Employers in the classroom


John Morris explains how he used his 25 years of management development experience, working with companies including Debenhams, Lloyds TSB and the Home Office, to boost the confidence and educational development of disadvantaged children.

I have worked with thousands of managers and employees in my role as a training and development specialist during my 25 years in the retail sector. I have developed a number of techniques to help staff increase productivity and feel satisfied in their professional lives. 

I had never considered that this could be useful in the classroom until I received a call from Simon Barnes, an old friend working with schools and academies across the country. His tuition company was running a Pupil Premium-funded summer school and was looking for a new way to connect with a group of challenging year 11 students. Simon suggested that I come in and apply the same techniques I used in the workplace with the pupils, in order to help raise their self-esteem and academic confidence.

Tricks of the trade

I walked into Coleridge Community College in Cambridgeshire in my usual suit and tie, prepared to deliver training to a much different audience. 

When working with adults, I will use the same approach with a dysfunctional team of board room executives as I would preparing the long-term unemployed for paid work – it is just the outcomes that are different. I aim to build self-belief and challenge existing perceptions to overcome subconscious barriers to success. 

At its simplest – people who feel good about themselves produce the best results. A 90-minute session will involve warm-up exercises, group activities, some input and discussion, and then conclude by exploring how the participants can apply what they have learnt in their own lives. The activities and group exercises are simple but effective.

I started the Coleridge session by showing the year 11 students a few slides about the brain and how we think and behave. We then moved on to two physical exercises. 

The first is the magic pole exercise. I got all the students to hold the pole with one of their fingers. I then asked them to lower the pole to the ground. Inevitably, as the students move at different speeds and then try and compensate, the pole rises. 

The students quickly began arguing (which isn’t dissimilar to what happens in boardroom full of executives!) so I calmed them down and asked them to listen to each other and figure out what was going on. This resulted in natural leaders coming forward, identifying the problem with the help of the group and then coming to a resolution.

While the first exercise was about communication and leadership, the second is designed to challenge paradigms and fixed beliefs. 

The students stood in a circle and I passed one of them a tennis ball before explaining that they all had to touch the ball in the fastest time possible. 

They had three attempts each of which I timed with a stopwatch. They quickly got better and started cheering and encouraging each other. 

After the third attempt they had managed to get the time down to five seconds. I then asked them why they were happy with this before explaining that the record for the exercise was just half a second. 

I won’t give the answer away, but what I will say is that the children quickly realised they did not need to throw the ball to each other, or stay standing in a circle.

The sessions focused on the students’ confidence in their abilities and self-esteem issues. The exercises we completed revealed concerns about participation and uncertainties about their ability to succeed in school. Did they perceive themselves as trouble-makers or shy for example? 

We related the feedback to the initial slideshow and helped them realise that just because they associated themselves with these labels, they did not have to let them dictate their behaviour or their approach to life – it is about helping them to realise that they can break a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The students were very open and honest, especially considering they were in front of their peers, but this was because we had created a safe environment in which they could express themselves.

Note to self

From the feedback we received it is clear that my “corporate” approach worked as well with the teenagers as it does with a boardroom full of executives.

Teachers and parents came back with positive reports and were interested in how they could apply these techniques in the classroom and at home.

Disadvantaged children often suffer from a lack of confidence and this can prevent them from fulfilling their academic potential. 

It is clear to me that there are personality assessment and self-awareness exercises, such as the games I detail above, that can help these individuals to challenge stereotypes and build confidence which will be reflected in their performance at school.

  • John Morris is a senior consultant at Inspira. He has 25 years of management development experience, working with companies including Debenhams, The Burton Group, Lloyds TSB, Royal Mail and the Home Office.


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