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The 5 Principles of Highly Effective Teachers: Pierre Pirard (Transcript)

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Pierre Pirard at TEDxGhent

Here is the full text of former CEO Pierre Pirard’s talk “The 5 Principles of Highly Effective Teachers” at TEDxGhent conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The 5 principles of highly effective teachers by Pierre Pirard at TEDxGhent


What is the common elements between managing companies all over the world and teaching in a school in Molenbeek? Leadership.

In both jobs, you need strong leadership: to manage companies and to teach to kids who face huge difficulties.

Let me tell you how I came to that conclusion.

For 25 years, I’ve been managing companies. I’ve tried to make sure that every single quarter was more profitable, and I really enjoyed it.

I’ve learned that strong leaders apply four basic simple principle.

The first one, they believe, that their team can achieve great results. And because they believe that they think they can achieve great results, their teams start to believe also, they can achieve great results.

Second thing: they set goals, develop a vision for the company.

Third, they make sure that this goal… this vision becomes the everyday priority of their people, their employees.

And last, great leaders… they plan carefully and purposefully to make sure they achieve their objective.

I mean that’s what great leaders are doing and I’ve tried to do that for 25 years. I mean it’s really a tough job.

Four years ago, I was in my mid-40s and I faced what we call a mid-life crisis. Mid-life crisis is a very simple concept. I mean suddenly you realize that living is not forever. I mean, it’s a little bit like a ghost curve. You know you’re at the top of the hill and suddenly you see the end of the origin.

And you ask yourself this basic question: what do I do now? I mean, which track do I take to go down the hill? I mean, do I take the same track or do I take another route to go down?

And personally I felt the need to give more sense to what I was doing. And so I totally changed my professional career. From a CEO, I became a teacher in Molenbeek, in what some magazine called the Bronx of Brussels.

I’m teaching in the professional section to kids or young adults between 15 to 22 years old, mostly coming from the American communities. And those children are coming from low social economical backgrounds. I mean they are what we call under-privileged children.

I thought that teaching will be great there. I mean, you know, you’re working what? 20 hours per week, you have plenty of vacation. You are sitting in front of people eager to learn from you.

Well, I’m not sure if there are teachers in the audience today but you know that the reality is slightly different.

I mean, the start of my career was not easy. I mean, my colleague warned me, they told me: “Pierre, well, don’t put your expectation too high. I mean the motivation is very low, they don’t know much.”

Well, I thought they were testing me or kidding me but actually they were right.

In my class, none of my students were capable to give me the results of 10% of 100. When I talk about Stockholm, they thought I was talking about a rap singer. And [Za Braille] is the name of a subway station in Brussels.

And when I faced the reality of this new job, I said, “But how is it possible that kids who have spent 10 to 15 years in a bench, in a school in Belgium know so little?” I mean kids who are far of being stupid, they have a great sense of humor, good common sense. I mean what happened to them? I mean why are they in this situation?

So I also realized that those kids who faced disaster results in some classes, actually achieved very good results in some other classes. Same kids, different results.

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So actually there were two types of teachers. They were the teacher where the students achieved very poor results and the other one where the students achieved great results. So this really triggered my attention.

So I went to talk to both my colleagues and to the first group of colleagues where the kids achieved poor results, asked them this very simple question: What can I do to make my student progress?

And the answers I received were always going in the same direction.

Well, Pierre, what can we do? How do you want to teach to kids where there’s no books at all, where the parents do not speak French or Flemish fluently?

Well, let me tell you the truth, Pierre. That’s what my colleague told me: there’s very little that teachers or schools can do. They even talk to me about the last generation.

Let me tell you today what the other group of colleagues told me, the one where the kids achieved great results. Among those group there was one teacher: Mrs. Antony, and she’s a French teacher. And in her class the kids were always there with high motivation and they have good grades.

So I went to ask her this question that how do you do it? I mean what’s your secret? I mean do you pay them?

And Mrs. Anthony is a great teacher, so she really took the time that day to explain to me her principle of teaching.

And she told me, “Pierre, if you want your kids to progress, you have to apply four basic principles.”

