Ten Disciplines for Transformational Teaching

Michael Zigarelli

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Great teachers make it look easy. But it seldom is.

In the same way that athletes can’t “just do it” when it comes to performance, neither can exceptional teachers. In fact, the best ones have adopted an entire training regimen that allows them to teach well — consistently well. Class after class, sermon after sermon, pre-game talk after pre-game talk.

This “training regimen” is learnable. Replicable. Think of it as a set of disciplines — habits that enable us to do what we’d never be able to do without them.[1] After twenty-five years of college teaching and nearly that much on the speaking circuit, let me commend 10 of these disciplines to you. I’ve bombed when I’ve ignored them; I’ve succeeded when I’ve heeded them. Perhaps you’ll find a few of them helpful.

I’ve organized these 10 into “Lifestyle Disciplines” (general habits that enhance our teaching), “Design Disciplines” (habits that help us structure our communication logically and persuasively), and “Disciplines for the Day You Teach” (habits to elevate execution). You’ll notice that I’ve come at this from a Judeo-Christian perspective, but even if that’s not your worldview, many of these ideas are transferable.

Lifestyle Disciplines

Discipline 1: Remember the Sacredness of Your Task (and thank God for giving you the same profession as His Son)

Many of us got into the teaching profession because we thought it might be fun or enjoyed the rush of center stage or, more nobly, because we wanted to give something back. Whatever the impetus, that eagerness to teach tends to dissipate over time. The excitement wanes, supplanted by the perspective that this is an incredible amount of work — and thankless work at that. The burnout, the ingratitude, the lack of affirmation, and the inability to gauge whether we’re even making any difference with all this effort can cause us to become a bit jaded. Once this was a glorious calling; now it’s just a job.

If you want a measure of where you are with this, simply compare how you feel about the beginning versus the end of your work week. We should look forward to the former at least as much as we do the latter. When we lose that sense of vocation, though, we drift toward TGIF with all of its toxic ripple effects.

To sustain it, or regain it, keep this before you: When you step in front of people to teach, you’re stepping onto holy ground. You don’t need to take off your shoes, but shed the secular mindset. That platform is a sacred space.

So is everywhere that made this moment possible — everywhere that you did your planning, your design work, and your mental rehearsal. Even reading this article can be worship, not just work, if you choose to make it that.

It’s basic theology, but it’s also become cliched theology. And thereby discounted. Recapture it. Where we teach, what we teach, how we teach — it’s all is to honor God (1 Cor. 10:31, Col. 3:23-24). And beyond that, when we teach, we also stand in the tradition of Jesus.

Did you ever consider that? God sent his son to be a teacher — just as God is sending you to be a teacher. He’s given you the same vocation he gave his son. In that light, the only appropriate response is gratitude. Maybe awe as well. Quite the opposite of complaint and murmuring.

If you’ve lost the sense of the sacredness in your teaching, this is a good time to find it again. Post it notes in your workspace, an encouraging background on your phone, a Bible on your desk, communicating with God as you prepare to teach, thanking God for your calling before you exit your car in the morning, an accountability partner to call you out with any hint of complaint — there are dozens of ways to remain in a faithful mindset about your teaching. Use them overcome the lethal perspective that your teaching doesn’t really matter. It matters very much to the One who entrusted you with that audience.

Discipline 2: Get Enough Rest (and maybe a simpler lifestyle altogether)

Almost every teacher I know reports being tired. From grade school and high school teachers to college professors to pastors to corporate trainers, there seems to be an epidemic of fatigue inflicting those in the education business.

There are plenty of reasons for this — some systemic, some self-imposed. But regardless the reasons, the outcomes are never good for those who sit under our teaching. They’re uninspired and unchanged from our unconnected lecture points, our unwise deviations from the learning objectives, and our unsatisfying, superficial feedback on their assignments.

Of course, none of that is intentional, but it is inexorable, since mediocrity is the natural offspring of burnout.

