This semester I am teaching a management course in the UNC Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science program. It’s been 12 years since I last taught a college course, but the time was right for me to give back what I’ve learnt to the next generation of librarians. Anticipating what it would be like to teach again, I looked forward to stimulating student discovery, those light bulb moments when a student realizes something that changes their outlook. I have not been disappointed. Halfway through the semester I have seen my students develop new skills, deeper self-awareness, and greater confidence.
But an electrical current can run both ways. I’ve been surprised - and delighted - by moments in class when my light bulb illuminates because of something a student has said, or when a class exercise I assumed would lead in one direction takes an unexpected turn. These moments remind me that the greatest joy of teaching is learning.
What we think we know
As professionals, much of our confidence stems from our experiences. These experiences imparted knowledge, which is like a shield we carry with us into our next experience. We need that confidence - that shield - to lead others in ambiguous times and to persevere when we meet resistance or are attacked. Our confidence is a source of succor. But what we think we know also blinds us. Too often we hide behind our shields, not seeing what’s before us. To already know is to be closed off, to willingly shut one’s eyes. What if we don’t really know, after all? What if what we know is based on an experience 15 years ago? Should we assume nothing has changed and that our knowledge is immutable? Perhaps we are better off laying down our shields and forgetting our past experiences so that we can learn from new ones.
Ask more questions
I love to share knowledge with others. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy mentoring and coaching and the reason I am back in the classroom. If I have knowledge from my own experiences that can help someone, I want to share it with them. However, this direct approach is not the most effective way to develop others. The best teachers, mentors and coaches don’t blurt out their advice; they ask questions that challenge the other person to think critically and make mental connections for him or herself. Indeed, in asking questions they are flipping switches on a wall until they happen upon the switch that will turn-on the other person’s light bulb. Pointing your spotlight of knowledge at another person blinds them, but by asking the right questions you can shine a light inside them.
Anyone who knows me knows I am impatient. I always want to go faster. Like most qualities, this can be a strength or a weakness depending on the situation. Push your team hard and they will achieve ambitious goals. Push them too hard and they will burn-out, or let quality suffer in trying to meet unrealistic deadlines. Teaching has proven to be similar. Entering the classroom I wanted all the students to know everything I knew, instantly. It frustrated me when a particular lesson didn’t seem to effect change. But teaching is like exercise or diet: You have to form consistent habits and repeat them again and again to see results. Expecting a class to instantly absorb and internalize something that took you years to learn from a single lesson would be like eating a bowl of kale and expecting all your high school clothes to fit. I also find that some humility helps. When you find yourself getting impatient with someone you are coaching, try to remember how long it took you to learn certain lessons. And consider how many lessons you have yet to learn.
Pay the debt you owe
I wrote a blog post about Stewardship in which I encouraged professionals to be vessels of knowledge, passing it on from our mentors to the next generation of professionals. I would like to go one step further and declare that it is our responsibility to share what we have learnt from others to the next generation of professionals. Too often I see talented leaders who are not sharing what they know with others. Whether out of modesty, fear, competitiveness, or laziness, this is not acceptable. If we care about the future of our profession, we must prioritize passing forward all the valuable wisdom we have. Don’t wait to be asked. Volunteer to be a mentor. Or make time to teach a webinar on an area of expertise. In doing so, you will be paying the debt you owe to those who taught you what you know.
You did it your way; let them do it theirs
As leaders, we are fond of assuring our teams that we don’t care how they accomplish their goals, so long as they accomplish them. Nobody ever says “it’s my way or the highway” anymore, except in jest. But what happens when one of your team members puts your hands-off promise to the test? In my class the students spend most of their time analyzing case studies and role playing during class exercises. As an instructor, I anticipate the possible approaches they will take to solve a problem or win a class exercise. During these activities, I must constantly remind myself that these possible approaches are the ways I might arrive at a solution. They are not the only ways. And only when I heed this, when I lay down my shield and open my mind to the ways in which my students approach the problems, am I truly teaching. And learning.
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