I was fortunate enough to be taught to play rugby by Tosh Askew, one of the great youth coaches of the English game. At the time he was reaching the end of his playing career with Liverpool St Helens, and later went on to coach a highly successful England U19 side, laying the foundations for a generation of internationals who became a leading force on the world stage. Long before that he was standing in the rain shouting at groups of disorganised and reluctant schoolchildren, one of whom was me.
Tosh was a teacher who didn’t need to rely on discipline or coercion to get his charges in line, even while out in the mud on a cold winter afternoon*. His physical presence alone was terrifying enough. Throughout my later years playing amateur club rugby I could still hear his voice in the back of my mind booming “Run straight Eichhorn!” It’s there to this day, over 30 years later. That wasn’t why he was such a great teacher though.
One session sticks in my mind during which we were being drilled in attacking and defensive line play. I can only have been 12 or 13 years old and at that moment I was on the defending side. Tosh, in his attempts to impose some order on the attacking group, had picked up the ball and was directing their movements. So it was that I found myself, a scrawny and bookish young lad, facing the prospect of a large, muscular man heading in my general direction. I did what any self-respecting rugby player would do in such circumstances. I went for his knees.
Moments later, to my great surprise, I found myself on the ground clutching a pair of legs, with Tosh also in the dirt, having off-loaded the ball on the way down. Play immediately stopped as all the other boys paused to take in the scene. He turned and looked at me.
“What are you doing Eichhorn?”
“Tackling the ball carrier Sir”, I responded meekly.
“Very good. Play on!”
No more was said about it and the session resumed. To this day I have no idea whether he went down deliberately to salvage my pride, or tripped over me, or was just trying to make sure that I didn’t get hurt in the process. I had no business bringing down a man of his size and strength.
This incident provided me with an immediate, if poorly-deserved, confidence boost. In the eyes of my peers it gave me a certain cachet: I had taken down Tosh! It even featured on my school report later that term. Why am I still dwelling on this minor incident, three decades on? Only because I’ve learnt a different lesson from it, which is the value as a teacher of allowing yourself to take a very public fall in front of your students.
Sometimes as teachers a student will step up and tell us that we’re wrong. In such circumstances the instinct is often to push back. You might be adamant that you’re correct, or else feel that your authority in class depends on maintaining your superior status. I recommend trying something different: let them take you down. Clearly, deliberately, so that everyone can see it.
It doesn’t happen to me often, or indeed as often as I would like, but sometimes a student will correct me on the identification of a species, or provide a counter-example that conflicts with one of my points. In the early days of teaching I probably would have reacted defensively, reflecting my own insecurity. Later on I’d have thought about teachable moments, maybe inviting the rest of the class to respond and seeing if I could turn it into a discussion. The latter approach is great if it works, but can also end up being a means of pitting students against one other, and places your initially brave student in the firing line. They will all think twice about speaking up again.
What I’ve learnt from that tackle, or rather from its aftermath, is that sometimes as a teacher you should allow yourself to be taken down. Any loss to your authority will be more than offset by the gains for your student. They can walk away buoyed with the knowledge that they got one over you, if only this once, and that however terrifying it might seem in the moment, they can actually do whatever it is that you’re trying to teach them, whether it’s a physical tackle or demonstrating some critical thinking. Their confidence is worth far more than your pride.
* I should probably make it clear at this point that although he was known as Tosh to the students, we would never have dared call him that to his face. It was ‘Sir’ or Mr Askew. If I ran into him again today then I’d still feel wary about using his first name.