Often, no one is more frustrated with this dynamic than the person in front of the room. He or she has become a caricature of their old, excellent self, having gradually but radically defined-down what constitutes “good enough.”

There are other repercussions, too. Inadequate rest culminates in physical, mental, relational and spiritual consequences for the person suffering. From migraines to afternoon sleepiness to shallow thinking to a general attitude of indifference, we fall well short of our potential and the abundant life God wants to give us (John 10:10).

These are some of the reasons that God invented rest (e.g., Exodus 20:10) and why God wants us to safeguard rest as a holy habit. Did you ever think about that? God wants you to rest — for your sake and for the sake of those you lead. He gives us the gift of Sabbath to rejuvenate us, but we leave that gift wrapped and sitting in a corner. It’s time that we teachers open it, enjoy it, and allow it to reclaim our teaching acumen.

And even more broadly than that, it’s wise to pursue a simpler lifestyle altogether, one element of which is adequate rest. Scaling back our responsibilities, saying no more often to requests for our time, setting more boundaries, focusing of doing a handful of things with excellence rather than everything beneath our potential — we who teach can preserve the simplicity to excel.[2]

Discipline 3: Get in the Habit of Learning (and stay there)

If we’re going to teach well, we have to continue to learn well. That’s pretty logical. The logic somehow escapes us, though, after we’ve logged a few years in the teaching or training profession.

Maybe that’s because we’ve bought into the prideful myth that we now know everything we need to know. Or maybe it’s because life’s too crowded to think about continuous improvement. Or maybe we’re just tired of learning; after all, it can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating.

Whatever the reason, when we neglect this basic teaching axiom, we stagnate. We begin to teach from old notes, from old knowledge, from old patterns of thinking, from old and often outdated examples. Eventually, we may find ourselves just going through the motions, without purpose and without joy.

Anyone who’s been in the classroom for a few years or out on the speaking circuit awhile knows the risk we face. Except for the geniuses among us, this much is true: As we learn, so we teach.

When we de-prioritize our development, we lose our edge — our ability to think deeply about our material, our ability to speak into others’ lives with penetrating insights. Ask any pastor. Ask any professor. Actually, strike that — ask any person sitting under the teaching of a pastor or professor who’s not in the habit of learning. This Sunday it’s the same basic lessons in a slightly different package. Then something similar happens in class on Monday. On neither day does the hearer leave that place any different than he or she entered it.

You can also ask any school administrator about this phenomenon. Here is a person who used to be brilliant in the classroom but whose reading is now limited to emails, curriculum revisions, and glossy brochures from other institutions. As a result, he’s slowly been de-skilled. So has the beleaguered high school teacher who has such limited time to freshen her knowledge and is starving to feel alive again, as she felt in grad school.

That’s not intended to disparage anyone. In most cases, the problem is systemic rather than a conscious, individual choice to de-prioritize learning. Regardless the cause, the reality remains: When we stop learning we stop growing, and when we stop growing we stop teaching in a way that changes lives.[3] Or, in more pithy terms, as legendary coach John Wooden put it: “When you’re through learning, you’re through.”

The remedy, beyond making more space in life for professional development, is for those of us who teach for a living to think differently about who we are and what we do. We’re not teachers, we’re learners. We’re not speakers, we’re learners. We’re not pastors, we’re learners. We’re not trainers or professors or coaches; first and foremost, we’re learners.

Framing matters. When we consider our vocation to be learning and passing along what we’re learning, we allocate our time differently. We make time for reading; we make time for reflecting on what we’ve read; we research and write more; we take courses and seminars that sharpen the saw; we might even devote an entire day each week specifically to learning and synthesizing new information with what we’ve learned before.

If you want to be a great teacher — a transformational teacher — think of yourself as a learner first. Insist on the time from those who manage you. Then, creating epiphanies for those who hear your words will happen automatically, just like it used to.

