Ethos, logos and pathos: three ways to become a teacher again

 
 Image: @jasonramasami

The dreams haven’t started yet. But when they do they will be repetitive and vivid.

I am late for class, lost in labyrinthine, Cubist corridors. I eventually arrive to find scenes of desperate chaos as hordes of scraggly youngsters leap about, tearing at the walls. My screams and exhortations fade away into the sweaty ether of adolescent indifference. Now, and only now, a profound horror seeps through me. I inexplicably forgot to dress this morning. I am a lump of voiceless skin.

At the close of every summer such nightmares invade my sleep. They seem to be manifestations of a deep, subconscious fear. Will I be able to do it all again? Will I finally discover that past successes were merely the hollow fruit of good fortune? Will I finally meet my match?

Once more, I will need to assume guise of the classroom teacher. And I know that I will again feel like a pretender … at first.

I have always believed that the first few weeks with a class are the most important. This is when our classroom culture becomes established, when routines, habits and behaviours are forged, when the path for the year is laid out. All teachers, schools and classrooms are different but our goal is usually the same in these opening weeks. To be recognised and respected by our classes as their teacher.

Aristotle’s three appeals of rhetoric are helpful here: ethos, logos and pathos. These are the ways in which a speaker can appeal to her audience and for millennia they have formed the backbone of spoken persuasion. Admittedly, pedagogy and rhetoric are separate arts and should not be confused. A class dynamic is far more complex, interpersonal and long-lasting than the fleeting relationship between a captivating orator and her enraptured audience. Teachers cannot rely on persuasion alone; to perform our roles successfully, we also need the cushion of supporting and supportive whole-school cultures. Nevertheless, I think that with a little blogger’s licence on my part, the three appeals provide valuable pointers at the start of the academic year for new and rusty teachers alike.

Traditionally, ethos is the way we establish ourselves and the way we build a connection with our audience. Logos is the way we influence others through reason and logic. And pathos is the way we provoke and anticipate the emotions of our audience.

Sam Leith in his wonderful book “You Talkin’ to Me?”: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama rather bluntly puts it like this:

Ethos: ‘Buy my old car because I’m Jeremy Clarkson.’ Logos: ‘Buy my old car because yours is broken and mine is the only one on sale.’ Pathos: ‘Buy my old car or this cute little kitten, which is afflicted with a rare degenerative disease, will expire in agony, for my car is the last asset I have in the world and I am selling it to pay for kitty’s medical treatment.’

Rhetoric is an art that can be learned – and so, thankfully, is teaching. So, how might the appeals help us to establish ourselves in the next few weeks?

Ethos

We need our students to know that we have credibility, that we are trustworthy and fair, that we have absolute faith in their ability to learn. Crucially, this appeal must extend to all members of the class.

We might do this by reinforcing the rules and expectations of the school at every opportunity. We might do this by keeping our calm and playing any student misdemeanour with a very straight bat. We might model our love of our subject by explaining why it still fascinates us as fully grown adults. We might tell our classes that even though they are in year 7, we will treat them like, and give them the work of, year 10s. We might set them challenging tasks right from the get-go (see my benchmarks of brilliance post) or we might theatrically tear up a list of target grades, telling them that they are human beings not numbers and grades, that we hold no preconceptions and that we expect the very best from each and every one of them.


Logos

Our students need to be reassured that we know our subjects, that we know how to teach our subjects and that our subjects matter a great deal. Indeed, it goes without saying that you cannot prove your ethos as a teacher without showing a considerable degree of logos.

We could demonstrate our subject knowledge by starting the year with a topic we know intricately, explaining it in careful detail and probing student thinking with agile questioning. We could use our planning time to add extra depth and texture to our subject knowledge, rather than frittering it away on pointless bells-and-whistles slide shows. We could dryly explain how, say, gaining an English GCSE unlocks future success, but we could also explain how language and literature are the gateways to a fuller and richer life of the mind. We could also make it clear – in as kindly manner as possible – that poorly explained answers and incomplete reasoning never go unchallenged between these four walls.

Pathos

Pathos is much more than mere pity and empathy. It is about appealing to the full gamut of emotions – from excitement and fear, to amusement and curiosity. Like logos, it has a huge influence on our ethos appeal and our credibility in the eyes of our new students. As English teacher David Bunker suggests in this excellent post about the pitfalls of putting relationships before discipline, the pathos appeal can be misapplied. We are not aiming to be our students’ friends; good working relationships take time to form.

Nevertheless, a secondary classroom is a raging sea of teenage emotion and we must navigate it as best we can. First off, we should unearth the inherent emotion of our subjects in our delivery (granted, this is easier for me as an English teacher!). We should consider carefully how we push children to achieve more without damaging their sense of self-worth. We should laugh together and we should question together. We should show that, yes, we too are human by being frank about our weaknesses, by admitting we are sometimes wrong, by confessing that actually we don’t know now but we sure are going to find out as soon as we can. We should continue to remember that adolescence is complex and that home lives can be difficult, yet we should never let this dent our expectations of the child.

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The three appeals – okay, bastardized a little by me – are wonderful principles to work by. They can be adapted to suit your personality and the context you work in. They are not rigid descriptions of behaviour; rather, these interlinked channels of communication are unique to each teacher. I see myself primarily as a logos-driven teacher yet I can think of many successful colleagues who are pathos-driven. Even so, the greatest teachers I have worked with seem magically to combine both – a wonderful depth of subject knowledge and an acute empathetic understanding of how school makes young people feel. That’s what I’m gunning for this year.

Sweet dreams.

Andy

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