Educational Excellence Continually Relies on Intuition and Instinct

The value of intuition in life is additive. The more you have, the more you get!
The value of intuition in life is additive. The more you have, the more you get!

When you think about excellence in education, probably the first thing that comes to mind is that kids are consistently learning. “Kids” here can refer to children from primary or secondary levels as well as young adults who are in dual credit or college programs. Excellence for them is learning what it is being taught and being able to teach others. But that is often not enough nowadays because students really need to apply their learning to new areas in order to demonstrate true mastery of concepts.

With that in mind, let’s talk about being “excellent” as an educator or education leader. What is that and what is it not?

It is being highly reflective, proactive, able to adapt educational methods, skills in differentiating for multiple types of learners, and be astute in using data to improve teaching. It is also being a team player and behavioral manager who is engaged in the success of all the students in a school, and who continually finds ways to help other teachers too.
It is not just producing a lesson from a text in a similar ways each class period so students all have the same “chance” to get it.

I often think that teaching is one of the most challenging and rewarding careers because when it is done correctly there is a deep satisfaction that you are helping students make decisive changes in their lives. And teaching is never a one-time completed activity because excellence in teaching naturally builds towards excellence in leadership. Also, the common experience between excellent teachers and excellent leaders can be summarized by two words: intuition and instinct.


Let’s talk about these separately for a moment because their meanings are sequential (i.e. one leads to the other). Intuition means being able to see around a corner, to know something that is not necessarily being shared by verbals or otherwise obvious cues. Think of intuition from a sports-illustration for a second. Intuition in football is knowing that 2 seconds after a receiver’s eyes widen, she or he will try to catch the ball. Therefore, the intuitive cornerback will cover a wide receiver moment-by-moment and never be more than two steps away but will also keep watching the receiver’s eyes (and the qb) to see when the ball is in play.

Let’s transition that thought to learning. Being intuitive in teaching is know when the ball (i.e. the lesson to learn) is in play and ready to be caught by students. Of course, the teacher is not trying to “block” this catch - NO WAY - but rather to get the concept into a place where as many kids can catch it as possible.

Here’s an educational example. A middle school teacher is starting off a lesson and noticing that kids are all over the place in energetic, yet unfocused behaviors. Paying attention is lacking among students and for the teacher to try to talk over the noise of the students would ignore the “inherent cue” in the situation. A skilled teacher would assess the environment and find the most catchable student who is unfocused (i.e. not one that is necessarily going to be caught in the right or caught in the wrong, but rather the one who needs to get back on track the most). The skilled teacher might then “run a play” called praise with a number of other students - all of them if possible. What you do is praise students one by one and slowly make your way toward the misbehaving student. This can be done simultaneously during a lesson by alternating praise with teaching segments - or a praise pitstop can be done on the group. If the skilled teacher times it right, when they get to the student who was exhibiting misbehavior, those behaviors will often change because students inherently want to be praised.

By reading a situation and helping student behavior “turn the corner” we take a step in the direction of being more intuitive. Since education is chock full of behaviors, this process can continue after a praise pitstop, and during group work, independent work, or even whole class teaching. Imagine for a moment that a teaching day is filled with intuitive moments. That opens the door towards a mindset of creating intuitive teaching moments. At the same time, it’s a sizable recipe for success so let’s break it down into bite-size pieces.


As teachers, we need to continually read situations and try to “run new plays.” What worked in the first class may ultimately fail in the fifth class, so we need to change up our strategies. We get better at running new plays through practice. Also, being intuitive means making the most of a teaching moment and changing it up exactly when that will help students get the drift, or extend the activity, or launch into an effective time of applied learning. When multiple intuitive moments are put together, they can result in a habitual practice called “having instincts” as a teacher.

As leaders, we also can read situations by seeing the needs of teachers as a group. Imagine that teachers themselves are like a class of students and so they need praise, modeling, strengths-based leadership, and effective practice. It’s important to remember that to help teachers means we become the best at both teaching them individually and as a group. The funny thing also is that teachers sometimes act like students as well... and I suppose we are all students in the university of life so a good attitude of growth and gratitude will help all of us.


From Milisa Burn’s Blog, <a rel="nofollow" href="" target="_blank">INTUITI
From Milisa Burn’s Blog, INTUITION IS KEY at

So, when we look at our teaching craft (i.e. practice) and remember that it is a road towards leadership, then we see intuition as being important at every step along the way. Likewise, when were are leading others (or even leading leaders) we really need to be sensitive and acutely aware of all of the intuitive moments and intuitive needs that people we are leading have in an educational situation. Developing intuition can be as simple as recognizing that book knowledge is not always enough to create the appropriate conditions for learning. And it can be as complex as arranging multiple book-focused professional learning communities (PLCs) to bring different or even uncoordinated groups of teachers into similar spaces of learning.

I think of learning as taking place both in times of feast and times of famine. It is often in times of feast (when lessons, content, applications, and engagement are high) that we use intuition to build common understanding across content areas, between classes, and even between the leadership styles of multiple leaders and teacher-leaders. On the other hand, during times of famine, we are thrust into moments where there are only one or a few ways to emerge and cause learning to grow along with us.

Take for example the earlier illustration about finding the most wayward of students and using praise to lull them out of their deceptively engaged (just wrongly engaged) behavior. I sometimes call this the PRAISE TIMES 3 Rule. However, this “praise idea” not only works with wayward students, it also works with all types of students and teachers and even leaders. Give it a try!

We all want to be praised when such praise is authentic, caring, and focused towards our ultimate good. This illustration, however, was born out of a moment in teaching where I knew that “the same old strategy” from yesterday’s class would not work. In a moment of intuition, I had to “invent” the idea of using praise more — a lot more! And I did — and it worked! That’s intuition in practice.

I often look at intuition as best being creating during times of visible need or even in crises (i.e. the times of educational famine). These are where you may not always have a simple answer ready but have to create one oftentimes right on the spot. These might be times when you are:

  • Covering for a teacher who is absent and adapting your own plans;
  • Covering new content in a lesson that you didn’t expect to be teaching yet;
  • Working with a new group of teachers and helping them develop new ways to interact better together; or
  • Working with education leaders in trading deficits-based leadership methods for strengths-based ones.

And as I said earlier, the educational road of using intuition repeatedly and habitually leads to having teachers and leaders develop instincts for the work they do every day.

We all want to have our instincts better trained for the educational endeavors that we face each day. By leveraging our intuitive moments and using them to develop better instincts, we can help ourselves and others learn to run on the pathways of learning. It’s my goal, and I hope yours as well, to intuitively adapt our own best practices to the uniquely shaped educational experiences we see each day.

Dr. Jonathan Doll usually blogs on topics of educational wellness, strengths-based leadership, and school violence prevention. He also writes on occasion about national issues that affect education though these might not always be his strong suit. We all are growing in an intuitive process of being better educators.

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