My name is Ian Goldsworthy and I have a secret. It’s a shocking little secret, one that I dare not whisper in the corridors and classrooms. Let me make my confession: before I became a primary school teacher, I was a professional wrestler.
That’s right, the full slap-on-some-spandex, slap-on-some-facepaint, slap-my-leg-whenI-throw-a-punch professional wrestling.
I don’t know how much of an overlap there is in the Venn diagram of primary school teachers and professional wrestlers, but I suspect I’m pretty lonely on that sliver of circle. That’s a shame because, as I reflect on what really helped me get to grips with this teaching lark, I can’t help but feel wrestling played a massive part in laying the foundations for doing the job.
So what did John Cena teach me that John Hattie couldn’t? A surprising amount, as it turned out…
Making an eye-catching entrance
Watch any wrestling on TV and the first thing that will grab you – once you’ve suspended your disbelief sufficiently to accept that undead zombies can wrestle for championship gold – is how the protagonists make their way to the ring. At first glance, these entrances can appear to be just bright lights, loud noises and fireworks, but a closer inspection reveals that they are all highly personalised; the character of the wrestler has been introduced to the viewer even before they are even halfway towards the ring.
Growing up, one of my favourite wrestlers was The Ultimate Warrior – a madman who charged into the arena, all neon face paint and driving rock music. Such was his energy, you couldn’t help but cheer him on. Contrast that with a guy such as Ric Flair, who would strut into the ring in a bejewelled gown, a woman on each arm and a big gold belt around his waist: you couldn’t help but hate that guy the moment you saw him.
A great wrestler has the audience in the palm of their hand as soon as they appear; this immediate reaction is one of the great, overlooked aspects of classroom management. How often have you entered a classroom in a hurried fuddle, a wedge of hastily copied worksheets under one arm and your sweaty palm holding a mug of something cold and brown? “Right, class,” you say once you’ve finally composed yourself, only to find that the children are as far from being ready to learn as you are from being ready to teach.
Setting the right tone for a lesson begins not when you’ve got everyone hushed, attentive, and with their eyes fixed upon you. It begins before you’ve even got them in the room; it begins as you greet them at the door; it begins with how you walk out to meet them on the playground. If you don’t consciously set the tone for how you want your class to react to you from their first moment in your company, you’re starting at a disadvantage.
Putting your body on the line
During my wrestling tours around the community halls of Essex and North London, I was Lord Spencer Goldsworthy, a wrestling toff who’d never met a man he didn’t look down on. How to transmit this contempt for the common man? It was the little gestures that made all the difference: a snootily raised nose; a dismissive wave; a look of utter disgust if one of the revolting peasants in the audience had the temerity to touch me. When I was wrestling, I had to think of the little things that would communicate to the audience that I was the bad guy.
Similarly, if you want to take reluctant learners with you, your body language is a potent weapon which, if used effectively, can communicate that you: a) know what you’re talking about; and b) are worth listening to.
How you stand at the front of the class, how you tilt your head to indicate a poorly developed answer, how you narrow your eyes to indicate that you definitely did just see that note they tried to pass to a friend – all of these can communicate so much with so little. These tiny moments of silent dialogue between teacher and student, of which there may be hundreds during a day, are the cats-eyes of classroom management – the things that sometimes keep the car from veering off the road.
Tips from trash talkers
As physically demanding as the ring work is, much of the art of wrestling is about the interviews and promos, where tone of voice is key. If you want to convince an audience that you genuinely do want to commit acts of (pretend) violence against your opponent, you’d best not do so with a terrified squeak.
Being able to use a range of voices is an obvious skill for a teacher; anyone who has ever read a story to a group of children will know you need an arsenal of accents to hold their interest. But how often have you deliberately deployed a change of tone in a normal lesson?
When I’m teaching long multiplication, I have a specifically over-the-top way of saying the word “placeholder”. It serves two purposes: it makes me sound like an idiot, which is occasionally useful for retaining the interest of the class; but it also helps lodge the most frequently forgotten step of the method in the mind of the students. It never fails to make me smile if a student uses the same OTT voice when explaining it back to me.
This isn’t a call to make listening to a lesson the aural equivalent of riding a rollercoaster, with the teacher’s voice undulating like an Alpine yodel. (Children thrive on the bedrock of consistency. And a teacher needs to have as many vocal chords on Friday afternoon as they did on Monday morning.) But a well-judged dropping of vocal tone, a staccato rhythm, even a break into song, can add emphasis to the key learning that you want the children to retain.
Tap your hidden character
We’ve all seen This is Spinal Tap, haven’t we? We all know about the knobs that go up to 11. Well, wrestling operates with a similar principle. The best characters and their gimmicks are amplifications of the real person. “Be yourself” is great advice; be yourself, but turned up to 11, is even better.
I am by nature a fairly shy and introverted chap. Wearing a ridiculous costume, becoming a ridiculous character and pretending to fight ridiculously brought me out of myself. It is impossible for me to imagine the timid young man I used to be having to stand next to a whiteboard. Wrestling gave me a platform upon which to develop my confidence; I wouldn’t be a teacher without it.
Paying attention to the ways in which you present yourself to the children you teach is vital, yet it is something that is rarely discussed, let alone actively taught as part of initial teacher education. We obsess over whether teachers have the degree scores, subject knowledge and behaviour-management skills required, but we place precious little emphasis on their ability to grab and hold a learner’s attention.
Wrestling taught me many lessons that have proved invaluable as a teacher. But above all, it taught me that if you want to teach, you have to perform.
Ian Goldsworthy is a primary school teacher. He tweets @Ian_Goldsworthy