‘Honest Abe’: Teaching lessons from Lincoln.

31 May 2017


Whatever you are, be a good one.”

Abraham Lincoln

A horrifying realisation struck me mid frolics in hills of the Yorkshire Dales on Sunday: six months of 2017 has vanished and I have read nothing related to history this year (clearly my fresh air inspired ruminations are always of such a profound and intellectual nature). Not a single jot.

Once I had recovered from this startling revelation (and said cheerio to my new sheep friends) I reached eagerly to return to sections of the brilliant‘ Team of Rivals’: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  An incredibly detailed study of Lincoln during the American Civil War the book outlines how he appointed his key rivals to his cabinet positions to prevent the country from tearing themselves apart. The book has legions of fans – often touted as an essential read on leadership. In January 2008, CBS anchor Katie Couric asked Barack Obama which one book he would take with him to the White House, apart from the Bible. The eventual winner of the presidential election went for ‘Team of Rivals’ deeming it “a wonderful book… a remarkable study in leadership”

Goodwin has written a number of fascinating presidential studies, including the brilliant No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt – The Home Front in World War 11, which took the bronze award in the 52 books I read in 2016. I’m sure any other accolades the book has received pale into insignificance in the weight of this momentous achievement (who needs the Pulitzer prize.) This TED talk is a fascinating introduction to her work:

To carry on the theme of learning from the past, what teaching lessons can we learn from this fascinating psychological study of Lincoln?

The power of self-improvement:

Born in 1809 in a log cabin on an isolated farm in Kentucky, in which the only schools were subscription schools, Lincoln himself acknowledge that “the aggregate of all his schooling… did not admit to one year”. Lincoln is the epitome of the autodidact, rising from relative obscurity to become the sixteenth president of the United States. As Goodwin notes: “His voyage would require a Herculean feat of self-creation.”

So how did he manage it? The answer, euphorically from an English teacher’s point of view, lies in the magical power of books. As Goodwin notes, books functioned very much as Lincoln’s passport to success: “Everywhere he went, Lincoln carried a book with him.” What resonates from Goodwin’s study is a man of dogged purpose – hugely committed to improving himself. This fascinating page from Robert Bray attempts to list all of the books that any serious biographer of Lincoln has argued he read. Take a deep breath before venturing into this intimidating domain!

Yet reading for its own sake is not enough. As Goodwin notes, it was not just reading – it was a sense of mastering what he read that marked Lincoln out: “What Lincoln lacked in preparation and guidance, he made up for with his daunting concentration… he was able to read and re – read books until he understood them fully.” Lincoln’s summation of the importance of reading needs to be ingrained in the minds’ of all young people:

A capacity, and taste, for reading, gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others. It is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved problems. And not only so. It gives a relish, and facility, for successfully pursuing the [yet] unsolved ones.

In the world of teaching we are subject to much nebulous CPD that has limited impact on our capacity to improve. How many snazzy suits have we scoffed at who arrive to wax lyrical about the latest teaching and learning hot spots then cruise off into oblivion? We yawn our way through whole school inset days and realise at the end of them that we are no further forward with our teaching: or we have a quick fix that we can implement for a few weeks then drift away into obscurity.

Yet what Lincoln teaches us is the power of a hungry, inquisitive mindset that never accepts complacency: one that is continually reading to empower knowledge and move forward. The beauty of this is individual ownership: we dictate how much we will improve; we dictate how reflective we are willing to become; we dictate our own path to teacher excellence. It is a path that will never reach a neat end point – but what an exhilarating and thought provoking road it is to travel down. As Lincoln stated: “I am a slow walker, but I never walk backwards.”

The power of words:

Given this scope for devouring literature it is no wonder that Lincoln embraced the power of the spoken word. With his background and being surrounded by more “educated” competition the press were quick to hound him and reduce him to a “a fourth-rate lecturer, who cannot speak good grammar.” Yet as Goodwin highlights: “Words became precious to him, never to be lightly or indiscriminately used.”

There is no better example to encapsulate this than the delivery of the Gettysburg address. Lincoln travelled to Gettysburg deep in the midst of the American Civil War, four and a half months after the battle of Gettysburg in 1863. He took the stage to address nine thousand men after the renowned orator Edward Everett. Everett held the stage for two hours, recounting in epic detail the battles that had occurred. As the editor of the Philadelphia Age noted: “He gave us plenty of words, but no heart… He talked like a Historian, or an enclyclopaedist, or an essayist, but no like an orator”.

Then up stood Lincoln, with the hopes of a nation on his shoulders:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

The power of brevity is perfectly surmised in the speech. As George Gitt noted in response to observing the speech: “the assemblage stood motionless and silent.” Edward Everett himself captured it perfectly when he wrote to Lincoln after the speech: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I cam as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Lincoln’s reverence for words and ability to construct meaning and purpose in limited time is perhaps every teacher’s mission: to talk with impact. How can we remove superfluous words in our explanations? How can we sharpen our direct instruction? Our classrooms will not function without it – but being conscious of how we use words can pay dividend in sustaining our student’s capacity to learn.

The power of the delivery:

Please hold in your mind for a moment a public speaker you admire; a figure who has influenced your desire to take on what is arguably the most demanding of public speaking roles: a teacher. Now drop the volume of your chosen figure right down. Perhaps even place them on mute. Closely examine their bodies, hands and facial expressions. Watch how they engineer themselves in order to radiate a positive impression; note how there are seamless movements that give power to their words and appear utterly easeful.

