Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Secret of a Teacher's Charisma

[From the author’s address to teachers at the end of a two-week workshop.]

I remember watching a movie recently. The politician’s son is a college student and he is in the question paper business. He sells university question papers a couple of days in advance of the exam for a prize. A professor of the college, reputed for his integrity and courage, catches him with a bunch of question papers and hands him over to the police along with the question papers. However, the local police officer is in a nexus with the politician and his son. He releases the criminal and instead arrests the professor. The moment the news reaches the college, students leave whatever they are doing and walk straight to the police station. As the angry students in their hundreds siege the station, the officer looks at them and realizes they would stop at nothing to save their professor. Alarmed, he releases the professor and takes the criminal student back into custody.

What is that that inspired the students to leave everything and walk to the police station to stand with the professor? What in the professor invoked such devotion in students?

This does not happen with all teachers. But some teachers influence their students so powerfully that they would do anything for them, and do it happily and unasked.

Most schools and colleges have a teacher who is different from all the others. And most of us have come across a teacher who is unlike all other teachers. A teacher who is a legend among his students, a teacher who can do the impossible, a teacher for whom the students will happily lie down their lives unasked.

A teacher who is like the eagle that floats in high skies before whom other teachers seem like little birds that hop about on the ground.

At the beginning of his second book Illusions, Richard Back, the celebrated author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, tells us this story:

“Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river.
The current of the river swept silently over them all – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom.”

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!”

And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

But they cried the more, “Saviour!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.”

Every teacher has this option. She can either become one of those creatures that cling tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom or she can become the messiah who floats up above on the surface of the river, the messiah who flies.

Every teacher has the option of choosing to become either the ordinary teacher or the extraordinary teacher – the inspirational teacher, the teacher who exudes charisma, the transformational teacher, the sorcerer who works miracles.

You need not have more authority than other teachers to be that kind of a teacher. Authority can help, but it is not authority that gives you that kind of influence over your students.

You need not have extraordinary knowledge to become such a teacher. Knowledge can help, but it is not knowledge that gives you that kind of influence over your students.


Contemporary Social Psychology says a teacher has five sources of influence over her students. Punishment power, reward power, position power, knowledge power and referent power or inspirational power. A recent study says that punishment power accounts for 5 percent of the teacher’s influence over her students, reward power for another 5 percent, position power 15 percent, and knowledge power 20 percent. These four together account for 45 percent of a teacher’s influence. Less than half. And the fifth power, referent power, accounts for 55 percent of a teacher’s influence. More than half a teacher’s influence, more than all the other powers put together.

The most inferior of these powers is punishment power. The worst teachers rely on this. The next is reward power. Poor teachers use this. And the next is position power – the power that comes from being in the position of a teacher. Authority power. Mediocre teachers use this. Knowledge power comes next and good teachers use this. But the best teachers use inspirational power to touch and transform their students. Such teachers become legends wherever they are.

What is the secret of a teacher’s inspirational power, her charisma? First, her being. What she is. Her integrity, her genuineness, her authenticity, her unpretentiousness, her openness, her courage, her self-mastery. And second, the way she relates to her students. Her love, her care, her willingness to put the student first, her willingness to stand by him, her willingness to take risks for him, her being there when he needs her most.

That’s what makes a teacher truly great: inspirational, charismatic, transformational. Just these two things: what you are, the way you relate.

All teachers know their subject more or less. They all have knowledge power. All teachers are teachers – they have position or authority power. And all teachers are capable of punishing and rewarding. But not all teachers have the qualities that create inspirational power.

But all teachers can have them.

Like the teacher in To Sir with Love. Naseerudddin Shah in its Hindi version, Sir.

The young teacher in Matilda.

Danny Devitto in The Renaissance Man.

Another teacher who comes to mind from the movies is Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. He is not really a teacher to the young boy in the movie. But he teaches him – education in living. And he does exactly what a great teacher should do. When the entire organization wants to break the young boy, when the principal of the school tries to cow him down with his authority and force him into betraying his friends, Al Pacino teaches him integrity and courage. The speech Al gives towards the end of the movie during the inquisition of the boy has remained an endless source of inspiration to me ever since I saw the movie first a few years ago.

That is what a great teacher does – the inspirational teacher, the charismatic teacher, the transformational teacher.

She stands with his students, come what may – against the whole school, against the whole society, against the whole world, if needed.

Against intimidation and fear and all the other dark powers that corrupt the human soul.

Such a teacher does more than teach.

She is a human being interested in the child as a human being.

She respects his individuality.

She listens to him and understands not only what is spoken but what is unspoken too.

She loves her students and knows how to express that love. She knows how to touch her children. She knows to touch is to communicate – whether with her hand, or with words, or just reaching out herself.

She knows how to accept her children’s love.

She inspires them to excel and to reach beyond their present boundaries.

And, as Kahlil Gibran puts it, she fills their hearts with the desire for the sea rather than teach them ship building.


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