Teach Like a Champion

With a background in science, Pradeep Gothoskar started his education experiments with science teaching. Then he realised that teaching is more skill than science. His world view of teaching changed. To use an analogy he moved from the classroom to the sports ground, becoming a coach, instead of the stereotype dictator that teachers tend to be. He would make his students practice, observe them and nudge them to try different approaches. The enemy in this process was the content driven syllabus. And even in this syllabus, Government aided schools nowadays do not pay salaries of art teachers.

Today’s teachers are as stressed as corporate managers. Instead of the small 5 person team that reports to a typical manager, teachers have 60 students reporting to them. Managing the huge span of control is the biggest challenge a teacher faces in today’s world. With a growing population, India will continue to have classrooms of student sizes more than 50. Yet there is a silver lining in big classrooms. Pradeep feels that the normal distribution curve for a big classroom has a significant chunk of 30 in the middle. Teachers can use group psychology to get this group of students focused on the task at hand. In contrast, in smaller classrooms, where the middle will only be 10 strong, coherent groups are difficult to form.

Education stands on three pillars: Content, Skill and Will. The tragedy is that most of the teachers today see their own learning plateau off after their first 3 years. Teacher training does little to get them out of their inertia. Most of them continue the rest of their career as syllabus meisters. Some of them transition to becoming skill meisters.  Pradeep’s focus currently is on the third pillar, improving the will in students. Good teachers are those who can make the transition from content to skill to will. How do you get a teacher to develop interest in Will Development?

We don’t like subjects, we like teachers. If we dig deeper, we find that most teachers are of average intelligence. So then how do they inspire students? There are no inspiring teachers, only inspiring processes. Finding exceptional teachers is a difficult task. But getting teachers to accept some of these best practices and incorporate them into their teaching, will lift a teacher from the ranks of the mediocre to the world of the superstars, simultaneously reducing the stress associated with teaching. It is the little things that they do that students are fans of. If we can document and share these processes, we would have moved some teachers in the journey from skill to will.

What we require to do is document the kaizens of good teachers. An Indian website on the lines of the eponymous American website by Doug Lemov, ‘Teach like a champ.’ In his book the author documents his findings of a journey that he makes to schools across the United States. (Here is a link for a talk by the author.) He lists down kaizens that he has observed through his journeys. 

Teachers, possibly because of the huge amount of control that they command, have big egos. They are reluctant to sit in others teacher’s classes to learn from them. Pradeep’s idea is create an Indian ‘Teach like a champ’ and make that part of the teacher training program. His idea of identifying good teachers is simple: Ask the students. Then shoot the videos of these teachers in action. And make these videos copylefted instead of copyrighted.  YouTube videos have an advantage over real life classrooms; you can pause and rewind. Teachers will be able to see them at leisure, reflect on them, discuss with peers – and hopefully implement these will-building techniques in their own classrooms. What kind of stuff should we record?

  • It could be the Tilak Road New English School’s Mone Sir writing down names of students who have given good answers, not necessarily correct, on the board. And letting the names remain, even after they have scrubbed the board of all the writing at the end of their class.
  • About giving the tough problem right in the middle of the session, so that bright students can be kept busy.
  • Keeping a quiz of easy questions at the end, so that everybody feels good.
  • It could be the ‘Marks’wadi Professor Vaidya, who runs through a Math diagnosis exactly the same way as a doctor runs through his patients symptom, to identify the root cause of the disease.
  • It could be Professor Tilloo, of the Pune University Physics Department, who you feel that education should stop at 18, because 18-25 is the peak age for contributing to society, We learn only 5 out of 12 months in a typical school year. If we are able to increase the productivity, we can definitely all graduate by the age of 18.
  • It could be about Pradeep, giving students a choice of what they want to learn in the class.
  • For coming to the next class, with the teacher having done the same homework as students have.
  • At the end of course take this feedback from the student : What could have she done so that she could have learnt better?

In conclusion, the focus of our education should not be on learning but learning to learn.


TLAC Teachers Interaction, Sep 2019

One of the observations that Pradeep had to make in his interviewing was that most people who appear are not good students. They have the same problem as Peepal Tree students. Pradeep’s solution is similar to what he used to do with our students. Do simple things – but do them with perfection. Once that is done, you can ask them to make their problems bigger. Not clear about what he meant by making the problem bigger, we asked him to elaborate. He took an example of cleanliness. We make students start with their own desks, then make them look at the problem of keeping their classroom clean, then the school, and the city. There seemed to be a nice element of big thinking and scalability in this.

