How to enthuse the unenthusiastic pupil

Jim Baker

Jim Baker, a self-identifying maverick, is a teacher of over 40 years who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He has written for the Guardian, and prides himself on finding the best teaching methods for each student. The majority of his career was spent as a chemistry teacher at Lincoln Christ's Hospital School; during his time there, he reached the final 13 in the Salter's ‘Chemistry Teacher of the Year’ award. He is a freelance educational consultant, and acted as Chemistry Expert for The Chemistry Journey Project’s Virtual School Initiative. He is a contributory author of Teaching Secondary Science, Constructing Meaning and Developing Understanding, 4th Edition BlogFacebook | YouTube |

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To solve this problem of enthusing the unenthusiastic pupil we must first ask ‘Why is the pupil unenthusiastic? Two reasons for this lack of enthusiasm are:

1) Being preoccupied with ‘outside’ issues.
2) Not finding the teacher ‘entertaining’ - hence my reply “entertainer” when asked what I do.

There is not alot we can do about 1) above, but there is for 2).

I wish I had a bar of chocolate for each time newly-qualified teachers are told by their school mentors “You don’t smile until Christmas or the pupils will think you’re easy game”. The last time I was told this by a student teacher I was mentoring, I told her to ignore it. As I asked her, “What type of people do you like to be around and be in the company of?” Her reply was “People who are fun, laugh a lot and don’t lose their temper”.

“Exactly”, I said, “And pupils are no different.”

The key thing that underpins all good teaching - oops sorry, entertaining - is relationships. If you can get the relationship right then many so called discipline problems do not arise. For new readers I’d like to point out that I’m speaking from 44 years at the ‘chalk-face’, am only 5’2” and do not have a threatening voice.

I’ll always remember back in 1969 watching a black and white (colour hadn’t been invented) video during my training year. A small teacher came into a room full of noisy pupils. He coughed a few times, each time louder than the previous time but the pupils continued to be noisy. After a few minutes the video cut and a ‘six foot rugby player’ teacher came into the same room and slammed the door. All was quiet. “Easy this teaching game,” I thought, and couldn’t wait to try the ‘slamming the door’ routine.

When I walked into the lab to entertain (got it right this time) my first class they were quiet, obviously weighing up this guy who looked younger than they were. Itching to try the ‘slamming the door to get silence’ routine, I walked back into the prep room until the class had begun to chatter. I then walked back in and slammed the door. Did it work? Of course not. Some expensive glassware on a shelf above the door fell to the floor, to the obvious amusement of the class.

The moral of the above story is this: To be a good entertainer, one must learn from past mistakes. Everyone, particularly those who have never been in a classroom, love to give advice on how to control and enthuse pupils, but in reality, as when I tried the advice in the video, it rarely goes to plan, hence the expression ‘never work with children or animals’.

As I have said, relationships underpin all that follows. It is often said ‘It is no good knowing your subject matter if you cannot put it across in an understandable way’. I go further; it is no good being able to put it across in an understandable way if the ‘audience’ is not receptive. Like any good comedian knows, it is all about getting the audience on your side and working with you. This will happen, as mentioned in my article Using the Cloud to make Learning Fun, if the pupils feel they have some ownership of their learning, which ties in with my other article, The way forward: Changing how we teach our students.

Pupils are enthused if they sense passion in the entertainer at the front of the class, and a prerequisite for this passion is ‘understanding (as distinct from knowing) your subject matter’. So, to summarise, if the reason for the pupil being unenthusiastic is 1) above, little can be done but if the reason is 2) above, a lot can be done.


So often entertainers (teachers) are given advice by consultants or by people who have never been inside a classroom, so again, I’d like to point out my advice is based on 44 very successful years at the chalk-face.

I’ll finish by giving a few bullet points, based on my years in the classroom, on how to enthuse the unenthusiastic pupil.

  • Work on relationships
  • See yourself as an entertainer
  • Smile, laugh and have fun with your pupils
  • Understand your subject matter
  • Try flipped learning to give your pupils ownership of their work
  • Value their individual skills

How do you enthuse your pupils? Let us know in the comments

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