Can you remember a single lesson from when to at school? Not the dates and fact you learned but the actual lesson that delivered them?
For me, one stands out above all others. The day of the Unexpected Door Opening. It features a threat, a German teacher and a comms message I’ve never forgotten.
It was when I was aged 13 at Walton High School in Stafford. Picture the scene. A 60s teaching block.
Every German lesson would descend into chaos. The boys would fire paper missiles blown like darts through adapted biro blowpipes. The girls would talk to each other and at the front our teacher slowly having a nervous breakdown. Shouting was the only way she could make herself heard. She shouted a lot.
Until the week of the Unexpected Door Opening.
You see, our language classrooms had interconnecting doors. Right at the front of the classroom next to the blackboard. It led to a neighbouring clasroom.
It had never opened before but this week the door opened. Unexpectely. Into the din, noise and chaos walked Mr Sampson.
Mr Sampson was a grey haired teacher about 5’10” tall with blue eyes, glasses and a blue jumper. He’d been at the school for years and knew how children’s brains worked. He was dangerous. Why? Because you couldn’t con him. And his put downs could make the hardest kid look like an idiot and we all knew it.
I paused. We were for it now.
Gradually, the room fell silent. Like an orator waiting for a pin to drop the tension built and Mr Sampson waited to speak.
“Thank you, Mrs Kemp,” the newly arrived teacher said in a quiet voice. “I’ll take over from here.”
I felt the dread of the impending bollocking.
But it didn’t happen. Instead Mr Sampson for the final nine minutes of the lesson told us of the importance of making eye contact in an interview. Don’t look at the floor, he told us. Look them in the eye. But it’s hard to look people in the eye, he said. Because it can be off-putting and they can tell if you are not telling the truth. Some cultures think you can see into people’s soul. So look at the point between the eyes instead. He went into detail about interview posture and how to come over well. We all listened with complete attention. We were winning. He’d forgotten why he’d come in. Or so we thought.
The bell rang.
Thank God, we were off the hook. And we made to put our stuff away.
“Stop,” he said quietly.
He had us right where he wanted us.
“If I have to come through that door again, I will fucking kill each one of you,” and he looked each one of us in the eye. Right in the eye. Individually. One by one.
Next week we were good as gold. The week after that we were too. But on the third week, the noise levels rose. The interconnecting door handle started moving.
We were fucking dead. But the door handle stopped. We froze. Ten seconds passed. The tick of the clock. The beat of the heart. And slowly the door handle returned to its original position.
A long sigh of relief. Like a timebomb that had stopped ticking with three seconds on the clock.
It’s message? From Mr Sampson: “Don’t think I’ve forgotten.”
We were as good as gold from then on.
But what’s the comms message? Be clear on your promise and follow through.
And look people in the eye when you’re delivering the message. Individually. One by one. It’s more effective that way.
Picture credit: Davynin / Flickr