Could Advice From a US Navy SEAL Make You a Better Teacher?

“The only easy day was yesterday” – Navy SEAL motto

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A few years ago I read a book titled ‘Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win’. The book, written by former US Navy SEAL commander Jocko Willink, set out to teach leadership skills through the training and experience acquired by US Special Forces. And while it was marketed as a business book, I wondered whether his advice might help me become a better teacher.

Here are the book’s key points, written with teachers in mind:

Take responsibility for what happens [in your lessons]

As a trainee I didn’t want to take the blame for the poor behaviour that was happening in my lessons. I shied away from constructive criticism and, needless to say, did not improve as expected.

I had to learn that there was no-one else to blame for my mistakes and failures. When students weren’t behaving in my lessons, I wanted to blame them for their misbehaviour, but I see in hindsight that it was a fault of my poor classroom management. Had I admitted this, stopped making excuses and started to consistently address this weakness, the better off I would have been.

Hold [students] accountable for poor work or behaviour

As a new teacher, I didn’t enforce standards enough and I tolerated poor behaviour and insufficient effort. If homework was not done, I set a detention and moved on. But shouldn’t I have got the student to do it? To actually take responsibility for his work? Students should be guided to know where they need to improve and eventually learn to hold themselves to higher standards.

Really believe in what you’re doing

One of the biggest traps I fell into as a trainee was forgetting that I was part of something much bigger than myself. Teacher training can be a very selfish pursuit where you consider your own abilities and career above all else and this selfish attitude must have emanated from me in the classroom. My actions and words did not reflect someone who really believed in helping the students achieve what they are capable of.

In order to inspire our students, I needed to really believe that what I was teaching was worthwhile. That scholarly pursuits are achievable goals. For this reason I started making sure I knew why I was teaching particular topics. And if you’re not sure, ask your line manager: What is the reason behind this? What is the reason for having the students memorise poetry? What is the reason behind teaching Frankenstein to Year 8? They will have been implemented it as a strategy to help the students achieve so try to understand their reasoning so you can believe in it too.

Remove your personal agenda and concentrate on the mission

When I started teaching, I focused on the wrong things. Rather than concentrating on how to actually become a good teacher, I wanted to be seen as a good teacher. The difference in subtle, but important because it altered my actions. Being perceived as a good teacher meant that I hid my mistakes by blaming others. If only I had shown greater humility: admitting I was wrong and taking responsibility for my development, perhaps I would not have had to endure years that were quite as challenging.

Work as a team

One aspect of teaching that appealed to me early on was the apparent independence; just me, the subject and some students. But the reality is that you’re part of a much larger school community. The success of your students depends upon your willingness to work well with other staff members, to avoid competition with colleagues, or the temptation to portion blame when things go badly. Communicate and support one another.

Simplify complexities

When my students didn’t do a task, or did it wrongly, it was usually because they didn’t truly understand. Instructions need to be clear if your students are going to understand what you want them to do. My instructions were not always simple, clear and concise.

Whenever I’ve created opportunities for the students to ask questions to clarify what they do not understand, they have worked better. Encourage their questions and take the time to explain. Keep your lessons and your communication simple.


Your workload

The high workload teachers experience is frequently bemoaned, and justifiably so. Whenever I’ve tried to do everything at once, it ended badly. So when you feel overwhelmed, stay calm, see what’s most important and give that your full attention.

To help, look ahead from time to time so that you can plan for contingencies. Staying ahead of the curve can stop you from getting overwhelmed.

Your students’ tasks

Helping your students understand what should be a priority for them can make difficult tasks more manageable. If you want them to write an essay, for instance, explain that there is an order to how they should approach the task such as deciding on the over-arching argument before getting into the minutia of the ideas.

Who gets your attention

I used to try to involve myself with every student, but this is too exhausting and not sustainable. Now I just try to concentrate on those who really need it. So that you can assess where your priorities should lie, take a step back and just observe your class working from time to time.

Help [students] become more pro-active

Sometime I have a bad tendency to take too much on myself and micromanage the class.

What I’ve learnt is to inhabit the middle ground and be willing to take control when needed or to step back when appropriate. We should empower students to make better decisions for themselves by helping them understand not just what to do, but why they are doing it.

This doesn’t mean they get complete freedom. But if they feel trusted and they know what the goal is, they should feel free to make recommendations for decisions outside of their responsibility – for instance, the topics they would like to revise, or the sorts of activities they think work best for them.

Plan [your lessons]

The lesson should begin with an objective; a focused aim of what is going to be learnt. You should make it clear to the students that this is what they should learn and the purpose behind learning it so that they buy into it at the start.

That said, when planning lessons, don’t get too bogged down in detail as the students may take it somewhere even better than you had imagined. This often happens in my English lessons. I’ll plan a lesson with my interpretation of a poem in mind, only for a student to throw out an idea that is far superior.

Allow enough time for discussion, questions and clarification. Prepare for  foreseeable problems, mitigating risk, while accepting that there will always be some level of risk in lessons.

Focus on what you can control, which I’ve realised is less than I first believed. You can always adapt your lessons as you go with an internal de-brief after each. What went right and what went wrong? Then do more of what works and throw away what doesn’t.

Consider how your lessons are achieving the overall goals of the school. Is there a big push for literacy or numeracy? Extended writing? Using a word of the week? You can use these whole school initiatives to help guide your lesson planning.


With students

Continually communicate with your students to check they understand the lesson objective and how their day-to-day work in lessons helps them to achieve the end goal.

Be calm, but not robotic. It’s okay to show emotion, but you must be able to control it. It you can’t control your emotions how can you be expected to control anything else?

Be approachable. They need to feel cared for so show confidence, but never cockiness, as this leads to complacency.

With your line manager

If you do not feel supported by your mentor or your department head, don’t blame them. It’s your responsibility to convey to them that support hasn’t been allocated. Make them aware whilst maintaining the highest professionalism.

One of the most important roles you have is to support your school leadership especially in front of students. Even if you don’t agree with their decision it is important to try to understand it and execute it as if it were your own.

Tell your department head what you’re going to do rather than asking what they think you should do. They might disagree and ask that you do something else, but part of becoming a professional is finding solutions to problems yourself.

Act decisively

There were plenty of moments when I felt afraid or uncertain which led to inaction. In times of uncertainty, it pays to act with decisiveness. There is no 100 per cent right solution because you will never have all the information. Make an educated guess and be comfortable with that.

While being a Navy SEAL and being a teacher couldn’t be more different, it seems clear to me that being successful in either field requires a somewhat comparable skillset. And not unlike The Teams, you will be more successful as a teacher once you learn to take responsibility, communicate clearly and work towards a goal that is greater than yourself.


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