Teach Like You’re the Student

“I never have let my schooling interfere with my education.”
– Mark Twain

Every time I see my graduate students try to teach for the first time, it’s usually so painful I bite my lip. Then I remember the first day I stood up in front of a classroom.

You Hired
My first job in Silicon Valley was at ESL (a supplier of intelligence and reconnaissance systems,) I had managed to talk myself into getting hired as a training instructor. (Long back-story here.) The company had a major military contract to deploy an intelligence gathering system to Korea, they needed to train the Army Security Agency on maintenance of the system, the 10 week training course (6-hours a day) hadn’t been written, and the class was supposed to start in 6 weeks.

I convinced them that I knew the type of training military maintenance people need, and I had done some informal teaching in the Air Force. Out of desperation and a warm body right in front of them, they realized I was probably better than nothing, so I got hired.

As I wrote the course, I was handed a couple of books on how to put together a training class for the military and given some advice on how to assemble lessons.  But besides my own experience as a student in military technical training classes, I had never taught more than one person at a time.

The Dry Run
About a week before the course was due to start, the manager of training said, “Steve, we’d like to see you do a dry run of a class tomorrow. Pick the material you feel most comfortable with teaching and give us a lecture for an hour.”

I didn’t sleep that night. While I had taught my peers in the military how to repair equipment, it had been informal side-by-side training on a lab bench. I had never been in front of a classroom. I was scared and nervous.

The next day I stood up in front of the classroom and in the audience was the rest of the training department, my manager and the manager of the entire intelligence system program.

I don’t remember exactly what class material I taught, but I do know I gripped the side of the podium so hard my fingers hurt as I read my notes and droned on. I was so nervous that I skipped an entire page of notes.  In the one or two times I managed to look up, I saw my boss wincing, the program manager putting his head in his hands, and then most everyone drift out of the room.  After about 20 minutes my manager said, “Thanks Steve, that’s enough.”  He quickly left and when I passed him in the hall, he was in deep conversation with the program manager, and I could hear snippets of my name and the word “terrible.”

Even I knew I had done horribly.  I was ashamed and disappointed, and when my manger called me into his office that afternoon, I thought I was going to be fired before the class started.

Teach Like You’re the Student
As I sat in his office, I wondered if they would pay me through the end of the month or would they just walk me out the door that day. The latter seemed likely when he said, “I’ve never seen my boss so depressed. He thinks the Army is not going to pay us for the training course if you teach it.”  I was waiting for the “you’re fired” words to come out his mouth. Instead, I was blown away when he offered,” Well the good news is that you can’t get any worse.”  And he was smiling. He continued, “You figured out 6-airplanes and 3-vans full of computer equipment in six weeks.  That’s better than anyone we have on staff could have done.  Your lessons are clear and well organized.  And most importantly you love this stuff, and it comes through when you talk about it.  But we thought you were going to have a heart attack up in front of the room.” I started to exhale.  Maybe he wasn’t going to fire me. He laughed as he said, “In the last 15 years I’ve hired lots of training instructors, and something tells me you’re going to be pretty good at it… if you get through the first two weeks.”  Then he gave me some advice about teaching that’s stuck with me for more than three decades: “Just pretend you’re teaching you.  How would you do that? What would you want to know? What did you dislike when you were taught? What stories would you tell to make it understandable? What would keep you interested and engaged?”

I Love This Job
The class started a week later, and the first two days were as painful for me as they were for my students.  At first I never left the podium and was afraid to stop reading my notes. But after the second night, the class and I all went out drinking in Sunnyvale, and I realized that my manager was right – my students were exactly like me.  What they wanted to know was what I would have wanted to know if I was in that classroom. Over the next weeks as I slowly relaxed, I started to connect with the class. I stopped reading my notes, got out from behind the podium and started telling stories about my own experience and all the things that could go wrong that weren’t in the manual.

I’ve never stopped.

Lessons Learned

  • Research says teaching excellence is associated with extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and low neuroticism.
  • My experience says that all that may be true, but you need to teach like you’re the student.

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17 Responses

  1. Amen.

  2. That’s the best advice I’ve ever heard for getting over stage fright. I think it should apply equally to giving any type of presentation.

    My kids at Build.org get terrified when they have to speak. I have the staring at the top of people’s heads, loosening up, taking slow steady breathes, but talking as if talking to their peers is probably going to be the winner. Thanks!

  3. I’ve always been a bit scared of getting in front of people and teaching, so I decided this summer to be a sessional lecturer at my local university. This has been an absolutely fantastic learning experience for me, and I feel orders of magnitude more comfortable teaching now.

    You’ve absolutely hit it on the nose; teach as if you’re teaching yourself. The material for my course (and the textbook) was in a mostly-sane-but-sometimes-very-strange order. I took a fair bit of time to reorganize it into a stream that makes sense to me, and I’ve had students come up to me after class and thank me for presenting it in a way that they understand.

  4. Steve , what you mean is exatly the opposite of the usual “ex cathedra” approach of the majority of professors, around the World…I think that the plus, your plus – that is also mine- is never been a professor but a “life story teller”… about entrepreneurship , but not only nabout that…

  5. Absolutely brilliant advice.

  6. great post Steve…i think that what you mean is the difference between an “Ex cathedra professor” ( the majority..) and the “field professor” that talk about real life stories…

  7. Great description of your initial dry run. It felt like I was there with you. Very painful indeed.

  8. Thanks for sharing your valuable experience.

    When carrying out a consulting project, I was asked a question about “how to become the best university”. I said, “Teach like your students are your children.”

    Why does it take so long to get to know that everything in the world starts with cultivating a deep understanding of our self.


  9. […] Teach Like You’re the Student (steveblank.com) […]

  10. Wonderful tale. Having spent quite a bit of time in school as a student – 2 masters and a phd – and later teaching college for 2 years…Steve, I’ve seen and been in your panic situation more than once. However, to me what is really unusual (and of value) is the attitude of your manager.

    Managers we teach every day. The advice of teach like you are the student is 100% on target, but the greater lesson is the one he taught you by giving you a second chance at it. He was clearly a great manager who knew how to measure people up and was willing to invest in you – one can only wish to be as lucky as to have a giving tutor like him. In teaching and while managing more than a few companies, I’ve found the biggest lesson one can give is invest and believe in another person’s/student’s struggle.

    PS- I’m a major fan of your blog. Thanks so much for the ongoing lessons…

    • Jose,

      Come to think of it you’re right. I always thought my manager gave me the advice because he was desperate for a body in front of a classroom. And while that may have been true, his advice on how to teach was one of the best gifts I have ever gotten. He may actually have seen something in me I had no idea I had.

      So thank you Mike North wherever you are.


  11. […] you tell to make it understandable? What would keep you interested and engaged?” ~Steve Blank in Teach Like You’re the Student — How many times do we end up sitting through lectures, conference breakout sessions, and […]

  12. Hey, great article. Identifying with your students really is key in getting across information, IMHO. Also, I think the more “personable” your presentation style (e.g. you mentioned adding anecdotes to your class), the more the students remember, because it isn’t just facts presented one after another.

    Anyway, I’m off to look at your other articles…


  13. […] advice from Steve Blank, author of Four Steps to the […]

  14. I have been using this strategy for years and agree that this is excellent advice. I am quite comfortable in front of an audience knowing that they aren’t there to watch me perform but to actually learn something.

    Of course, I find excellent presentations are always accompanied by good stories that make the material memorable and “Make it Stick”.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing.

  15. Greetings from Singapore!

    Well said! ^_^ Teaching from the students’ point of view.

    Thank you for sharing!


  16. Thanks, great stuff!

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