The first one, she says, you have to believe in them. You have to believe to make sure that every single one of them can achieve great results, regardless where he or she is coming from, whether their parents are rich or poor, whether he was called Mohammed or Jean.

And you need to make sure that also they know that you believe in them. So they start also to believe that they can achieve great results.

Once you deeply and truly believe in them, you have to set a goal, which is ambitious, measurable, meaningful for your student. And she gives me a great example. She tells me, “Take Sadia. Sadia likes reading. And this is Antoni Giver, a very ambitious goal, she said, well, Sadia by the end of the year by June, you would read the book of Barkerville; it’s not an easy one and you will do it in two weeks time and you will enjoy it.

By November, I saw Sadia finishing a book of Amélie Nothomb, 102 pages and she was eager to start a new one. So once you set the goal you need to make sure that the goal that you have given to your student becomes the everyday priority of the student and their family. You need to invest in their life.

She gave me another example, Hanan. Hanan did great deficiency in spelling and because of that Mrs. Anthony told her, well, you need to stay at school every day after the normal school time. The parents of Hanan will not allow it.

So Mrs. Anthony went to see the parents of Hanan in her home, discussed with them, convinced them and told her it was the right thing to do for Hanan. Hanan is now spending every Tuesday and Thursday at school and she’s making dramatic progress.

The last principle that Mrs. Anthony told me is probably the most difficult one: You have to plan purposefully. From the objective that you have defined, you have to plan backwards to create an efficient path to success.

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Take Mustafa. Mustafa is one of my students. I mean he’s incapable to concentrate for more than two minutes unless you talk about football. His goal was to receive — his goal was to be able to summarize in 200 words a very difficult article from The Morning newspaper. Every week Mrs. Anthony gave him an article a little bit longer, a little bit more complicated so that Mustafa was capable to see his own improvement.

On that specific day, the October 10, 2009 Mrs. Anthony probably gave me the best speech lesson on teaching built on leadership. Believe in your team. Set goals like for Sadia. Invest in your student like for Hanan, and plan carefully like for Mustafa.

But like every great leaders, Mrs. Anthony had also a small secret you know. And I remember, or she almost whispered to me that secret. And she told me, “Pierre, you and your student will have to work hard, because it will not be easy.”

And she’s right. I’m working much more than 20 hours per week, you know, much more. And I’ve learned so much in those last four years.

I thought that teaching had to do with… I don’t know… sense of humor, authority, respect, mastering the content of your classes, your courses. Of course, teaching has to do with all these.

But for those kids who have lost so much their self-confidence, who are so far beyond, where school do not have meaning anymore, teaching as leader show outstanding effect.

I mean since then I’ve tried to apply those four principles, it’s not easy. I failed many times. I mean sometime my vision is too high, it’s not clear enough.

Some time I come home very frustrated because of the lack of motivation of my students. But there is one thing I don’t give up: it’s the first principle: I always believe they can succeed.

There is a great quote on leadership which says that:

True leadership lies in guiding others to success. In ensuring that everyone is performing at their best, doing the work they are pledged to do and doing it well. – Bill Owens

This is exactly what great teachers are doing in Molenbeek. They’re probably the best leaders I’ve met.

So four years ago, I have decided to change my life. You know I was in my midlife crisis… and but I’m still leading.

Well there is a big difference. From my previous job as a CEO there is no better feeling than the one that you have when you feel and you see one of your students was supposed to fail, go into an upper school or opening shop like Dunia, just opened a shop a few weeks ago in Eksel, number under 25… I told her how we make some advertising for her. So please go to see her.

Nelson Mandela said once that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.

So let’s make sure that in this country, in 2013, our leaders will use this weapon so that every children will obtain access to excellent education regardless of their social economical background.

Thank you.


Download This Transcript as PDF here: The 5 Principles of Highly Effective Teachers_ Pierre Pirard (Transcript)


Resources for further reading: 

Five Principles of Extraordinary Math Teaching: Dan Finkel (Transcript)

Lisa Lee: Getting at the Heart of Teaching at TEDxCrestmoorParkED (Transcript)

Joe Ruhl: Teaching Methods for Inspiring the Students of the Future (Transcript)

Do Schools Kill Creativity by Sir Ken Robinson (Transcript)

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