16 Unforgettable Lessons About Teaching I Learnt from Watching Benjamin Zander

Conducting good lessons

Classical Music Conductor Benjamin Zander

I have a confession to make – I’m not really a fan of TED Talks.

It’s an unpopular opinion, I know. I find the scope and ambition of them to be wonderful, and while the speakers are all experts in their respective fields, it’s rare to find one delivered by someone who is actually good at, well, talking. Too many are clearly nervous, dry-mouthed, reading a heavily scripted speech off an autocue. It’s a turn-off.

But not Benjamin Zander. In 2008 the English conductor and Music Director for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra delivered a TED Talk on (to quote TED) ‘classical music, and helping us all realize our untapped love for it — and by extension, our untapped love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections.’  

Call me ambitious, but if I could achieve even a smidgen of that, I’d retire a happy man.

And while the content of the talk is certainly inspiring, I couldn’t help but feel there was a lot to mine from a teaching perspective. I’m not alone. On YouTube, where the video has been watched over 6 million times, a comment underneath asking, ‘Can you just imagine having this man as a music teacher?’ garnered four thousand ‘likes’.

Do I believe Zander could really hold his own with Year 8 on a windswept Friday afternoon? Not necessarily. In the video he addresses a paying adult audience who are unfailingly polite, aware of his standing in classical music, and are very much in his pocket from the beginning. But, as I’ll explain, I still feel there is a lot that could be transferred.

Here, then, are 16 lessons about teaching I learnt from watching Benjamin Zander’s joyful 2008 TED Talk:

Meet your students where they’re at

‘My estimation is that probably 45 of you [in the audience] are absolutely passionate about classical music…Then there’s another bigger group. These are the people who don’t mind classical music. Now comes the third group. These are people who never listen to classical music. That’s probably the largest group of all.’

In my classes there are some students who appear to adore English. They’ll be the first to have their reading book out in form; they attend creative writing club at lunchtimes; they write for the school newspaper after school.

Then there are those students who appear not to mind the subject. They appear to recognise the importance of being literate, want to do well generally, and might even find some of the topics interesting.

But there are a sizeable few who, if they didn’t have to, would happily sit plucking the pages out of a book, one at a time, like the wings off a fly.

I try to bear this last group in mind to some extent when planning lessons. How am I going to get their eyeballs on the page? How do I make it clear that they need to learn this? What is the point of all this?

I don’t always arrive at answers, mind you. Besides, these will often differ depending on the student, the school, and plenty of other factors. But they are questions I feel I should be asking myself.

Address common misconceptions

‘And then there’s the smallest group of all. These are the people who think they’re tone-deaf… actually, you cannot be tone-deaf. Nobody is tone-deaf…you have a fantastic ear’

As a student at primary school I despised poetry. My teacher in Year 6 once tried to teach us Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. I can’t recall much from those days, curriculum-wise, but I do remember despising those lessons, and that poem, especially. Which is odd as it’s a great poem.

The problem, I think, is that ten year-old me didn’t know what poetry, as a medium, set out to do. So instead of reading it as a poem, I read it as a very short, and very dull, story of a bloke sauntering down a lane, not really knowing where he was off to, and never really ending up anywhere.

Read like that, and you can see why I might have simmered with resentment.

I might well be wrong, but I believe that anticipating such misconceptions – seeking them out and addressing them head-on – has the potential to cause a sea-change in some of the bad attitudes students display towards various subjects.

Appear really competent

Zander interleaves his TED talk with moments sat at the piano. Unsurprisingly he’s excellent at playing it, which is important, as by doing so he reassures the audience that they’re in the hands of someone more skilled than they are. He is showing them that he is the expert in the room and therefore has something to offer them.

I don’t shy away from showing off my skills and knowledge. As far as I’m concerned, there should be no room for humility. The students need to know that you’re the right person for the job. So show them.

Take something complex and expose how it works

‘Did anyone think while I was playing, “Why is he using so many impulses?” If I had done this with my head you certainly would have thought it [Zander then proceeds to nod his head on each impulse] For the rest of your life, every time you hear classical music, you’ll always be able to know if you hear those impulses’

Most topics appear overwhelmingly complicated until they’re broken down to their more basic components. Zander takes the high art of classical music and boils it down to a series of simple head nods.

Each topic we teach can also be boiled down to its skeleton. I used to hesitate to show the bare bones of something, worrying that that I’d murder the metaphorical frog by dissecting it – concerned that while students would have learnt more about frogs, the frog they’d be left with would be dead.