Another advice he had for teachers was to make students realise the difference between good and bad. False praise does not help. The idea is to make the good, better. Teachers should not have low expectations from students. Their job is to push them – to make them better. Good job this week, but we must do a better job, next week!

He encouraged the use of pictures to aid story-telling. But was not too keen about the entire process being done through youtube videos. His sagacious advice was that every teacher has to be an actor. In fact, over emoting helps in this acting process – as it raises class energy levels. In fact he feels that we need to train ourselves to tell stories. Maybe find out how the greats do it on youtube videos – and try to implement that in our classrooms. So I googled for story telling – and have come up with my list of videos. Here are 5:






Komal was happy that students had started speaking in English in her class. She is focussed on reading and writing. And gives lots of homework. Pradeep’s observation was that students will only learn a language if they need it. Teachers will have to create situations where there is an imperative to use the language. For example, students can go out on field trips if they show minimal proficiency in the use of some words. Or they can watch a film. Or play. Apropos HW, he felt that we need to give them very little of it – but demand perfection. This has the added advantage of reducing checking load for the teacher. In the quest for perfection, the beginning has to be made with handwriting. In fact he feels that good handwriting should be the religion at Peepal Tree. After all, our first impression of a student does come through her handwriting. Apart from pen and paper, there are other elements that go into good handwriting – posture is one of them. The challenge in getting that right at our school are our un-ergonomic table height.

Anand ji was quite happy with the math skills of 3 students. However, he felt that there is a hard struggle ahead for the other 4. Pradeep emphasised the importance of estimation in math teaching. Math is basically logical guessing! If 2 kids take 2 days to finish a work, how much will 4 kids take? Less or More?

Pradeep ended with a question about what teachers wanted from schools that their children attended. Here is the laundry list:


Getting work done

Conversation / Communication



Extra curricular activities


TLAC Teachers Interaction, Mar 2019

Pradeep has a guiding philosophy: do small things, but do them well. Pradeep wants perfection in things as mundane as writing. He insists that all the letters that are being written have to be exactly touching the line. If a student makes a mistake, no eraser should be used. They should cancel it with a straight line, and do it very beautifully. Make beautiful mistakes is his motto.

Another of my favourites: If you cannot describe something, you have not understood that thing.

In his interaction with teachers, he asked teachers to recount their favourite teachers. Most of these teachers would not have been favorites, because they had excellent knowledge or insights. But they were considered good, because of certain practices that they had. Finding exceptional teachers is a difficult task. But getting teachers to accept some of these best practices and incorporate them into their teaching, will lift a teacher from the ranks of the mediocre to the world of the superstars, simultaneously reducing the stress associated with teaching.

Pradeep’s idea is create an Indian ‘Teach like a champ’ and make that part of the teacher training program. His idea of identifying good teachers is simple: Ask the students. Then shoot the videos of these teachers in action. And make these videos copylefted instead of copyrighted. A teacher can go through these videos and choose the 20 that she likes. He discussed this idea with Vishal, my fellow Jokan from Pune, and encouraged him to make this into a for profit business. The revenue could come from advertising. Vishal is thinking about it.

One of the kaizens Pradeep was practicing: worksheets. Whenever a teacher takes something into class for distribution to students, the enthusiasm and energy levels of the class go up. In fact, in our community, even a single piece of paper is treated with a lot of admiration. The other day, he asked students to write about their favourite animal, in the first person. He told students that you have papers at home so write up that essay and get it next time. Most students objected, saying that they don’t have any paper at home. In his magnanimity, Pradeep took out blank A4 papers and distributed them to students.

Another of his beliefs: Only teach those things that you can teach through activities. His approach to English teaching is simple. In grade 3/4/5 he wanted to speak new words. The route he used, was to first start talking about seasons: rainy, winter, spring, summer. He asked students their favourite season. More students thought it was summer. Then he asked them to come up with as many words as possible that one associates with summer. And then we used these words to create poetry. A lovely activity, with an interesting side effect of students picking up the concept of rhyming words.

60% of our students have actually started doing homework now! Pradeep is coming twice a week, so the gap between classes is also not high, putting pressure on students to do homework. Homework should always be pitched to student as something which is very easy. Most creative home works are seen to be easy. One more thing, which I liked about his homework strategy is that he assigns himself homework. And he will get it to the next class, to prove to the students that he is as much part of the team as they are.

