Yesterday (although now by the time I’ve finished this long post it’s all the way back on Monday) on the raving, recommendation of a dear friend of mine I finally went to hear educationalist Gavin Keller. Of course I had heard of him. Of course I was planning to hear him…one day. In the age of over advertising, and over expertising, I needed that personal reference to galvanise me into a packed hall on a Monday afternoon. And it was well worth it.

Well, well worth it. Because he validated for me every thought in my blogs about the school system today. It’s out dated, outmoded,  and in many ways so are we.  We need to evolve, if not for our sake then that of our children. And the earlier we start the better.

Now Gavin Keller is a pleasure to listen to. He is dynamic, passionately energetic and most of all nerdishly sincere. A winning combination. He also looks very young for his 52 years. This of course goes to show that the beauty industry has it wrong. Instead of looking for the perfect serum we should all be looking for our passions that light us up with meaning and fulfillment.

The talk I went to was entitled, ‘Zip Your Crocodile, Coach Your Elephant and Train Your CEO’. He began it by stating those healing words to any mother’s ears, ‘The brain is phenomenal. Every child is perfectly made. The problem is the system.’ He believes that everyone knows that change is needed but not many know how to do it. We’re at a crossroads in education. Reform isn’t enough. We need a new form of learning, which school leaders and parents can make happen.

He outlined teachers of different ages, which I will go into because I found it funny. (And here I apologise to any teachers reading this. He said it. I didn’t. I think he puts a lot of responsibility on teachers, which can be seen as unfair,  but I think it can also be viewed as reempowering teachers to take back their classrooms and their teaching soul, beyond the current educational system.)

Teachers born between 1930-49 are:

  • War babies.
  •  If they are still teaching today, they are exhausted and tired of today’s kids.
  • They need to retire but there’s no pension.
  • They like kids – sitting low, in straight lines, in neat uniforms.

Teachers born 1950 – 1969 

  • Baby Boomers
  • They say NO to technology
  • Cells aren’t allowed
  • Mature and Miserable/Grey and Grumpy
  • They run the world today and are about: Image, big talkers, live to work and are often divorced.
Generation X – born 1970 – 1989
  • Certified Google teachers
  • They want to know where their contract is
  • The young and the restless
  • Liberation before education
  • Lived through age of great change – they like a little chaos
  • Survivors and whiners
  • Lifelong learners
  • They believe experience means nothing
  • Immediate gratification
  • Thrill seekers who buy experience
  • Favourite word is ‘whatever’
I loved his description of X generation teachers. If I was a teacher I’d be very much like that I suspect.
Keller went on to say that our children, the Y generation of Facebook, Twitter, BBM and I-everythings, are being taught by all three categories of teachers. They’re teaching them to write essays with a pencil. Who uses a pencil these days to write anything? Who writes letters anymore? We live in an age where stamps and postmen have to be explained to our children. For unless they live in a very old-fashioned home, such as mine (I have an obsession with post, letters and stamps, anything written really) they won’t have seen any of it, unless it was on Google, or if they watch Postman Pat.
‘We’re teaching children who are no longer in this world,’ Keller says. I find that a tad bit unnerving, as does the school system I’m sure. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t address it though. The key to our children and their education is (and here I’m giving the conclusion before the detailed reasoning) making our children feel safe and loved. Giving them a deep sense of belonging. Of course we all need this. And here’s how we can achieve it.
The Crocodile Brain – Survival
Keller outlines three parts of the brain. The survival brain – called the crocodile brain. This is our fight of flight response. It either protects with its thick skin, attacks, and when it does it’s ‘fast and dirty’. So (and this is Keller’s hilarious example) if someone says to you that you have gained weight. You may find yourself answering ‘bitch’ before you give thought to the fact that it’s a parent your answering back to. Or you may put up your thick skin and say, ‘Yes, I have noticed a bit of extra, um, fat, and I’m going on a diet.’ You then slink off tail between your legs to work it through with your therapist.
When we act from our crocodile brain we find ourselves apologising a lot. I’ve been there, I’m sure we all have. It’s automatic, unconscious and completely natural. In fact we’re born with it. Conception to 14 months is essential for the development of survival brain and sensory input.
Of course we need our croc brain, even though it’s mindless, for survival. The only problem these days is that we don’t live in a jungle. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Am I safe?’ and bring ourselves back to mindfulness. That is living in the present, living consciously with awareness. 98% of the time we are mindless. (Pleas note this font is not mindless I am battling to figure out how to change it on this blog site grrrr….)

One way to be more mindful is to count our blessings. Breathing in and out consciously. Connect with the moment. BE PRESENT.

The Elephant – Emotional Brain

The emotional brain grows between 14 months and 4 years. So those terrible temper tantrums are good. They’re teaching us that the emotional brain is growing. The elephant brain wants to know how you’re going to deal with it asserting itself. Now you can’t ride an elephant the way you would a horse. A saddle won’t work and certainly not a whip. In fact when an elephant is out of control it’s virtually impossible to reign in, in fact it’s lethal.

The magic word for riding an elephant is RELATIONSHIP.

When we have a relationship with our children and their emotional tanks are constantly refilled then we can ride their elephants.

Notably we all have elephant brains and we all have that emotional tank with the hole at the bottom that has to be constantly refilled. We have a duty to fill our buckets and others buckets to have a working, happy home and society.

