The Karate Kid
While not a household name in the UK, French-Canadian Georges Saint-Pierre is regarded worldwide as one of the greatest fighters in mixed martial arts history.
Having earned a karate blackbelt at just aged 12, ‘GSP’ (as he’s fondly known) went on to have a professional fighting record of 26 wins and only 2 losses. Since his last fight in 2017 he has worked on a fledgling acting career with a recently reprised role as Georges Batroc, a supervillain in Marvel Studio’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
With his trademark skinhead and muscled frame you would be forgiven for thinking that GSP was a meathead cage fighter with nothing much of value to say. But a recent JRE podcast interview showed that behind the talented athlete there is wisdom from which even this humble English teacher could learn.
So, could advice from Georges ‘Rush’ Saint-Pierre really make you a better teacher? While the second half of their talk together covers the minutiae of diet, the world of combat sports, ancient civilizations and UFOs, the first half of his conversation with podcast host Joe Rogan was packed with useful advice about achieving success:
Working with people all day is tiring
GSP: ‘It’s insane. I can train all day, but something like this [a podcast], or an autograph signing or a meet-and-greet takes more out of me than something physical like training.’
While the children may be out of building by 3 o’clock and there are weeks of holiday to enjoy each year, anyone who has been teaching for five minutes will tell you that being responsible for dozens of young people in a room for hours at a time leads to a special kind of exhaustion.
We know this, but be prepared to accept that people who have not taught before might not appreciate how tiring it is.
And despite how much much we like to tell them, they probably never will.
Face adversity early
GSP: ‘I think it’s important to face adversity at a very young age because it moulds you, especially if you’re able to overcome it because if you’ve never faced adversity before and you face it for the first time and you’re not prepared for it, it can break you…What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger…. By facing adversity and overcoming it you’re building confidence. If you’re always giving someone help, they will rely on that. They need to rely on themselves’
I became a teacher partly because I wanted to help others. But this noble instinct wasn’t always a useful guide in teaching. Sometimes I helped when I shouldn’t have. I had to learn that in order to help a student you must occasionally step back and let them struggle.
Scaffold the heck out of anything you’re teaching at first, but crucially, take it away afterwards.
Let them learn to walk on their own.
GSP: ‘You can have all the skills in the world, but if you don’t have confidence, you’re like someone who has a lot of money in their bank account but has no way of accessing it.’
There was a time when I realised I’d figured out the fundamentals of teaching, I just couldn’t put them into practice. I’d get too nervous, fluff the instructions or not be decisive enough when tackling challenging behaviour.
The lessons shrivelled on the vine and died.
I had to learn to just go for it. If I turned out to be wrong (which was often), the consequences were rarely ever that bad. I could always afford to pivot to what was right soon after – clarify my explanation, admit to making a mistake and plan a better lesson for next time.
But first I had to take more confident action.
People expect to be entertained
GSP: ‘We’re in the entertainment business. It’s not really about who’s the best. As martial artists, that’s the purity of our sport, to see who is the best man… If you’re a martial artist, you understand that, but if you’re watching to be entertained, and because we live in an entertained world, that’s the way it is.’
I don’t believe that as a teacher I am in the business of entertaining students, but I feel that many students expect to be entertained. Or that at least conflate entertainment with the motivation and inspiration they’re expecting from a good teacher.
Part of my lesson planning, then, is giving some consideration for how I will engage these students with a topic.
While there are many ways to achieve this, the simplest way I’ve found so far is to simply explain why we’re spending time doing what we’re doing. This is not just in the context of exams (as important as those are), but also the broader reason for learning a topic – as individuals, citizens, human beings.
The why helps to motivate and inspire.
Remember to take care of your health
GSP: ‘You should see your career as a marathon, not as a sprint…you want to save yourself for another day…More is not better. Intelligent is better. You burn yourself out [otherwise]’
Sometimes I forget that my career as a teacher needs to last decades, not years. I’m still trying to figure out what a healthy amount of work is for me because I don’t want to burn out too early.