Design Disciplines

Discipline 4: Know Your Audience (and keep them in mind as you build your lesson)

The best teachers learn as much as possible about the age group they’ll be instructing before they develop their teaching plans. The best speakers ask a lot of questions about what the audience knows and cares about before creating their message. Missionaries, too, learn all they can about the people they’re trying to reach before communicating with those people. Many trial lawyers learn everything they can about each juror long before ever making their opening argument.

There’s a general principle of communication that transcends all these illustrations: Know your audience. Before you do the hard work of design, do your homework regarding those who will hear you. Then build your teaching specifically for their ears, for their minds, for their concerns, for their edification.

Most of us know this, of course. The real problem is that we often we breeze right by this step because, frankly, we get a bit overconfident. We think we already know our audience as well as we need to, so we move on.

Bad idea. Consider this: Pastors typically assume the same thing. They assume they know well the congregation they’re trying to influence, and they design their sermons, their discipleship programs, and their other communications based on this assumption. But according to one nationwide study, many of them may be way off base. Pastors in that survey say that 70 percent of their “congregants deem their faith in God to be the highest priority in their life.” When the researchers asked those in the pews, though, only 15 percent said their faith was their highest priority![4]

Think of the implications. Think about how many pastors are missing the mark with their messages because they misunderstand their audience. And — here’s the crux of the matter — think about how many more lives would be affected and how much more influence our churches might have if pastors and other church leaders knew their flock better.

Each one of us is susceptible to falling into the same overconfidence trap. No matter what audience God has entrusted to us, large or small, we should honor that trust by thoroughly understanding that audience before we attempt to teach them.

Discipline 5: Study the Best Practices for Teaching Your Topic (and the worst practices, too)

This is a special case of being a learner (Discipline 3). Benchmark how others do what you need to do — watch them, listen to them teach, if they’re nearby take them out for coffee and solicit their ideas. They’ve figured out what works.

Also, immersing ourselves in how outstanding teachers communicate can, over time, culminate in our ability to emulate their approach, their animation, their oratory and rhetorical skills. It’s in essence a process of osmosis, where we gradually assimilate to their remarkable style.

That’s pretty basic, of course. We all know we can learn from best practices and many of us do. What gets less press is the similar value of observing worst practices.

Every time I write a book, for example, I find books on the same topic that I think do a lousy job communicating the material. Then I take plenty of notes about what not to do in my book. The same process can apply with our oral teaching: It can be instructive to watch those who do a lackluster job, taking plenty of notes about what to avoid in the design and delivery of our messages.

Discipline 6: Choreograph Your Communication (and practice the dance steps till you know them well)

This is where it all comes together — a pivotal discipline where the teaching game is won or lost.

No matter how catchy your topic or the title of your talk, and no matter how poignant your stories or how funny your jokes, the learning process will stall if you don’t organize your message (class, sermon, seminar, etc.) logically and in a way that people will actually learn. There’s no cookie cutter for how to do that, but there is also no substitute for doing this hard work of design.

The first design issue involves content: What points should we include and exclude? One way to know is by defining the central outcome you’d like to see from your teaching and doing only those things that will accomplish that outcome. You can think about this as having a particular mission statement for each time you teach — a mission statement that becomes a filter for deciding what you’ll communicate and what you won’t. If certain ideas, examples, stories, exercises and so on don’t contribute to the mission of your message, then toss them out. It doesn’t matter how intriguing or entertaining they might be. In the end, if an idea isn’t “mission-consistent,” then it’s a distraction.

For example, in this article, I cut away several ideas at the design stage that are useful “tips” but don’t really lead to “transformational” teaching, which is the core mission of my message here. It was tempting to insert these tips anyway because I think they’re good stuff, but they’d have the effect of confounding the purpose of this piece. Through the lens of that mission I was able to resist the temptation.

