“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.
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.
- 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.