Another small kaizen in classroom management. He always closes the door, seeing that it reduces the distractions for students. I had a contrary view keeping ventilation in mind. One of his observations was about our circular seating. Posture is very important in handwriting. He believes that desks with their gentle slopes are important to build a good writing posture. The hand has to rest entirely on the table. This is not happening in our classrooms because of the height of our tables. I asked him if we can then shift to the floor. He thinks that floors are not good for writing activities.

I got Pradeep to chat up with parents who had come for the grades 3/4/5 PTA meet. Shivangi’s mom was worried about her English learning. Pradeep’s response: ‘I studied in Marathi medium till 10, and I have ok English in spite of that. The only way of learning is using.’

He talked to parents in a language that they understood. ‘You are an electrician, why do people come to you? It’s only because they know you as one who does good work. This is a philosophy that has to be ingrained into your child’s mind. That the only demand is for good work.’ Most parents come to PTA meets with complaints about their children. Why is it that they don’t talk about the good work the kids are doing at home? The parent should concentrate on her area of influence, without bothering about what the school is doing. An example of a parent’s sphere of influence: make your child sit at one place and do something, without being distracted by TV and mobile. You can start with 10 minutes for this exercise and later on stretch this time.


TLAC Meet, Oct 2019

Nagesh briefed us about a few people who are already doing good work in recording teachers’ kaizens. Please check out the hyperlinks.

Teacher plus

Dnyana Prabodhini

Anil Limaye

Shamsuddin Atttar

Rain had threatened to wash out the program. Thankfully, the Rain Gods took a break around the time the program started. We had to delay our start by about 5 minutes. Rohini did an interesting kaizen at that time to make good use of this delay. Get everybody to talk about themselves. This also helps you get a flavour of the audience. About 30 people attended. We had a lot of college teachers, some college going volunteer teachers and a few school teachers.

We started with an introduction to Bulls Eye by Santosh, where he basically told us the Bulls Eye story. Then we moved on to a talk by Pradeep, which is something which he has been sharing with us over the last year. His journey from content to skill to will development. His talk was quite short, about 20 minutes. Here is a link for that.

The first question a teacher should ask: Does a student want to learn? If the answer is yes, 90% of the job is done. The real challenge for a teacher is to nurture this will to learn. Teachers can be taught to do this; all it takes is a library of tricks. Tricks that will help teachers improve student initiative. Examples from this future library.

  • Students Decide. You are supposed to cover 2 topics in a week. You start by getting students to decide which topic should we do first. Now that the decision has been taken by students, their interest levels increases.
  • Confidence Boost. Student participation increases, when a teacher asks students to give them a thumbs up instead of the correct answers. Classroom becomes quieter, and students’ confidence level increases as they are not bombarded by the right answers.
  • Good handwriting is the foundation of good learning. Even if your students make mistakes, you need to make them cross the mistakes out in such a way that they look like pieces of art.

Then Nagesh Mone took stage. Checked and found out that there was only one person in the room who could not understand Marathi, so he went ahead with his talk in Marathi. There were quite a few ideas that are worth taking away from his talk.

