‘A teacher Yoda is’ – Yoda
While his unorthodox use of syntax would have landed him in deep water during the English skills test, Grand Master Yoda demonstrates over the course of eight Star Wars films that he is an outstanding teacher.
It’s no surprise. Having spent 800 years training almost every Jedi Master in the galaxy, he had plenty of practice.
Like many, I’ve watched the films, but I’m hardly a die-hard Trekkie (that’s a joke! Calm down).
So with a bit of research I looked to see what I could possibly gleam about teaching well from this most famous of sci-fi characters:
‘Size matters not. Look at me – judge me by my size, do you?’ – Yoda
When I first got into a classroom it was tempting to think that if I were only bigger, I’d get more respect from the students. At my school the senior leadership team all look like the Harlem Globetrotters and so it certainly seemed easier to gain respect if you were a larger person.
After all, it’s Newton’s third law: if you weigh 90 kilos, the floor is pushing back with 90 kilos of force. That force is projected out into the room and the students will sense your presence. Right?
Perhaps. But there are clever ways Yoda conveys weighty gravitas (despite his diminutive stature) that we can transfer to classrooms today, in our own galaxy:
“Won this job in a raffle I did, think you? How did you know, how did you know, Master Yoda? Master Yoda knows these things. His job is” – Yoda
Stuart Freeborn, the British make-up artist responsible for creating Yoda, based the character’s appearance on Albert Einstein. What better way to highlight Yoda’s wisdom than by giving him a likeness to one of the greatest physicists of all time?
Good subject knowledge is fundamental for any teacher. Whenever I’ve taken the time to fully understand what I’m teaching I’ve walked into the lesson with a sense of confidence (and even excitement!) to share what I had planned. And the times when I haven’t been so clear, well, the less said about those lessons the better.
Demonstrate to your students you can do something they can’t
“Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice” – Yoda
When their X-wing sinks into a swamp, Luke despairs. He’s been using The Force to levitate stones, but does not believe he can use it to rescue their ship. He tries and he fails. Afterwards Yoda attempts to lift Luke’s deflated spirits with a rousing speech, but Luke sulks and walks off. It is only when Yoda shows Luke the seemingly impossible, by lifting the X-wing back on to land himself, is Luke’s faith in what is possible restored.
I gained a lot more credibility stood in front of a class when I began to show that I could practice what I preached. Show your working out. Draw a sketch. Play the piano. Write a paragraph. Whatever your students strive to master, demonstrating that you are the expert in the room will get the majority to pay attention.
(note: ‘expert in the room’ does not mean you must strictly-speaking be an expert, just noticeably more competent than your students).
Speak clearly in a logical and well-paced manner
“Control, control, you must learn control!” – Yoda
At 900 years old, Yoda would be forgiven for rambling a bit. But he never does. Everything that comes out of his mouth is succinct. No fat whatsoever. All killer, no filler. It’s almost as if it has been scripted…
When stood in front of a class, the less I say, the more I am listened to. And the more my students remember.
Aim to cut out anything unnecessary. Know your subject well and use the time you spend planning to work out how you can explain instructions and concepts clearly.
‘Feel the force!’ – Yoda
Yoda could read the autocue from Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and make it sound dignified. Since his character was portrayed using a puppet in the original trilogy, the puppeteers couldn’t move around very much rooting Yoda to the spot. A happy consequence of this is that by standing very still he conveys a feeling of calm confidence – exactly how you want to appear in the classroom.
If you have something important to say (and you do) stand at the front-centre of the room. Put both feet on the floor, shoulders width apart. Imagine you have a team of Lucasfilm puppeteers under the floorboards, pulling levers and rummaging around inside your legs. You are rooted to the floor. No nervous pacing.
“The boy you trained, gone he is. Consumed by Darth Vader” – Yoda
When Anakin is denied the rank of Jedi Master, he loses faith in the Jedi Order and ends up pledging allegiance to the Sith. It is the birth of the tyrannical Darth Vader.
