top of page
  • Writer's pictureAction Hero Teacher

What Nelson Mandela Can Teach You About Managing Behaviour in your Classrooms

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

An icon.

A legend.

A world changer.

Despite his position as a world leader, people all over the globe called him ‘Madiba’ which in Xhosa, means ‘Father’ and wherever he went, he made people feel loved, like all great dads should.

Nelson Mandela (1918 - 2013), the first black president of South Africa and anti-apartheid activist possessed a level of popularity that most world leaders would sell their granddads to have.

But what was this magic that Mandela held and what the heck has it got to do with teaching our students?

I’m glad that you asked.

In this blogpost, I will walk you through the character aspect called “warmth” and I will:

  • Define “warmth” and the two critical ingredients that will give you that Mandela charm.

  • Teach you about “Emotional Intelligence” and give you a tool, that will help you & your students become more “emotionally literate.”

And most importantly,

  • I will teach you a roadmap that you will help you improve your student-teacher relationships.

Lovely jubbly.

What is Warmth?

Like “authority” the word “warmth” has also been warped. Images of the kiddie parties, Mary Poppins and Barney the Purple Dinosaur probably come to mind. But far from being a weakness, when combined with Authority, this can become a great strength.

In her book, “The Charisma Myth," Olivia Fox Cabane argued that great leaders like Nelson Mandela, as well as ‘authority’, needed another component, which is “warmth.”

Fox stated “Warmth, simply put, is goodwill towards others…Being seen as warm means being perceived as any of the following: benevolent, altruistic, caring, or willing to impact our world in a positive way1.”

Yeah right.

You’re probably thinking “but I’m not running a country, I’m dealing with a bunch of cheeky students!”

OK, fine. I’ll bite. But I want you to do me a favour.

I want you to think about the best teacher that you ever had.

What qualities did they have?

Were they kind?

Were they patient?

Did they “get” you?

I have asked this question many times over the years and I always receive the same answers.

The teachers that we remember are not only the ones that taught us about a particular subject, but they also cared about us and encouraged us to be the very best that we can be.

John C. Maxwell wrote this about good leaders: “When leaders show respect for others — especially for people who have less power or a lower position than theirs — they gain respect from others2.”

Teachers that are warm and maintain their self-respect inspire people to follow them.

What are the two ingredients that go into our “warmth” hot chocolate? Emotional Intelligence and Empathy.

Emotional Intelligence

Our society calls smart people “geniuses” or “masterminds”. But how would you describe people who are good at handling emotions?

Daniel Goleman, science journalist and best selling author would call these people ‘Emotionally Intelligent.’

Goleman wrote in his book that Emotional Intelligence (EQ) allows the individual to control their “impulse[s] and delay gratification, to regulate one’s moods and to keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathise and to hope4.”

Emotional Intelligence is your ability to accurately read your own and other people’s emotions and choose the correct response.

Notice that I have underlined ‘accurately’ and ‘choose.’ If you have a 15-year-old student hulking out in your classroom, throwing chairs like confetti, you don’t need much brainpower to realise that he’s… upset.

But if you go in charging like an Avenger and don’t have any context on why he is angry, you are making an awful situation much, much worse.

The image above is called a “Feelings Wheel” and this is used by psychologists to help people who have experienced trauma, correctly label and process negative emotions.

People who are, using the fancy term, ‘emotionally regulated’ can use language to name and understand how they feel and find ways to meet their needs.

People who have issues with understanding and dealing safely with their own emotions are ‘emotionally dysregulated.’ They can feel overwhelmed, lack concentration and have sudden mood swings.

In other words, I have just described a typical teenager.

Older children and teenagers, because all the hormonal changes in their body, are emotionally dysregulated by nature. They may not have the tools to be able to handle themselves and are more likely to be ‘emotionally hijacked.’

Using the ‘Feelings Wheel,’ that hysterical teenager is clearly ‘mad’ but what if you knew before the blowup in your classroom, he just found out that his Nan passed away? How would that change your response?

When you stand in front of your classroom, there is nowhere to hide. Your students are always watching you and will follow your example in how you handle your emotions.

Help your students become more emotionally literate by welcoming their points of view and feelings into the room. Create a safe space where they can be honest and vulnerable and teach them the vocabulary to express how they feel. Great leaders use emotions not hinder them.

Your Emotional Intelligence is a big factor in how your students look at you and whether they will accept your leadership.

This includes you as well.

As an educator, you must have a good understanding of what makes you, the teacher, ’tick’ in the classroom. You must recognise the things that make you happy, sad, angry or irritated when you stand in from of your students.

