So you want to teach?

This is my first “blog” type article that doesn’t have to do with a particular topic of interest, or one in which I might be considered a subject matter expert. It is, however, related to what I do on this site and on CruzeTalk.com. It is a topic that has been on my mind for a while, and my opinions of this topic have shaped many of my decisions.

Today, I’d like to talk about the challenges in teaching.

In this regard, I’m not referring to the profession of teaching or the act of teaching in a formal manner, but teaching in the sense of providing others with information with the intent to help them in some way or better their understanding of a given topic. My experiences in online and face to face discussions have brought to mind two particular points that I’d like to discuss today. The first is the societal view of teaching, and the second is judgment.

Societal View of Teaching; “Everyone’s Opinion Counts”

The trouble I see with the way our modern society views teaching is that it believes everyone has something to share and something to teach other people. We can think back to hundreds of hours of classroom time where we have at some point in our life been conditioned to believe that everyone who is in our group or in our class has something to contribute; something to add; something to teach. It may not have been pointed out blatantly, but the thought process behind it still existed. The very core of democracy implies that everyone has an equally important voice, but few governments go to any lengths to verify if people even know what they are voting for. If I’ve spent hundreds of hours researching each individual running for a given position in office, locally or nationally, our process implies that my vote is equal to that of someone who just voted for their political party. In many aspects of our society, we are taught that everyone has something they bring to the table, and while this is true in some aspects of life, it is certainly not true in all, and it brings a particular challenge when you try to teach something. The truth is that not everyone has something valuable to bring to every table, and some people are far better off taking a seat and learning from those with wisdom and experience instead of confusing others with false information or anecdotal evidence.

If I were to summarize this challenge in one phrase, it would be this: “There is a great wealth of information on the internet, but very little real wisdom.” The problem is that not everyone is an expert in a given area, but far too many people act like they are. You can spend hours searching the internet for information related to tire pressure, and you will find very little factual information. You will find many opinions in online discussions where it has been stated in a fact-like manner that it is unsafe (for the reasons regarding blowouts) for tires to be inflated beyond the manufacturer recommended rating. While I don’t wish to discuss this in detail here, the simple truth is that those claims are false, but one would be led to believe that they are true from a quick Google search based on the sheer amount of misunderstanding and misinformation. The problem lies when true subject matter experts opens their mouths, only to find themselves swimming upstream against a river of inexperience and compounded misinformation. A rampant but flawed logic exists that if enough people believe something, it must be right or true. If you’re teaching something that’s contrary to what a large group of people believe, it is more than likely that you will receive harsh criticism and resistance, so be prepared to stand your ground.

 

Judgment

The second area I wanted to share my thoughts on are that of judgment. There are two parts to this, however. The first is that of accuracy, and the second is that of demonstration.

Accuracy

When teaching someone, you should offer to provide information only on what you know to be true, without any doubt. If you present information that has any doubt or possibility to be incorrect, you should express it as such in order to prevent the spread of misinformation. In other words, don’t sound like you know exactly what you’re talking about when in fact there is some doubt that you can be wrong. Present statements as personal opinion, not indisputable fact. Say things like “I think” or “I believe” instead of just making a statement. If you must make a statement as fact, make it clear that you’re open to being proven wrong and will stand corrected if you are. Otherwise, you will lose a great deal of credibility the moment anyone proves you wrong on a topic you argued adamantly. When you set out to teach someone, you have a great duty and responsibility to be accurate as your teaching will affect the decisions, mindset, and general understanding of those whom you teach, which can have consequences. Should you teach someone false information and should that person act on that false information and suffer negative consequences, you will ultimately be responsible. I would go so far as to call this not just a duty or responsibility, but a burden. Be prepared to carry that burden before you being to speak.

Demonstration

This extends past the classic “practice what you preach” mantra. In order to teach something, you not only need to follow your own teachings, but you have to know the subject matter to a degree that allows you to excel in that area. For example, if I wanted to teach tennis, I would have to know how to play tennis, and to play it well at that. It is not enough to be merely adequate or to have a conceptual understanding. It is not enough for me to know how to design a car audio system on a conceptual level; I have to demonstrate that I am capable of designing such an audio system and put my skills to the test. This type of demonstration requires a certain motivation that stems from a personal conviction to have a deep understanding of a given subject matter. If you don’t have that personal conviction, you won’t be an effective teacher. You have to not only learn the subject, but demonstrate that you can apply what you’ve learned in order to prove that you fully understand the concept. Otherwise, all you will be is a walking textbook.

My parents instilled in me two extremely valuable mindsets. The first is that if you do a job, do it right, and the second is that of self-motivation from personal conviction. My mother always had a conviction to be the best she could be, something that took me a while to learn but something I value greatly. When she went to a community college, it was not enough for her to just pass the class or get an A. She had to receive perfect marks across the board and receive honorable mention at her ceremony. It is that level of conviction – to excel at everything you do – that enables you to gain a level of understanding in a subject matter that then allows you to demonstrate it with remarkable proficiency. My father always had a conviction that every job had to be done right. I worked with him on many occasions on various projects and there was always a strong value that the job wasn’t done until it was done right. I rarely heard the words “this is good enough.” When I was told to clean up my room when I was younger, it wasn’t “good enough” until all of the Lego pieces were cleaned out from hidden places. When I was patching walls, it wasn’t “good enough” until you couldn’t tell that there was ever a hole to begin with. If I was cleaning my dad’s truck, it wasn’t “good enough” unless I went over every part of the panels consistently, because if I left any part uncleaned, it would show once you rinsed the soap off.

Not only do you need to demonstrate that you can apply your knowledge, but you need to demonstrate it well. You need to give it the best you’ve got, and make sure it’s done right before you can turn around and say “See guys? This is how it’s done.” Expect some  judgment and criticism if you go about trying to teach people in ignorance of these values. Prove that you are an expert before you start talking like one.

 

So, do you think you have what it takes to teach? Feel free to comment your own experiences below.

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