Tips For Adulthood: Why We All Should Be Teachers

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

There’s an old saying that there are a handful of jobs everyone should have because they teach you essential life skills. I’ve heard different variations on this theme but they essentially boil down to:

*serving food (empathy)

*retail clerk (patience and respect)

*customer service (kindness)

*manual labor (diligence and a work ethic)

I’ve done all four of these along the way and agree with the analysis, although  my first job as a waitress also taught me why it’s important to have a good boss.

But today I’d like to add a fifth to the mix: teaching a class.

As you know, I returned to the class room last week after a ten-year hiatus, to teach a journalism seminar to some secondary school students in London. I’m pleased to report that it went very well:  the students seemed really keen to learn what I had to teach, and I had a lot of fun doing it.

But this intensive, two-hour session with a bunch of 17 year-olds also reminded me of some crucial life lessons which I thought I’d share. Here are five things you learn from teaching:

1. Giving back is meaningful. OK, cue the violins. I know this sounds cheesy: tis’ better to give than to receive and all that good stuff.  But sometimes cliches are true. And it turns out, all those things that people say about teaching really are right on the money: It’s rewarding. It’s meaningful. It’s inspiring. When you see a kid not just completing the assignment you gave – but doing it with spark and enthusiasm and panache – you say to yourself, “Wow. I just made a difference in someone’s life.” The bottom line?  Helping others will actually make you happier too.

2. You learn by doing. I think one of the most valuable life lessons you get from teaching is that it forces you to roll with things. You can have the best lesson plan in the world. (And it will surprise exactly no one to learn that I was quite possibly the most 0ver-prepared person ever to grace that particular school’s doorstep.) But when you’re actually in the trenches, you often need to throw out the outline. A writer friend of mine who’s been teaching secondary school boys for the last couple of years here in London put it this way: “Sure, have a lesson plan when you walk in. But be sure you’ve got plan B,C,D in your briefcase. Because more often than not, you need to improvise.” How true it is.

3. The best part of life is surprises. Further to (2), teaching also surprises you. You find yourself telling anecdotes about your own life that you hadn’t anticipated. The part of the lesson plan you thought was weakest turns out to be the most useful. The kid in the back who’s writing with his headphones on (gasp!) produces a beautiful piece of work. Another kid who impressed you with how bright he was during the discussion turns out to have real difficulties when it comes to writing. Particularly if you approach each class with a beginner’s mindset, you’ll start noticing things about your teaching – and your students – that you hadn’t realized were there.

4. You laugh at yourself. This is key. When you’re a teacher you can’t take yourself too seriously. That’s true with any age group, but it’s particularly true when you’re teaching teens because they are inherently skeptical of authority. About two minutes into my presentation last week, I announced that in addition to being American, I also talked very fast, so they should feel free to interrupt me if they didn’t understand something. Suddenly, a boy’s arm shot up in the back. “Yes?” I asked. “Give us an example,” he said. “Of?” I responded. “Of you talking fast.” So right then and there, before I’d even begun the official lesson, I imitated for the class the way that I motivate my kids to get ready in the morning in the frenzy of the school run. (Hint: I sound like a swim coach and it isn’t very pretty.) We all laughed and that instantly broke the ice.

5. They call you ‘Miss.’ Or Sir. At least here in London. I don’t usually fuss too much over titles. But as someone who’s perpetually trying to achieve that elusive element of gravitas,I loved that the kids addressed me as “Miss.”It reminded me of Zoe Heller’s fabulous novel Notes On A Scandal (without the corresponding affair with the 16 year-old boy, that is.) And I instantly felt like I belonged there.

How about you? Have you ever taught a class and what did you learn?


Image: Teacher by ben110 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

  • Reply Cecilia

    April 15, 2011, 2:20 pm

    Interesting question, Delia. I’m not a career teacher but I’ve taught quite a bit over the years, here in the US and in Japan. I’d say that my biggest takeaway from all those experiences is that most children/young people want to learn; you just have to find a way past their walls, hatred of authority (you), etc. One of my first teaching experiences took place in college, when I taught at an inner city summer program. All the teachers said “Good luck” when this notoriously “bad” kid named Felix was assigned to my class. Felix refused to do his math work one day, and was the only one left behind in the class. When I told him I felt he was smart and that he could do it, he immediately dropped the protesting and focused on his math sheet. I was stunned. It was that “easy.” Time and again I have seen the same thing happen. Some of these “bad” kids have heard “You’re dumb/you’re a troublemaker” so many times that they’ve internalized it and react defensively. Tell them you believe in them and they will take down their walls, and make the effort to learn and cooperate, something that I believe they inherently want to do.

    • Reply delialloyd

      April 18, 2011, 11:13 am

      OMG Cecilia, what a great story! Love this! I also believe that kids take on roles and then feel that they need to confirm them for others. I have seen it time and again with my children and their school mates, and again when I taught a few weeks back. It was really interesting for me to observe that one of the “trouble makers” in my class a few weeks back was actually quite bright-when I told that to the teacher (I had no priors on him) she was really surprised. “Oh him?” she asked. “He has a lot of trouble focusing.” But she was very happy to hear this fresh perspective and said she’d pass it on to his Econ prof. I was really delighted.

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