If we do not have a handle on ourselves, then we won’t be able to have a handle on our classrooms.

Know yourself and know your classroom.


The online Cambridge Dictionary describes empathy as “the ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation4.”

Young lives matter. We don’t teach robots but growing human beings. It is easy to forget but beyond our classrooms; our students have incredibly rich inner and outer lives.

Each year group that you teach is on a journey. You must realise that our young charges are steadily walking towards adulthood, which for them is both exciting but incredibly frightening too.

Their bodies are evolving at an incredible rate and so are their emotions and consciousnesses.

As alien as it may be now, we must remember what it was like for us when we went through that stage and as adults, gently guide them to higher ground.

Your students will stumble, they will fall, but as educators, it is our job to teach them how to get up and keep going forward. Our ability to have empathy is proportional to our ability to lead.

Your Empathy Roadmap: The Student Triangle

Teachers can sometimes think that we are the 'Centres of The Universe.' When you have a student who seems like they have been sent by Tom Cruise of the Impossible Missions Force to upset you and disrupt your lessons, it can feel that everything is your fault.

But our students, like ourselves, are complex beings and we are only seeing one side of a multi-faceted diamond.

Another mentor of mine gave me this mental model called the “Student Triangle” which helped me to understand and empathise with my students and I now giving it to you.

There are lots of factors which can determine how your students ’turn up’ in your classroom, but they broadly fall into three main areas: 'The Person,' 'The Environment' and 'The School.' Let's break it down a little more:

The Person

  • Their personality traits — curious, laidback, restless

  • Their temperaments — do they tend to be happy, sad, irritable,

  • Their likes/dislikes — what are their favourite subjects? Who are their favourite role models

  • Their academic abilities — where do their natural talents lie? Are they scientists, artists or sportspeople?

  • Their relationship with you — do they get on with you? What're their relationships like with other teachers?

  • Whether or not they have learning difficulties — do they have Special Educational Needs(SEN) or Social Emotional Mental Health Difficulties (SEMH)? If they do, who is the school/college provides provision/care for these students?

Their Environment

  • Their family life — how many siblings do they have? Who are their main caregivers?

  • Their culture — This can be anything from their ethnic, cultural, national identity. Students who feel that teachers do not either understand or want to understand their background, tend not to respond well

  • Their friendship groupings in your class — does their behaviour change when they are around certain people?

  • Their location — what is the town like where they live? Is it a suburb? Is it the inner city? Do they come from outside the area?

  • What are their aspirations? Will they go to college? University? Will they learn a trade? Will they want to take up an apprenticeship?

Their School Life

  • Their previous school/college experience — primary, secondary etc.

  • How long have been in the school — have they been in the school the whole way through or have they just come?

  • Their relationships with other teachers — do they have teachers that they get on with more than others? Why?

  • Their relationships with authority — do they dislike being told what to do by anyone? Are their particular tones or words that rile them up?

  • Their perspective of the school — do they feel that they can get support if they need it? Do they feel that if they wanted to talk about their school/college life, there is someone ready to listen to their concerns?

I am sure that there are plenty of questions that you could add to my list and it’s not finished by a long shot. The more details that you know, within appropriate professional boundaries, the more that you understand your students, win their trust and create a learning environment which everyone can enjoy.

Here’s a quick exercise. I want you to think of a student that you do not like and I want you to find out ONE thing in each area. Ask them the questions or ask other teachers. You might find that you have more in common than you thought.

This information will allow you to build rapport with your students, which can unlock the door to a positive student-teacher relationship. Try it!

So remember this equation:

WARMTH = Emotional Intelligence (Understanding emotions and responding to them correctly) + Empathy (Understanding your students' needs and knowing how to serve them)

But this warmth is not enough. There are many ingredients to this lasagne and this is just the tomato puree. You going to need some more. Subscribe to the blog below to get the latest blogs, updates and invitations straight to your mailbox, in under a minute. Become the Action Hero Teacher of your classroom today.

Karl from

1. Fox Cabane, O., 2012. The Charisma Myth: Master the Art of Personal Magnetism. 1st ed. United States of America: Penguin Group. Page 18

2. Maxwell, R., 2007. The 21 Irrefutable Laws Of Leadership. 2nd ed. Nashville, Tennesse, USA: Thomas Nelson. Page 79

3. Goleman, D., 1996. Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ. 1st ed. Great Britain: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. Page 34

4. Cambridge Dictionary. 2018. Definition of empathy in English. [ONLINE] Available at:



bottom of page