  • Will, not skill. Try asking your class: How many of you know how to fly a plane? No hands will go up. Modify the question: How many of you will be able to fly an airplane? All hands will go up.
  • Everyone is first. Suppose you have a guy who has come 5th in a class of 15. Then actually he is first, amongst 10. In that sense, every guy is first. The choice that teachers have is to either torture the kid or improve his self confidence. Nagesh had a very bright student, who went to Germany for his PhD. He had to return because the guide made him lose his confidence. The only comparison that Nagesh allows is of a student with his history. Never make a comparison of one student with another. Nagesh has, over his career, passed thousands of students, who have been academic strugglers. A lot of them have gone on to do well in life. Academic performance cannot be the sole measure of success. The simple act of getting students to speak out something helps improve confidence. ‘I am going to pass my 6th standard.’ It students can say that with energy, the chances are high that they will actually pass 6th standard. One of his students came and met him after many years. He said I have been to 3 schools, but I liked your school the best. Teachers in all the schools knew about my singing talent, but I was only allowed to sing in your school. A school that allows us to grow has to be the best school! Nagesh talked about one of his students at Wai, Raj Dhage. Raj cleared his SSC on the 6th attempt. Yet he is one of India’s most famous photographers today. He had to go to Kenya for a shoot, and the problem was he didn’t know anything except Marathi. But his attitude was that  this is a problem for the Kenyans – they don’t know Marathi.
  • Students only listen to teachers who listen to students. One day a 5th standard student called out to Nagesh. She wanted a private conversation with him. She discussed that she had discussed the pending fee matter with her mother, and she had been told that it would take three days more for her to pay the fee. She wanted to know if she will be allowed to sit for the exams in such circumstances. Nagesh sir appreciated her discussion, and gave her permission to sit for the exam. Such kind of maturity and talk happens only when there is trust between teacher and student. On the subject of fees, the school fees at Wai is only Rs. 450 per year. There are some orphans, for whom even this fee is subsidized. Maybe the word subsidy should be replaced by donations, which are collected – and handed over to the student, who then submits the fee to the school. A lot of times this puts pressure on their immediate family members, who then end up paying the fee. Nagesh’s cabin has a notice: ‘No permission required by students to enter this room.’ Some teachers walked in 45 minutes after our session had started. Nagesh welcomed them heartily. And pointed out to the rest of the class, that when you castigate students who are late, you are discouraging them from coming next time. Find a place in the heart of a student, then your job is done.
  • As a teacher with 33 years of experience, Nagesh talked about how he has been able to change students through small words of appreciation. When your students of your weakest section ask you to do an extra class on Sunday, it gives you a sense of pride. He went on to his own 6th standard experience. His English teacher had asked him a question ‘What is Pradesh in English?’ It took Nagesh 5 minutes of thinking and three wrong answers before he got an answer – ‘abroad’. The teacher wrote down abroad on the blackboard, and the class applauded. The sad end to this story is that the teacher was not happy with the answer, because he wanted the answer that was there in the book. Finally, it took some prompting from students to get navigation to say that the answer was foreign. Nagesh’s fear of speaking in English has vanished from the time teacher appreciated his English. Nagesh’s advice: Praise can happen even for the small things; a clean shirt for instance. One interesting practice related to public praise is to put down the name of the student who has answered a question correctly on the right hand side of the blackboard. This name is not rubbed off through the session. What is also interesting is the left hand side of the blackboard, where he puts up names of students who have not given the right answers. However through the session, he will ensure that the question quality to such students is got down, so that he can move these students  from the left hand side to the right hand side of the blackboard.
  • The other thing he got across was that basically students are responsible. It’s just that teachers don’t believe in this idea. When he was principal of the New English School, Tilak Road, he found that all the windows in the school had been paned with got iron sheets. The original architects of this hundred-year-old school had designed the building to get good sunlight without getting heat, all through the year. Yet the covered windows were not allowing students to experience this. Against the collective resistance of his entire teaching team, he went ahead and changed all the iron sheets to glass. He advised his teaching team to not make any mention to the students about stuff like ‘Don’t break the glass.’ He then took feedback from students about the change that had just happened. A lot of them were happy with it. He told them that if you break the glass accidentally, just tell me. That’s all – you don’t have to worry about it then, For the next five years, not a single glass pane got broken. And then, as expected, some games of cricket yielded a few broken panes. And students took out a contribution, to repair these panes on their own. On a different note, school inspections are basically a test for teachers, yet it is the students who are at their best behavior on inspection day.
  • Nagesh also demonstrated the use simplicity in teaching. One interesting example that he narrated was related to logarithms, a subject that most students fear. He asked students to write 100 in the form of 10 raised to a power. Most students get the answer as 102. Then he asked what is 1000? The answer – 103. He then foxes students with how would 150 be expressed as a power of 10? As long as students get an idea that the power is going to be somewhere between 2 and 3, his task is done. Students have understood the basics of logarithms.
  • The next point was about application. When he teaches trigonometry, the question he asks to students is have you gone from Wai to Pune? And when you took the bus did you see a tunnel that comes on the way? What happens before you come to that tunnel? A lot of turns. How did the engineers design the approach road before they dug the tunnel? And that is where trigonometry comes in. Applications create interest. An open door is an obtuse angle. A hand can be used to demonstrate a right angle. Being able to relate to is important. Ask students to talk about 5 artists, or 5 geologists. Chances are they don’t know of any. But ask them to talk about 5 corporators, and they will know them, because of hoardings.
  • Props. An interesting question he asked the audience. How many times have you used litmus paper in your life? And how much do you think would it have cost the school to give you a few litmus paper sheets. Most of us have only used a couple of sheets in our life. Why are schools so penny foolish? One day, Nagesh purchased two thousand small mirrors for his school and give two to each kid. What fun students had that day. Another interesting prop in his cabin is a cane. School inspectors always object – saying that under the new laws, canes are banned. He counters by asking – is there any rule which disallows you from keeping it – even if you don’t use it. The symbolism works.
  • The problem is with the nomenclature. Teachers always call a class a lecture, but it has to be a storytelling session. Stories, pictures and history are what make a class interesting. For example, when you are talking about physics, Nagesh likes to point out that Isaac Newton’s dad was also called Isaac. The fun time is when he asks students: if the mother called out to Issac, who would answer, her husband or the son?
  • Whenever Nagesh goes for a talk to any place, he asks the organisers and gets two names, one on the left back corner and right back corner of the room. And he ensures that he uses those names liberally in his talk. Helps build a connect with the audience. In fact, he even uses random names in the class. For example, when he says. ‘Pradeep don’t make noise’, most students assume that he knows who the noisemaker is, and stop making noise.