It is clear that there is a grace, a majesty, a sublime control they have that gives power to the language they effortlessly use. It is ballet: slow, microscopic movements that hold our attention. This is eloquently rendered when William H Herdon sought to consider the power of Abraham Lincoln as a speaker:

Mr. Lincoln never beat the air, never sawed space with his hands, never acted for stage effect: was cool, careful, earnest, sincere, truthful, fair, self-possessed, not insulting, not dictatorial; was pleasing, good-natured; had great strong naturalness of look, pose, and act; was clear in his ideas, simple in his words, strong, terse, and demonstrative; he spoke and acted to convince individuals and masses; he used in his gestures his right hand, sometimes shooting out that long bony forefinger of his to dot an idea or to express a thought, resting his thumb on his middle finger. Bear in mind that he did not gesticulate much and yet it is true that every organ of his body was in motion and acted with ease, elegance, and grace, so it all looked to me.

–William H. Herndon letter, July 19, 1887

There is something of beauty in watching a public speaker of real conviction in action, as Herdon encapsulates in: “ease, elegance and grace”. Surely this is a triplet we would all like to have to define our classroom presence. It is a ballet of extraordinary poise – in which all aspects: voice, message and body language unit in a symphony of real power and presence. Watching such a speaker in action inspires and motivates us and is a powerful reminder of the weight that words and speaking holds.

Yet despite the hearsay, it is not physicality alone that is the defining feature of our ability to speak with conviction. In this page (yes there is a website called www.physical-lincoln.com) there are a range of contemporaries descriptions of Lincoln, ranging from “ugly as a scarecrow” to the rather more becoming repetition of “homely”.  Instead of relying on whatever “charisma” is, Lincoln was a man of slow and meticulous preparation: who aimed to compose a message that was sparse, direct and memorable. His delivery, as we see above, manifested this message – conscious and deliberate.

To the world of teaching. The interactions we have as teachers with our audience on a daily basis often arrive into the thousands. Many of these are verbal but we often employ a storm of signals throughout our working days. A huge amount of what we do in the classroom is a silent and non- verbal: communicated through a plethora of diverse body movements, facial expressions, voice tone and pitch. These micro expressions, hand gestures and postures have an immediate register with young people. They are a silent orchestra that can have long-lasting implications in the forming of effective relationships and learning. Deliberate practise in honing and developing our strategies to use body language effectively in the classroom are an important part of developing as an effective practitioner.

The power of preparation and knowledge:

While delivery was essential, what also imbued Lincoln’s words with power was his knowledge. As his contemporaries observed: “He wold express no opinion on anything until he knew his subject inside and outside, upside and downside.” His speeches were the product of hours of thinking, as he said himself: “I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch any thing on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.”

Ownership over our material is in many ways a presumption for teachers, yet there is always more we can do. Research from Robert Coe et all’s ‘What makes great teaching: Review of the underpinning research’ highlighted that Pedagogical content knowledge had the most impact on student attainment:

“The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.”

Often we will dive headfirst into planning and teaching a topic – without having invested the thinking that goes into the content knowledge. Our glittering degrees and string of examination qualifications may give us the mistaken confidence that we can approach our subjects metaphorically blindfolded. Yet we all know how much more challenging teaching content for the first time is – the NQT year is a perfect embodiment of that. Even now, when I first teach a novel or poem, I always feel that sense of haltering hesitation that is the product of doubt. This insecurity can be curbed by the investment in time in thinking through the material and the areas in which young people may struggle. All this gives us a Lincolnian style confidence and authenticity in our delivery.

The power of emotional intelligence:

Having invested a decade in reading and learning about Lincoln, Goodwin was asked what she really felt resonated from his character in this interview: 

“What Lincoln had, it seems to me, was an extraordinary amount of emotional intelligence. He was able to acknowledge his errors and learn from his mistakes to a remarkable degree. He was careful to put past hurts behind him and never allowed wounds to fester.”

Uniting his cabinet with his “rivals” required steely self awareness and ability to form lasting relationships. The book outlines various attempts to usurp Lincoln and through him from his determined course of action – all dealt with remarkable emotional intelligence.

A cursory glance at the wonderful ‘Emotional Intelligence’ by Daniel Goleman is all we need to reiterate how emotional intelligence is of supreme importance to the teaching world:

“We transmit and catch moods from each other in what amounts to a subterranean economy of the psyche in which some encounters are taxi, some nourishing… We catch feelings from each other as though they are some kind of social virus”

The power of relaxation:

The cocktail of Lincoln learning is reaching its conclusion. Yet one more thing perhaps surprisingly resonates from Lincoln as a character study: the capacity to switch off and to relax. To return to Goodwin’s interview:

“I would add here that one more success factor is key for great leadership, be it in business or politics, and it’s one that’s usually overlooked. As a leader you need to know how to relax so that you can replenish your energies for the struggles facing you tomorrow.

What this requires is enormous self-awareness, as Goodwin notes in ‘Team of Rivals:’

“Lincoln’s ability to retain his emotional balance in such difficult situations was rooted in acute self-awareness and an enormous capacity to dispel anxiety in constructive ways”

It is estimated that Lincoln went to theatre about a hundred times while he held the position of President. He would return from these visits revitalised, replenished and ready to persevere. He was also a remarkable story teller, spending long evenings with friends telling tales.

Recharging  the batteries is an essential in any profession, finding our own path to “dispel” anxiety is vital to enable us to find pleasure and contentment in our work. If Lincoln could acknowledge its importance when trying to prevent the country from tearing each other apart – then surely as teachers we can find our off button? Despite the challenge this prevents, persevering to arm ourselves with strategies that allow us to step away from the teaching carrousel will make us much more effective and positive.

I fear if I allow this to continue I may well spend the whole of half-term on Lincoln. While I can think of worse ways to ponder away the days, there is a pile of books that need marked and an intimidating list of house tasks. Unfortunately no amount of reading about Lincoln can magic them away, the man had to have some limits.

Thank you for reading and persevering to the end. Best to allow the man himself the final word:



Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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