Keller then made us sing a song with movements. It was corny, but fun. It was about being kind, smiling, helping and being nice. In these ways we fill each other’s emotional buckets. We want to have smiling homes, smiling streets, smiling nations. I think the South African smile is one of the widest in the world. Keller noted that in London no one smiles. (But I blame the weather.)

So our jobs as parents and teachers is to ride the elephant of our children. Have a relationship with them. When an elephant is out of control it is bewildered – which comes from the word wild. When you have a confused, bamboozled elephant you have a riotous elephant. DON’T APPROACH it. Keller says that it’s the same with our kids. DON’T DISCIPLINE when they’re in a state. When they’re out of control hold them. Make them feel safe and valued.  Afterwards you can address their behaviour and the incident.

Elephants are very intelligent and emotionally advanced. Moods determine behaviour. Parents’ moods determines the home. Teachers’ moods determine the classrooms. Keller relates how he serves Nescafe Gold or better in his school staff room because of this. (I’m sure parents would pitch in for a top class, staff room coffee machine if it means their kids would have a better school experience.)

Another thing Keller says is that teachers must leave their emotional baggage in the car park before they go into their classrooms. We all have emotional baggage and I’m wondering where mother’s should leave theirs considering their job is 24 hours. It’s challenging compartmentalising our emotional baggage so that we don’t pass them to our children. Challenging but important. Keller says that ‘Master Teachers’ are those teachers who know how to manage the moods of others.

So the elephant rider needs to be loved by the elephant and the elephant needs to feel safe and loved.

Another important point Keller made – If you beat a boy you’re creating a dysfunctional adult. He says, ‘every pedophile was dealt with harshly by another man.’ Everyone stores their emotional experiences in that elephant mind that doesn’t forget  and takes it back into society. Pretty scary…

An elephant needs to be motivated with little rewards.

Because the elephant brain is automatic, emotions need to be recognised and regulated. So for example a crier needs the response of ‘My sweetie, I love you’, rather than a solution. Once the feeling is expressed then the person/child can face the world. So wrap a ‘bewildered’ child up who’s throwing the tantrum and tell them, ‘You’re safe and I love you.’ (Notably much easier to do when children are toddlers, so we should begin then.)

And here’s an interesting bit. If a child does not feel safe, does not feel that they belong they become the class clown, attention seeking and even a bully. I would add a child can also introvert and detach from the world if they do not feel safe and part of the whole. I’ve experienced both sides of the coin with my Princes.

Now forbear with me as I describe how Gavin Keller trains his teachers to do parent interviews. I loved the description because I’ve been to parent interviews where I felt my child was not seen, understood or particularly important. So first he says that ‘teaching is theatre’. He sets the scene with a white table-cloth on the table, flowers, soft music without words in the background. The parents wait outside on chairs. The teacher comes and receives them with a big smile on their face. They sit down, not across a table which creates a barrier, but together. The teacher then proceeds to convince the parents that their child is safe and loved in their classroom. She or he tells them all about the child – his/her strengths, what he/she contributes to the class. Showing the parents that the teacher has looked and found what’s special about their child. Then, and only then the teacher says, ‘There are three things that I want us to work on.’ It’s only three things and she outlines how they are going to celebrate the small improvements the child makes.

Now this is the way to do a parent teacher evening. As Keller points out – it creates a safe, loving environment, where the parents can move to their frontal cortex and process the information in a healthy way, instead of a defensive or withdrawn manner.

The CEO Executive Brain – Frontal Cortex

The CEO brain develops between 4-11 years old. When children (and adults as exhibited above) feel safe and loved – that they belong – then we can move forward through the crocodile and elephant brain into the prefrontal cortex, the CEO brain. 20% of our cortex is prefrontal. This is the part of our brain that wants to do the big things. (Dogs have 10% and  cats 3%.)

Apparently you need to go through the survival and emotional brain first, so that feeling of safety and love is essential to learn the CEO skills. And the skills are many and very important for successful life functioning.

7 BIG Executive Skills – TOP WIFE

Time Management


Prioritisation – what do I do now?

Working Memory

Impulse control



So if a person/child does not feel safe or belong they cannot access and develop these skills. In other words they cannot become functioning adults.

Naturally these skills will kick in for females between ages 21-22, in males between 33-35 years. We don’t want to have to wait that long for our children to become functioning adults. Keller says that we’re creating a generation of people who don’t access their prefrontal cortex.

So here are some Keller tips on how to strengthen your survival and emotional brains so that you and your kids can access the prefrontal cortex:

  • Our elephant mind is wandering 46.9% of the time on things that make us unhappy. Institute constant blessing moments where you say what you’re grateful for. (Notably Judaism is full of blessings, but maybe we haven’t connected them properly to real life and feelings. We should all be walking around with big smiles on our faces if we truly felt the blessings we daily say.)
  • Stress disengages from the brain. To help with this – Rub your right ear/rub child’s right ear. This helps minimise stress (for some reason). Also control your breathing. Practice relaxation.
  • Movement and exercise
  • Good diet – lots of protein, veggies and fruit.
  • Sleep
  • Teachers especially must take good care of themselves. They need to sleep at least 7 hours a night. Keller says, ‘Every minute that a teacher doesn’t sleep they are damaging children.’ (I told you he comes out harsh on teachers.)

And then after this long, long talk he sang another song.

And after this long, long blog of paraphrasing Gavin Keller’s talk, I’ll leave you to reach your own conclusions. Happy thinking!