I try to tell myself that it’s not about doing the most work I can today nor is it about seeing how much I can achieve this week. It’s about doing the most work I can over the next few decades.
GSP: ‘When you’re tired your creativity diminishes and you go back to what you do best. Creativity is very important…. and creativity is linked with your physical condition’
If I’m serious about getting better as a teacher, I can’t keep resorting to what I have always done before. Otherwise nothing will change. Being well-rested, then, is key to maintaining a creative spirit; to becoming a better teacher.
Work towards a win, not away from a potential loss
GSP: ‘When I’m fighting, I can tell when a guy is letting me know he’s not fighting to win anymore, he’s fighting to not lose….’
In my lessons I admit that I compromise far too much. I sometimes accept the unacceptable to give myself an easier ride. For instance, I’ll placate a difficult class and tolerate quiet talking when what I actually want (and asked for) was silence. I want to avoid an argument or the rigmarole of implementing behaviour sanctions.
But by doing this neither myself nor my students are winning in the long run. I’m just avoiding small losses.
Tell your friends the truth
GSP: ‘I tell my real friends, when it’s time to hang up the gloves, I say to them: If you were going to make it you would have made it by now.’
Why haven’t I always been honest with my closest colleagues in the past? I suppose I didn’t want an argument. Or I didn’t want the people I like most to think badly of me. But in keeping my cards close to my chest I was not being a good friend or colleague.
I am beginning to believe that honesty is the best gift I could give anyone. Only by being truthful will anyone of us have the information we need to make the best decisions we can.
People are welcome to disagree with me. And I accept that I won’t necessarily inspire them to action. But I did my bit.
I need my closest colleagues to be honest with me because it’s too hard to be honest with myself – I’m too close to have a proper perspective.
So I ask people I trust to be honest with me. And then try to really listen to what they say.
Success depends on a variety factors
GSP: ‘Mental prowess, physical prowess. You have to have great coaching… And also fortune…you’re dealing with a giant hurricane of possibilities … The odds of failure are so high’
When I feel like a failure I like to remind myself that it’s an absolute bloody miracle that a lesson in a school can take place at all. There’s so much going against it working, so many possible ways it could go wrong that to avoid any of them at all can often mean something great has been achieved.
Some might think that’s just me having low standards. But perhaps it’s okay to lower our standard for success if we have any hope of feeling successful at all.
GSP: ‘Opponents are scary until you figure out how to beat them. Then they’re not scary anymore’… ‘Knowledge is a weapon. I knew BJ Penn [an American professional mixed martial artist] had a good reaction time so I kept faking to make him react, to exhaust his nervous system. His reaction time slowed down. That was how I was able to get him’
Teaching was very scary at first because I had a lot of problems and didn’t have the knowledge to solve them.
Today there are more books and courses about teaching than ever. Whatever the problem, someone seems to have written a well-reviewed book explaining a potential solution.
Teachers I follow on Twitter (#edutwitter) share brilliant resources that have helped me teach topics in ways I wouldn’t have conceived of on my own.
GSP: ‘the best way to improve is when it’s playful, when it’s like a game because you’ll be more prone to trying new things…it makes you grow’
Twitter is an excellent resource for learning because it’s fun to use – posting comments, getting replies, likes and re-tweets is addictive. I’ve no problem admitting that when I’m tired after a day’s work I am more likely to browse Twitter than I am to read a book on teaching.
And Twitter isn’t serious like a formal school CPD and so I feel like I can try a new technique or approach in the classroom because I simply like the look of it rather than feeling I must try it because it’s being implemented by my school’s management.
Find great mentors
‘I met in my life incredible mentors who had such an incredible influence on me’
As a trainee or NQT you’ll have an official mentor assigned to you by your school, but your mentorship shouldn’t stop there. Seek out other inspiring teachers you resonate with too. They could be in your school or – and I wish I had done this sooner – online. There are many teachers on Twitter who have no idea they’re mentoring me, but they are.