You can try as hard as you like, but some students, for whatever reason, won’t get on board with the lesson. Know that it’s not you. It’s not really even them. Nefarious forces in their lives have conspired against you both.
Understand that this will happen and don’t blame yourself.
Allow for moments of light-heartedness
“Ow, ow, OW! On my ear you are!” – Yoda
It’s probably George Lucas’ greatest accomplishment as a filmmaker that Yoda is taken seriously despite looking like the inside of a old man’s hankie.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not entirely void of comic relief. In fact, there are a few moments in the saga where Yoda breaks his serious persona to make a brief light-hearted quip. Not often, but they’re there. Such as the time he tells a class of young Jedis Obi-Wan has ‘lost an entire planet, he has’. It’s an obscene notion, and gets a giggle from his young students.
I find humour to be tricky with teenagers and for years I’ve been reluctant to elicit so much as a smirk. But I’m beginning to feel more comfortable with letting go, to not be quite so in control all the time. To let the mask slip occasionally and crack a joke. It shows you’re human (or whatever Yoda is supposed to be).
‘I cannot teach him. The boy has no patience!’ – Yoda
Yoda gets frustrated with Luke’s youthful temperament; his tendency to daydream of future adventure and failure to concentrate on the here and now.
But you know what? Despite his complaints, Yoda teaches him anyway.
I sometimes find myself wishing I had different students to teach. Wonderful imaginary students who pay attention, do their homework, write lots, and listen with intent.
But this daydreaming is a waste of time. They’re not going to change. So there’s nothing to do but patiently carry on.
‘Twisted by the dark side, young Skywalker has become’ – Yoda
Yoda makes some tough calls. None harder than persuading a reluctant Obi-Wan to assassinate Anakin Skywalker once he realises that Anakin has become irreparably consumed by the dark side. This is not an easy decision for Yoda, having helped train Anakin since he was a child.
His decision is based not on what is best for him nor Anakin. But it is the best decision to make.
(If only he had succeeded….)
In the classroom, I sometimes find myself forced into making decisions that put myself and others in an unpleasant spot. Take behaviour, for instance. Giving a child a detention is an inconvenience for everyone. Not only the child, but yourself and their parents: all that recording, reporting, explaining and justifying. Not to mention having to sit there with them when they turn up and chase them up when they don’t. It’s really tempting to, well, just not do it. And in my first few years teaching I sometimes crumbled and gave in to that.
But if there is benefit to be gained in the long-run, making difficult decisions is what we must do.
If anything, when a decision is hard to make, I rest-assured that what I’m deciding must be something worthwhile.
Have high expectations
‘You want the impossible’ – Luke Skywalker
Yoda doesn’t let Luke off easily when teaching him how to hone his telekinetic powers. He starts Luke off small, having him levitate a few small stones. But soon he’s requesting Luke pick up an X-wing with just the power of his mind.
The more you recognise your student’s abilities, the better you can fine tune your lessons so that you’re asking for ever so slightly more than they think they can give.
And there are fewer feelings as good in teaching as when a student rises to a challenge and surprises themselves.
Keep on learning
“Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is” – Yoda
Yoda reveres children because of their constant curiosity. To learn is to explore; an act of bravery that forces us to admit that we currently don’t (and never will) know enough. It is the arduous task of weighing up our own understanding, find ourselves lacking, listen to feedback from others and get outside of our comfort zone in the pursuit of answers.
I am guilty of not sharing lesson resources for fear of judgment. I still resent having my lessons observed and I’m ashamed to admit I have written feedback from lesson observations that I still can’t bring myself to look at.
The Galactic Empire bears more than a passing resemblance to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; dictatorships which ruled through the violent suppression of alternative views. In Star Wars, as in teaching, investigation triumphs against wilful ignorance.
We continue learning to avoid crossing over to the dark side.
When you peel away the blasters, lightsaber duels, spaceships and alien lifeforms, Star Wars‘ lasting appeal comes from its presentation of Luke and Yoda. Few other sci-fi flicks have shown such a convincing portrayal of the bond between student and teacher. It is a relationship hard-wired into humanity and always will be.
Now go forth, Padawan.