.

Will you be ready to teach them?

Question: How would your teaching or leadership be different if you saw yourself as a “conductor” instead?