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Pugilistic Pedagogy – What Taking Up Boxing Has Taught Me About Teaching

When Director of Learning Lee Simpson took up boxing, the idea was to turn off from teaching for a while - but he quickly found himself doing the opposite

  • Pugilistic Pedagogy – What Taking Up Boxing Has Taught Me About Teaching

The first punch that connects with my face lands on my jaw, exactly between where the mandible connects with the skull bone. It hurts – a lot. A bloke called Casper did it. Casper, like the friendly ghost; but there’s no friendship in the ring.

I am learning.

Later, I learn that what hit me with such force was a right cross. And it was my own fault. I deserved it. Casper had warned me not to let my left hand drop, regardless of how tired I was becoming, and to punctuate his fistic point – he hit me, bloody hard.

“Experience”, he says, “is the best way to learn. You won’t forget so easily – show ‘em, don’t just tell ‘em.”

And I haven’t – forgotten that is. The ache in my jaw lasted for several days afterwards, which is a bit of a pain when you have to teach, and moving your jaw repeatedly to talk is a bit of a must in the job.

Fighting for balance

So, why am I here taking these punches in the face from men and boys who are so much more skilled than me? Well, I am making a concerted effort to achieve a work/life balance - and so Monday nights from 6-8pm is when I switch off from school, and switch on to boxing.

Except that I don’t.

Because as I learn how to box as a novice, I am also learning about ‘learning’, as a beginner, like a young person – and the result of that, is that I am understanding how to teach again.

“Hey Teach,” Casper shouts from the ring as I am recovering my composure at the side, “don’t get too comfortable. You’re up again next.” I strain to hear his muffled words, obscured by his gum shield and a head guard with a bar across his jaw and lips, like an American Footballer’s helmet.

I have barely recovered from the physical and emotional onslaught that is squaring up to a fighter a lot more skilful than I am. Even if he is pulling his punches for me, it doesn’t feel like it. And getting hit in the face is getting hit in the face. No one likes it. Simple as that.

Feeling like a learner

‘Teach’ is what they call me at the boxing gym. Paddy, the Irish coach who runs the gym, thinks up a nickname for everyone. Original it is not. But I am pathetically pleased with it. It feels like acceptance – like I am part of the gang. This is what it must feel like for the new kid in my class who joins us mid-year. That moment when he realises that he has been allowed into the group; when everything clicks, and he is no longer the new kid.

The nicknames vary from person to person. There’s ‘The Duke’, who as I write this has just won the Irish National Cruiserweight Title on a fourth round knockout; there’s ‘Niceguy’, ‘Sky-High’ -  a very tall lad - and ‘Heavy’, who, as you have probably worked out, is carrying a bit of weight around the stomach. I can’t help but feel like I’m in a Tarantino movie as I enter the gym to nods and fist bumps from these characters with a, “What’s up, Teach?” or a, “Life sweet, Teach?” or “Peace, Teach!”, as I fish in my bag for the hand wraps that will stop me breaking the bones in my fist as I hit these blokes who seem pleased to see me.

I am learning quickly about boxing. It’s refreshing and exciting to be on this side of the experience. The side of the kids. How often in the world of cuts, austerity and ‘ensure that teachers’ timetables are as full as they can be or you are not demonstrating value for money’ do we experienced practitioners get to remind ourselves what it is actually like to be a learner? It’s easy to forget – and it’s also one of the most damaging things we can do as practitioners. Ask yourself, if you forget to check what works for learners, and how it feels to be a learner – then how can you teach?

Finding the time

Incidentally, the time to study what generates successful learning in meaningful CPD activities is built into teachers’ timetables in other, more educationally high performing, countries. Just not ours. And this CPD takes place during the working day, rather than bolted onto the end of a five-period timetable when teachers are exhausted and barely receptive, or compressed into a few snatched hours on an inset day.

But clearly this is another idea for another time. So that’s it for the fistic facts for now, colleagues and friends - with nothing left for me to say but, “Ladies and gentleman, the competitors are in the ring. Seconds out, round two”.

Wish me luck!


What fighting has taught me about teaching so far

  1. When to disengage from a conflict is as important as when to engage – in the ring, and in the classroom.
  2. Grit is essential – the urge to ‘opt out’ and not enter the ring can be strong. But, the feeling of pride when a student successfully completes a challenging task is worth the student’s (and the teacher’s) effort.
  3. A 100% model is the most effective form of modelling – coaches show us ‘the perfect way’ to punch or move. So, ‘practise perfect’ to ensure students aim for the best.
  4. Repetition works – repeat a skill over and again until it is mastered.
  5. Immediate feedback has the highest impact – coach provides immediate feedback and the student immediately acts on it, leading to visible progress.
  6. Precise praise is motivational – we are all eager to receive compliments. The best teachers exploit this desire by providing specific feedback as praise.
  7. Fear is ok – I experience anxiety in the ring, but to improve I must manage this. Some students will try to opt out of your lessons, offering anxiety as the reason. The teacher should ensure all children participate, because it is only through participation that they will improve.
  8. Credibility is key – students have to believe in the skill of their coach, and that their coach believes in them, to be motivated.

Lee Simpson is director of learning and strategic partnerships at Denefield School, and secondary programme lead for the Berkshire Teaching Alliance. He trains at Fitzpatrick’s Boxing Gym in Swindon.

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