After Nagesh’s talk, we broke the class up into groups of four and asked them to come up with their own experiences. Had given teachers a talk time limit of about 2 minutes, but teachers being teachers, we had a few who went on for 10 minutes. One of the teachers wanted to know whether we are going to issue any certificate of participation for the program. I think it’s a good idea, and Santosh should get these in place for our next program. Here are their experiences:

  • Let students know you are human, by asking them for solutions for your problems.
  • Ask students this question: ‘What comes to your mind when I ask this question?’
  • Students are using WhatsApp in your class in any case. Ask them to use their Mobiles instead for finding answers to a problem that you have given.
  • Breaking up problems into subproblems help arrive at solutions faster.
  • Look at problems from the RHS, instead of the LHS
  • In an extra class, create a challenge question, students who answer that are free to leave the class.
  • Go to class with problems of multiple difficulty levels – student answers will help you know what the average level of the class is.
  • Roam around in class – people then actually start writing in their books.
  • Ask students to not take notes when discussions are happening. Give them white time at the end of important points, to make notes in their own language. Works much better than dictation.
  • Case studies work very well even at school level.
  • Whenever we don’t know an answer to a student question, we have a tendency to justify it as an axiom or unquestionable principle. Mone Sir was asked a question, why is sin 90, 1? He recounts a teacher giving this as a counter-question to such a question: Why is your father called a father and your mother, mother? This, though witty, does not go down too well with students. We had a student who asked a teacher: Why is it that in accounting, liabilities are written on the left hand side, and assets on the right hand side. The teacher used an example of going to the mandir. And if you are receiving parshad, which hand do you take it in – the right hand. See you receive assets in the right hand. Students remember this mnemonic well.
  • The college volunteer group talked about how they dealt with negative numbers at New English school – using number lines. And how pictures help student understanding. After sometime you don’t need the pictures, but they are helpful at the start.
  • Using a journey from home to college to illustrate an algorithm. I have used the process of making tea to help students think using a systems approach.
  • Take students through multiple ways in which the same problem can be disguised. For example – multiplication. a * b, ab, a.b, (a)(b).
  • Building as a learning tool – using doors as protractors.
  • Using musical instruments in helping appreciate poetry better.
  • Conserving teacher time by exchanging test papers in class and getting students themselves to correct.
  • Talk in the audience’s language – not just literally, but figuratively. When you address accountants, frame your examples with lots of debits and credits. A teacher talked about how his M.Com class has students who have done graduation in Hindi, Marathi and English. He has to use a khichdi language in class as a result.
  • When you watch a movie or TV ads, see how you can get that movie or ad into your classroom, by linking it to your subject. Ask students to do a study on TV ads – and make a presentation in class about the same.
  • Teachers should read the newspaper before coming to class – and relate that to the subject that they are going to teach. End result – you’ve piqued the curiosity of the student – who will now go home and read the paper.

What we should be teaching students –

  • How to learn
  • How to observe
  • How to build self esteem
  • How to tell stories
  • How to work in groups
  • How to take good notes
  • Prove 0 < 1

We ended the program with reflections and action points. Here are the themes that came out as impactful.

  • Appreciate
  • Student problems are my problems
  • Teaching should not be restricted to classroom only
  • Ask students to share their experiences in class
  • Learn to speak the student’s language
  • Examples which students can relate to
  • Developing a practical approach
  • Making pairs of students
  • Use of Stories
  • Connects with history
  • Develop content for will development