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What practicing magic for 60 years has taught me about communicating with students

Communication is defined as the exchange of information. It’s something we do every day; buying coffee, sharing ideas with co-workers, and making weekend plans with family all require that exchange. But, like breathing, communicating is something we tend to take for granted until it goes wrong.  Communication and education, meanwhile, go hand-in-hand. Precision and perspicuity […]

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Image by Kranich17 from Pixabay
Image by Kranich17 from Pixabay

Communication is defined as the exchange of information. It’s something we do every day; buying coffee, sharing ideas with co-workers, and making weekend plans with family all require that exchange. But, like breathing, communicating is something we tend to take for granted until it goes wrong. 

Communication and education, meanwhile, go hand-in-hand. Precision and perspicuity are key when passing information from teacher to student, student to teacher, or even administrator to teacher. 

More than four decades in providing and advocating for education has led me to be deeply invested in my own ability to share ideas effectively. Retrospectively, I realize that some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about communicating have come from unexpected places. Ironically, it’s dabbling in illusion that has provided me with what I consider to be priceless instruction in how to communicate with clarity. 

After 60 years of practicing magic and sleights of hand, the following three ideas stand out to me as not only great advantages in the context of teaching but in all situations where communication is a key element of success. 

1. You must know your audience

Magic can be equally entertaining to awe-filled preschoolers and skeptical adults — but not necessarily the same magic. Although a four-year-old will almost always giggle with delight when she sees the coin you just pulled out of her ear, performing the same sleight of hand for the head of an international curriculum company probably won’t elicit a similar response — and I speak from experience. Similarly, the mind-stretching mathematical trick that intrigued the same CEO would bore that preschooler to distraction.

Tim Lockette, a writer and former editor from the hills of northern Alabama explains the need for teachers who know their students, and his writing is a demonstration of the long-lasting effects of such knowledge. When Lockette discusses changing demographics, culturally sensitive teaching, and even how technology is helping teachers access the power to connect with their students, it all comes down to a first principle — knowing the audience — without which such an education would be impossible. 

2. Timing is everything

When I first began learning magic as a child, I was convinced that everyone else wanted to watch me do tricks as often as I felt like performing — all the time, in other words. Of course, not everyone was as enthusiastic as my endearing family members, and even they tended to grow weary after the fourteenth performance of the day.

After some exasperated potential audiences walked away (and with some experience and maturity), I found myself keying into the nuances of when and where entertainment is welcome. Doing card magic in the back of my Algebra II class would have earned a reprimand from the instructor, but when I did the trick at lunch instead, the same teacher came by to watch with interest, even complimenting my skills.

Timing is critical to communication, and that applies not only to when you communicate, but also how long it takes, where you pause, and how quickly you speak. As a teacher, assistant headmaster, and frequent conference presenter and attendee, I’ve witnessed (and been guilty of) countless mistimed deliveries, and all too often, there’s no coming back from one. 

As educators, we like to believe that we know what our students need to hear. In many cases, we’re correct. However, students need to be ready and willing to receive the education message — the communication. 

3. Respect your counterparts

In magic, this usually takes the form of not showing off. There’s a fine line between sharing and bragging, and it’s drawn with the pencil of humility. A true showman understands how to connect with people using the fun of the magic without proclaiming his proficiency and making people feel stupid in the process.

The same concept applies when communicating with students. In many cases, they want to know what you know, but they also don’t want to be spoken “down to.” In my experience, making a student feel as if they should have already learned something is a surefire way of making sure they resent you. Also, communication is a two-way street. The quality of humility lends itself to making a good listener, and the better you listen, the greater your influence. In fact, when salespeople listen, customers are more likely to trust them (and therefore purchase the products they’re selling). Teachers who have spent one-on-one time with their students know that the same is true in education. 

In conclusion

Magic has provided me with many things to be thankful for. It’s given me pleasure; sharpened my wit; improved my patience and more. But without a doubt, I’m most grateful for the fact that being an illusionist has made me a better listener, speaker, and teacher. Ultimately, teachers are communicators — transmitters of knowledge in the ether to students in the classroom. Without the skills to support that transmission, we’re nothing. 

In its simplest form, communication is listening and being willing to learn at same time you are teaching. In other words, good teachers and good magicians listen and learn — as a performer, I continue to hone my craft and carefully listen to how my audience reacts. 

So to any who feel compelled to improve their communication skills, I encourage you to pick up a new deck of cards and start learning. As you peel back the plastic and pull open the cardboard pack, think of these words from history’s greatest illusionist, Walt Disney himself: 
That’s the real trouble with the world — too many people grow up.”

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