I now see topics less like frogs on a table in a lab and more like clocks on a watchmaker’s bench. Teaching is the act of unscrewing the back off an old clock; to expose the clockwork and watch it spin. Only then can students appreciate the craft of the watchmaker more than if they had only looked in wonder upon its face.

Do the same with your subject – unscrew the back and expose the cogs. You can’t kill it.

Have a clear objective

‘I’m not going to go on until every single person in this room…will come to love and understand classical music. So that’s what we’re going to do’

It’s my school’s policy to plan each lesson around a so-called ‘Line of Enquiry’ – essentially a big question we attempt to answer in that lesson. At first I felt ambivalent towards this. Thinking of the question was hard and it felt like more work. But it makes the hour I have with my students purposeful. It keeps me on track because it’s the main thing to attend to. Helpful, when it’s tempting to drift and waffle about everything and anything the topic has to offer.

Don’t doubt for one moment the capacity of your students

‘You notice there’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that this is going to work…it’s one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realise whatever it is he’s dreaming’

Whenever I share a complicated text with ‘low ability’ students I’m often taken aback at how they engage with it far better than I had anticipated.

Most of my time spent lesson planning now focuses on scaffolding rather than differentiation. Complexity for all, but with ‘power-ups’ for those who need them.

Share beauty

‘I’m going to take a piece by Chopin… a beautiful prelude by Chopin’ [proceeds to play the piano beautifully to the awed silence of his audience]

Whatever you teach; art, science, foreign languages, geography; there will be many beautiful aspects to it. An appreciation of that beauty will be blatant to you and is probably why you decided to pursue teaching it in the first place.

I’ve started asking myself, when teaching a topic: what is so beautiful about this? And then sharing that view with my students. They often like to disagree, and that’s fine. But beauty, where it can be found, is life-affirming.

And who doesn’t need more of that?

Put yourself in the students’ shoes

‘You know what I think happened here in this room. When I started you thought, ‘how beautiful that sounds’

It took me a long time to recognise the difference between explaining something to a class and explaining it at them. When I did the latter I used to just project my explanation out into the room somewhere, over their heads to the clock on the back wall or at the bin to the side of the room.

Now when I’m explaining something to a class of students, I’m talking to individual faces, gauging how much each is listening, looking at their eyes to see whether they understand or appear confused. Only by doing this can I then steer the explanation in a different direction if needs be by repeating what I said, explaining it a different way or happily move on.

Don’t be precious – have a sense of humour

[playing Chopin in a melancholic tone] ‘I don’t think we should go to the same place for our holidays next year. It’s funny, isn’t it? How those thoughts kind of waft into you head. And if the piece is long and you’ve had a long day you might actually drift off!’

Quite often students will try to find the funny in what they’re studying. There’s often plenty to find, although most of it unintentional. As an English teacher, teaching a national curriculum which focuses on many Victorian  texts, I can’t seem to get through the day without stumbling across a description of an erect gentleman ejaculating in a lady’s ear.

Meanwhile some students who struggle to recall very much Shakespeare at all have an uncanny ability for recalling Lady Macbeth plucking that unfortunate infant from her nipple.

Even Lennie’s rabbit obsession gets progressively funnier each time he opens his mouth in Of Mice and Men. Just when you think he’s moved on, there he is again banging on about alfalfa.

Teenagers find these moments hilarious. And that’s largely because they are. Some might argue that laughing at these moments undermines the gravitas of these texts or the solemn act of learning. After all Shakespeare did not intend for us to laugh at Lady Macbeth’s nipple. He wanted the audience to be horrified.

But trying to police these moments is like shielding a sandcastle against a rising tide. It’s exhausting and hopeless.

I try to anticipate these moments now and not be surprised by them anymore. I’ll share in the amusement briefly with a raised eyebrow, demonstrating how to do so sensibly. Then move swiftly on.

Make it about them

‘So we have B, A, G, F and then….?’ [audience correctly hums E]

I used to loath student participation because I didn’t know how to get good responses from students, so what I did get was underwhelming and felt like a waste of time. I had to learn how to guide students to better responses first.

One of my favourite moments in a lesson now is when a student makes a point I hadn’t before considered. These are gold and I celebrate them enthusiastically whenever they arise. But I need to seek them out first. I need to have dialogue.

Believe your subject is for everyone (they just haven’t found out about it yet)

‘Nobody is tone-deaf. Every village in Bangladesh and every hamlet in China – everybody knows da, da, da – DA, everybody… is expecting that E.’