The second design issue is delivery: How will you communicate the content so that people learn and remember? Here, “choreograph” may be a helpful metaphor for us. A choreographer arranges dance movements for a performance with the goal of engaging and delighting the audience. And while most of us teachers don’t do a literal song and dance, make no mistake — this is a performance, and we want it to be an outstanding one (because, as we said earlier, God invites us to make it an outstanding one). At the end of it, a transformed perspective of our hearers is the standing ovation.

One way to do this is to create an outline of points you want to make. Then choreograph that outline — re-organize it into a better storyline, a logical and engaging and even a delighting flow. Incorporate plenty of illustrations, humor, pauses for Q-and-A, and experiential exercises, if appropriate. Plan the epiphanies — the “a-ha” moments. Don’t just expect that they’ll organically emerge along the way. And carefully plan the visual elements, too, whether that entails PowerPoint slides or a chalkboard or props or whatever.

At Harvard Business School, the professors go so far as to plan what their blackboards will look like at the end of a case discussion. That’s choreography. Personally, I’ve found that to be one of my most powerful teaching tools. Glean from best practices like these and then implement several of them, remembering to see everything you’ll do through the eyes of your audience.

Also, a few days after putting your initial choreography on paper, get out your red pen. In almost every design, there’s room for improvement. So find the weak spots and then strengthen them. Look for under-developed connections in your arguments, lackluster stories, planned humor that isn’t all that funny, points that are merely tangential to your central message, unclear segues from one point to another, and so forth. If we truly care about the quality of our messages, we can’t neglect this significant revision. It makes the difference between a B+ class and an A+.

Once you’ve completed this choreography, you’re in a position to practice and perfect the “dance steps” — to prepare yourself to teach. For some messages, it will be appropriate to talk through them, possibly even several times depending on their importance. Just as the three most important things in real estate are “location, location, and location,” the three most important things in teaching may be “preparation, preparation, and preparation.” There’s no one right way to do this, but there’s also no avoiding it if you want excellence.

One last suggestion that will make a big difference: As you prep, spend plenty of time rehearsing the stories you’ll tell in your presentation or lesson, since they’re so vital to learning and retention (this is one reason why storytelling was Jesus’ primary approach to teaching). I recognize that this notion of “rehearsing” might seem odd to you, especially if you’re already a pretty good storyteller. But great storytelling doesn’t appear ex nihilo, not even for professional storytellers. And besides that, it can always be made better, so as with any performance, success requires that we rehearse before going “on stage.”[5]

Disciplines for the Day You Teach

Discipline 7: Mediate on Your Message (and consider doing it while you walk)

To “mediate” simply means to think deeply about something, and usually the more you think about what you’re going to say, the better you’ll say it. That’s especially true for the day you’ll teach. In fact, many teachers, speakers and pastors will do nothing else in the hours leading up to their teaching except “meditate” on their message.

Some people recommend walking while you reflect on what you’re going to communicate, since it improves blood flow to the brain. It’s something that C.S. Lewis apparently did quite often,[6] and it’s something that Harvard Business Review recommends as well.[7] Diverse experts, same recommendation.

Another practice is to take out a blank sheet of paper and, without referring to your notes, list the order of your points, how you’ll transition from one point to another, what stories you’ll use, and so on. Then, do that again on another blank sheet until you have the outline practically memorized. Normally, that will only take one or two times through to get this down (unless you really don’t know your message, in which case this practice becomes even more important), but it will pay rich dividends by enriching the smoothness and cogency of your teaching.

Once you have the teaching points ordered in your mind, you may also find it helpful to go deeper with some of the more important points. On the day you teach, scan some websites for the latest developments on these points. Peruse any recent research on the topic you’re covering. You’ll be surprised how naturally some of this information flows from your lips when you teach that day, even without you formally planning to use it. As a result, you’ll teach with greater depth and currency than you would otherwise.

Discipline 8: Pray for Those You’ll Teach (and for the humility to remember that it’s not about you)

Scripture says this often: Prayer changes things. And among those things, it can change how well our hearers receive the message we offer.