It was easy. All I did was click ‘follow’ and now I get to hear their day-to-day thoughts on teaching. I get a glimpse at their productivity. Each day I borrow their superb ideas. And I’ve yet to not have had a prompt a response when I’ve asked a question.
Their generosity continues to astound me.
Spend time around those less experienced than yourself
GSP: ‘You don’t need to [work] with good guys all the time. Train with people who are not as good as you. This is how I developed my confidence…because these guys were not on my level. You need a variety of training partners. The bigger the range you will be able to adapt to different kinds of styles.’
Now that I am a few years into my teaching career one pleasure I have is the chance to observe new teachers just starting out. I see them make all the same mistakes I made but have since managed to (mostly) figure out. That comparison is meaningful because it makes me see just how far I’ve come.
Your development as a teacher happens so gradually you hardly even notice. It’s important therefore to be able to stop, turn around and see how high you’ve climbed.
GSP: ‘Success makes you weak. Success makes you forget…no matter how good you are…you always need to be sharp’
Observing less-experienced teachers reminds me of the fundamentals, which in turn keeps me on my toes.
Find motivation in bad experiences
GSP: ‘[Losing] was no doubt the most humiliating event in my career. It became a nightmare for me, an obsession in the back of my head. I never wanted this to happen ever again’
I struggled a lot when I began teaching, largely with behaviour management. It was humiliating and it was this lack of dignity that led to me working harder at teaching than anything else in my life. After it happened, I never wanted it to happen again. And so I worked harder.
GSP: ‘A negative experience that you don’t often understand at the time because you go through a depressive moment, but you realise later in life can often help’
With the benefit of hindsight, the worst moments of teaching have shone a light on what I needed to work on. There was meaning in the suffering, so to speak.
I always recommend to anyone struggling in their first years of teaching to persevere. While the relentless difficulty may feel pointless at the time, I realised later on that the pain was trying to tell me something.
GSP: ‘I have an incredible ego. I’m a very proud person…It’s an issue sometimes in life. If I use the emotion when I got hit, I wanted to hit him back right away. It was humiliating. I wanted to give it back to him to shut everyone’s mouth. But if you use it for that, it can be a big mistake. You keep it inside of you and then, when it’s time, you let it explode.’
I spend a lot of energy trying to keep cool in lessons, especially when behaviour is challenging. It’s very easy to get drawn into an argument with a student, to have that last word. But that has only ever caused me problems. Keep it inside. Don’t let it burn you.
GSP: ‘Emotion is like fire – it can help you cook your food, but it can also burn you…I was afraid before every fight. Fear is a good thing. But I’m not a coward…I’m going to go out there and I’m not going to care how I feel because it’s subjectivity. I only care about the objective – what I need to do. This needs to be done at all costs. Me, myself, how I feel, if I’m sick or not, what other people think – that does not exist. The only thing that exists and matters is the objectivity of the things you need to do to succeed. These need to be done at all costs’
Why do I spend so much of my time planning lessons? Well, mostly because standing in front of thirty students terrifies me still to a degree.
I use that fear as fuel to plan (at least by my standards) decent lessons. Nervous energy is still energy after all. It gets me out of bed in the morning. It helps me into a chair to plan lessons after a five-period day. And it helps me to hold my head up and teach when I’m exhausted.
When I started teaching, I was on the receiving end of other people’s judgement: staff, parents, and students. I was still learning and many of these people found me lacking. If I was going to persevere, I had to concentrate on the job at hand and not to get distracted by their opinions.
Strive to be your best self
‘I’m very critical of myself. You can always be better. Martial arts taught me that if you want to change yourself, you have to love yourself. And so I learnt to love myself, to love who I could become.’
Some people are more self-critical than others. I happen to be very critical of my own teaching which has helped me to improve. I’m rarely satisfied with my work and in my first few years of teaching my self-esteem really took a knock.
I am more content now than ever because I love who I have become. I used to be selfish and lazy and I hated myself for that.
Teaching has made me my best self.