It’s very tempting sometimes to dismiss certain students, to assume that maybe your subject is beyond their grasp or to convince yourself that they’re never going to need to know about sonnets in real life (whatever that is).

I frequently need to remind myself to have high expectations for all. Whether this eventually comes to fruition or not, I need to start a lesson believing they can get it. And even if they don’t, I need to start over again the next day with that same noble ambition.

See the big picture as well as its constituent parts

‘Chopin wouldn’t have wanted to reach the E there because what would have happened? It would have been over… He’s just about to reach the E and he says “Oops, better go back up and do it again. So he does it again’

Teaching a topic sometimes feels like I’m looking through a microscope, zooming in on something to study its details. The problem, sometimes, is that it can get so abstract what we’re learning about appears to lose all meaning.

I try now to regularly zoom back out to see how what we’re studying fits in with its environment. Nothing is ever that interesting in isolation. It is often far more intriguing when linked to what surrounds it.

It’s important to examine the wood, but this won’t make sense unless we also look up at the trees.

Awaken possibility

‘For me to go from B to E I have to stop thinking about every note along the way and start thinking about the long, long line from B to E.’

You can’t go to South Africa without thinking about Nelson Mandela in jail for 27 years. What was he thinking about? Lunch? No, he was thinking about the vision for South Africa and for human beings. This is about vision. This is about the long line. Like the bird who flies over the fields and doesn’t care about the fences beneath.’

I get too bogged down in the day to day minutiae of lesson planning, or setting detentions, and often forget what it’s all for. I need to remind myself what the point is in all of this. Only by doing so can I better tolerate the difficulties of teaching. Only then does the suffering feel worthwhile.

Tell a tale

‘There’s a gentleman in the front row who just went [sighs]. It’s the same gesture he makes when he comes home after a long day, turns off the key in his car and says “Aah, I’m home.” Because we all know where home is. So this is a piece that goes from away to home’

Why do we all enjoy a rollicking good tale? Stories are baked into humanity and have been used to help us understand a world which for the longest time appeared strange and frightening, such as the Ancient Greeks who used myths to explain natural phenomena in terms that we could understand.

I find that students, even the very difficult, will pay attention when being read a good story. And while subjects like English are geared towards storytelling, I’d argue that stories can be found across the curriculum in all subjects: the autobiography of a significant historical figure’s life, for instance.

We want to hear about problems, struggles and survival. It makes whatever we’re studying feel instantly relevant and irresistibly human.

The definition of success – shining eyes

‘I suddenly had a realisation – the conductor of an audience doesn’t make a sound…. He depends on his power to make other people powerful. I realised my job is to awaken possibility in other people. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it…who am I being that my children’s eyes are not shining? …. [success] is not about wealth and fame and power. It’s about how many shining eyes I have around me’

You know what I’m going to say already, don’t you – the power of a teacher is in making students powerful, to awaken the possibility within them. I’m cringing a bit as I type that as it’s such a cliché, but only because it’s true.

Have I had shining eyes in my lessons? Sometimes. Ever since I heard Zander’s TED talk I’ve started looking more for these little beacons of success. Are they consistently there? No. And that’s okay. We can’t expect success all the time. But noticing these glimpses of success when they’re around are so important to help keep you going.

What you say makes a difference

‘It really makes a difference what we say. I learnt this from a woman who survived Auschwitz ….

She went to Auschwitz when she was fifteen years old and her brother was eight and the parents were lost and, she told me this, she said, “we were on the train together going to Auschwitz and I looked down and saw that my brother’s shoes were missing. I said, ‘why are you so stupid, can’t you keep your things together for goodness’ sake?” … Unfortunately, it was the last thing she ever said to him because she never saw him again.” He did not survive… she said, “I walked out of Auschwitz into life, and I made a vow…I will never say anything that couldn’t stand as the last thing I ever say.”

Now can we do that? No. We’ll make ourselves wrong and others wrong. But it is a possibility to live into.’

Decades on, I remember a handful of sentences said to me by my teachers at school. Some of them were horrible. A PE teacher once nicknamed me ‘Brain Cell’ for my apparent inability to remember instructions. Sadly, it’s barbed comments like this which stick the most.

But there were some lovelier comments too. Like when my Head of Year stopped me in the corridor at the end of Year 7 to congratulate me on the high number of merit marks I had accrued. 23 years have passed since, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

Perhaps this is sentimental middle age creeping in, but wouldn’t that be the very best thing? Decades from now, a person remembering words you had said to them?

Wouldn’t that have made all of this worthwhile?

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