Praying for our students or audience can also change us. We tend to care more about those for whom we pray. We begin to see them as God sees them. We start to focus more on what they need and less on what they’ll think about the person speaking.

We can pray anytime for these people, of course, but doing it just before we teach keeps our imminent task divinely-framed. It elevates our care and — this is especially important with interactive teaching — it helps us to respond to their questions and comments with greater humility, gentleness, and compassion, no matter what the questioner’s intelligence or intent.

Before you teach, every time you teach, make a habit of asking to be God’s ambassador to each person in the room. And beyond that, consider this brief but inordinately powerful prayer: “Lord, help me to remember that this is not about me. Don’t let this be about my reputation. Guide me so this is only about you and your will. Please speak through me, Lord.”

Through that sort of prayer, peace supplants pride and we can finally teach beyond ourselves.

Discipline 9: Warm Up Your Mind (and your mouth, while you’re at it)

To “warm up your mind” (and your mouth) is an uncomplicated process. Just engage people in dialogue for about 30 minutes before show time. To some extent, it doesn’t even matter what you talk about, as long as you’re getting all the cylinders firing in your brain and you’re practicing being articulate.

This is a habit that’s extremely useful to some people, especially us introverts (and there are an astounding number of us in teaching professions). It allows us to “hit the ground running” when we begin to speak, rather than having to get up to speed slowly.

Sometimes that will matter quite a bit, especially in venues where people make up their minds in the first two minutes whether we’re really worth listening to. There’s indeed something important at stake here. If we have a choppy or hesitant opening, some people will mentally check out on us. So get in the habit of warming up, just as a musician might before a performance. It will enable you to get things right from the very first note.

Discipline 10: Rewind Immediately (and get plenty of feedback from others)

It’s only natural after you’ve taught to put it behind you and move on to the next thing that day — whether it’s rest or the next class prep or lunch or whatever. If you do, though, you’ll miss a golden opportunity to take your teaching to the next level.

If possible, take some time immediately after you teach to rewind and review the experience. Write down what worked and what didn’t, where the transitions were smooth and rough, which points need more support, where you might need a story or some humor or some greater depth. Recall the faces of those in the audience — when they were clearly energized and “getting it” (we all know the expression), as well as when they were not (we’ve all seen those expressions, too). Take notes about what to keep and what to fix.

This sort of review is especially important when we’ve fallen short in some areas. We hate thinking about those embarrassing moments, but if we’re serious about improvement and excellence — about teaching in a way that truly honors God — few habits will help us more.

This one will help as well: Later on, get lots of constructive criticism from people in the class or audience whom you trust and who will be candid with you. Continuous improvement requires continuous feedback.



[1] I owe an intellectual debt of gratitude to Professor Dallas Willard whose ideas about “disciplines” have shaped my own. See, for example, his classic work, The Spirit of the Disciplines (Harper SanFrancisco, 1988).

[2] To go deeper with this point, see the following resources: Freedom of Simplicity by Richard Foster (Harper & Row, 1981), Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives by Richard Swenson (NavPress, 1995), Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend (Zondervan, 1992), and Freedom from Busyness: Biblical Help for Overloaded People by Michael Zigarelli (LifeWay Christian Resources, 2006).

[3] For further insight about this point, see Howard Hendricks, Teaching to Change Lives, (Multnomah: Oregon), 1987, pp. 17-38.

[4] Barna Update, January 24, 2006, available here.

[5] For more information about the principle and the practice of storytelling, see “Influence Through Storytelling“ and “Choosing the Right Story for Your Leadership Challenge“ in the 9 to 5 Library.

[6] See Douglas Gresham, Jack’s Life: The Story of CS Lewis, B&H Publishing Group, 2005.

[7] See John Medina, “The Board Meeting of the Future,” Harvard Business Review, February 2008, pp. 22-23.

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College. You can reach him through his website, Christianity9to5.org