Why Tolkien’s Gandalf would be an Outstanding Teacher

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”


Yes. I am biased when I say that this is possibly the greatest and most powerful scene in film history during Peter Jackson’s/JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, powerful does not even come close to doing it justice, given the significance of Gandalf’s final line on how we approach things today. Much of the content discussed in my previous posts have explored various themes within the coaching environment, and whilst this is again applicable, today’s post is somewhat different as it relates to some observations and experiences within the educational realm of teaching.
Before I start though, I want to share with you a conversation I had with a friend of mine last week. This person had always wanted to be a teacher for as long as I’d known them; during school, during university and afterwards. We’d spoken at length many times about how we would be the inspirational practitioners that our respective teachers had been during our youth.

Hearing the words “I can’t stand teaching, I’m packing it in,” said in a way that conveyed a surging wave of relief came as a huge surprise to me in many ways, and not so in others. Surprising in that teaching had claimed such a dedicated and outstanding individual who was brilliant at working with young people, yet not surprising having witnessed these last two years what teaching can actually look like in the real world. After all, with the increasing load of paperwork, assessments, eight different systems for marking, inputting data, evidencing standards, meetings which accomplish nothing and fortnightly report writing when is there any time for actually…..you know, teaching!

Perhaps I’m making an assumption here, but the majority of teachers join the profession because they believe in the development of young people and their own ability to make a difference to school education (the holidays are a bonus!). It is disappointing, let alone worrying to frequently read and hear about a large number of teachers who find themselves burdened with the bureaucracy of education, rather than utilising their skills in the classroom.

Steiner’s Model of Productivity
So where does Gandalf come into this? In sport psychology Ivan Steiner proposed a model of productivity (1972) which suggested the following:

Actual Productivity = Best Potential Productivity – Losses Due to Faulty Processes

Correct. The person, department, team, school or government that restricts the faulty processes to a minimum is the one that achieves things. Look at Gandalf – the only faulty process arguably is his athleticism (but we’ll forgive Sir Ian McKellen this one small fault). Apart from that he uses the time that is given to him to achieve and accomplish extraordinary feats across Middle Earth. Why can’t teachers be the same figuratively speaking? Why can’t the faulty processes – the administrative perks of the job as already mentioned – be minimised so best potential productivity can be developed?

On the extremely rare occasions where schools have INSET days, it has been revitalising to watch a whole department come together and discuss ideas for best practice, further opportunities for learning and solutions of managing behaviour. I come away from that hour with fresh hope having learnt more from that than the list of books recommended for NQTs by education journals. The sad part? INSET is one of the few times departments have the opportunity to engage in such a discussion. They’re too busy rushing around trying to find evidence for the outstanding lesson they taught three weeks ago.

Old Is Still New
Another reason why Gandalf would make an outstanding teacher or education minister in fact is because old methods are still new. Even with technology advancing at an alarming rate and education models favouring a more student-centred approach to learning, some of the best and most effective teaching episodes I’ve had the pleasure of observing are what many might deem as ‘old school’. Old school being where the students hang off every word the teacher says, where the teacher is quite clearly the one in charge, where strictness leads to respect and challenge leads to character building.

With the amount of pressure that teachers are under to hit targets every half-term under skills frameworks and revised schemes of work, it is no wonder that some lessons appear to be, or feel like mere box ticking exercises. The excitement and scope for creativity, innovation and experimentation is being squeezed out in education’s quest to make teaching an artificial profession. After all, why do something a little out of the box with your class to make a link between a topic if it doesn’t involve big scoops of literacy and numeracy? Forget the fact it might engage them, it might deepen their thinking, who knows – they might even enjoy it! How about that!

Less Is More
Though his athleticism might not be brilliant, being old does have one advantage for Gandalf. His knowledge and experience makes him a formidable adversary; a highly skilled wizard who knows the tricks of the trade and what works well in certain situations compared to others. One of those tricks is the knowledge that more often than not, less is more. A lesson, its outcomes, its activities and plenaries don’t always require mountains of cones or equipment though it might look nice. Approaching lessons with a simple structure that encompasses the essentials of an outstanding lesson; deepening thinking, role modelling, impact, challenge and engagement will most likely tick the excessive number of wordy boxes that teachers must be required to use.

Above all else, all you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you…..will it be spent attending to the bureaucracy, or as most would prefer – teaching. Time for education to up its game.

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