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What Teaching Taught Me

basic grammar bookFrom 1970-80, I taught high school English in Columbus, Ohio. School was designed to move kids through the system and teachers were there to make that happen.  Both teachers and students did their best, given the system.

I loved teaching and my students. I taught because I wanted to contribute to someone developing competencies that would serve them in their whole life. I didn’t know it then, but I was learning how to be a coach.  Here’s some of what I learned:

Choice matters. My students “had to” attend (and pass) my class to graduate.  I learned how to create an environment in my classroom that shifted the “had to” to “want to”.  I made learning meaningful. I know this because students would request me as their teacher.

  1. Relationships rule. Our relationship began as me-versus-them. I was ‘the man’ (ok, the wo-man).   I learned how to have students experience that I was on their side, committed to them being their unique, awesome selves, committed to them being successful people, not merely students.
  2. Set the bar.  Many dreaded English because they’d gotten poor marks before or were told they weren’t creative or they wouldn’t need it in their line of work. I learned that when I talked to them as if they were creative, that what they had to say was important, they rose to my expectation, then made it theirs.
  3. Commitment trumps compliance.  Students who attended only to avoid detention never excelled and never broke through to the joys of learning. Those who committed to reach beyond their past achievements or even their parent’s expectations excelled. They excelled at engaging, at thinking, at adapting.  Interpreting poetry became more about the challenge and the opportunity to express their opinion and less about the grade.
  4. Be there when the going gets tough.  Daily journaling, written self-expression, began most of my classes. There was no grade. It was an opportunity for them to say anything they wanted and to be present, in the moment. I read them all and returned them the next class day.  It was a privilege. Often the pages revealed family dysfunctions, teen angst and self-doubt.  I learned there’s a time to listen, without judgment, with compassion for their view of the world.
  5. Personal responsibility empowers. In my early months in front of the room, I was more interested in being liked than in being a disciplinarian.  It felt like an either/or scenario. That didn’t work. I learned that it could be both/and.  When I stopped accepting excuses for missed assignments or poor work and enforced consequences from my commitment to their success, behavior shifted. Excuses stopped as they learned to hold themselves accountable for their performance. I learned holding them to account was an expression of my love and respect for them.

Just last week, in a corporate development and coaching session at a rapidly growing company committed to being a global player in the food industry, my colleague remarked:  “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.”

How does school get in the way of our education?  Much of our formal schooling teaches us how to comply, to follow rules, to not question, to learn (read: memorize) only what we need to pass the test … and that the teacher has the answers, at least the only answers that matter.  It doesn’t teach us how to think critically or express our own opinion without requiring a footnote from someone else to give our opinion credibility.  (How’s that working for you, Mr/Ms. Adult?)

The word education comes from the root ‘ex,’ meaning ‘out,’ and ‘duco,’ meaning ‘I lead.’   To me, education is leading out what is already there.  Leading out a person’s natural desire to understand the world around them, to understand themselves and others – that’s education.  Of course, there’s knowledge and skills to integrate along the way, but it’s the core that matters and that core is what matters to the person.

continuing educationWhat I learned from my students 40 years ago, and continue to learn from my colleagues and clients over the past 30 years, is that in our partnership both of us are learning and both of us are developing.   Coaching and being coached is the ultimate continue education class.    Sign me up!

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