I’m Not a Teacher

– posted by Maria

I was raised in part by teachers: my Mom and the two Grandparents I grew up closest to were professional teachers. Someone who didn’t grow up raised by teachers might not exactly understand the significance of this, so I’ll try to put some words to it. When you grow up with teachers, your whole life becomes a learning experience. With my Mom and grandparents around, it was not possible to simply “be” a kid and “do” kid things. Every activity and every experience was given an analytic component. I was constantly being asked questions about what I was doing, what I was thinking, how, and why.

My Mom was the most structured about this, building learning activities around every possible experience. I watch her do this now with my nieces, too. Whereas a kid with a “normal” (haha) family might be able to go for a walk and collect rocks because she likes rocks, my niece is expected to demonstrate that she has learned or observed something new from the rocks she collects. It’s not enough to like rocks; she is asked to analyze and explain what’s interesting about rocks, what differentiates each rock, what her plans are for the rocks.

Two-way communication is a big part of growing up like that: you are asked questions and you are expected to present your ideas for others to understand. My grandparents didn’t structure this learning like my Mom did, but the two-way communication was constant. They constantly asked me questions to get me to actively think about and analyze my experiences and ideas, and they always got me to see things in new ways–or sometimes to see things I wouldn’t have without their guidance.

Teaching Fail #1

In high school, it was decided that I should become a teacher. Not because I had any desire to teach–and I certainly didn’t like being around kids–but because no one in the small towns where I grew up could think of any other way for a kid with my “talents” (i.e. creative soul, natural writer) to make a living for herself.

So, in grade 12 I started down that path with some teaching practicums at the neighbouring elementary school. It was a fair disaster. The introvert in me dreaded being forced to interact with so many energetic young souls for hours each day–it sapped my energy and put me in a funk.

Teaching Fail #2

Figuring that my misery was due to my lifelong dislike of little kids, I continued on to university to take a degree in Education with the idea that I would teach big kids. The course work and training were great! Having been brought up as I was by teachers, and having the requisite native skills, I was a great student. But the only time in my life that I have ever had anything like a panic attack occurred leading up to my first practicum semester.

So, I went to the registrar and changed my major from Education to English Language and Literature. It was scary. I had no idea what the future held, I just knew that I would be happier.

Teaching Fail #3

After completing a Master’s degree in English Language & Lit (with a Senate Medal to boot), I knew two things about my future: (1) I was not going to be a teacher, and (2) I did not want to become an academic. The first job I was able to find was teaching in College (haha).

It seemed like a good idea–teaching in a College involves teaching adults, not kids. I taught at the College in a variety of forms for about 6 years and WOW, did I learn a lot. I learned how to build courses, syllabuses, exercises, materials. I learned how to evaluate, how to grade, how to deal with grievances. I learned to manage a classroom, confront abuse, detach from the personal limitations other set for themselves, deal with administration. I did like certain aspects of teaching adults. I liked sharing information and helping others to understand it and discover it for themselves.

But even College teaching wasn’t for me; it is a highly politicized environment, and I’m not a joiner.

The Coach Awakens

coachAfter starting my career in marketing and communications, I continued to work at the College. Once per semester for an intense 3-4 weeks, I was brought in to coach senior-year Computer Science students to turn their final-semester “real world” projects in to business presentations.

This was the pivotal experience for me, which brought together most of my strongest talents and awakened the COACH in me. Coaching is different from teaching, although there can be a lot of overlap in skills, approaches, and goals between the two. A teacher’s main role is to impart knowledge–to transfer required information and understanding to another person–in a measurable way.

A coach’s role is to draw on knowledge, skills, and talents that already exist, and to inspire, motivate, and guide others toward their own goals. It involves a lot of two-way communication. It turned out that I was a natural at this–not only did I love it, I was also good at it. I got results. I was able to get the students “on board” with what they needed to do. I was good at identifying their innate skills and building on those. I LOVED guiding a student from Point A to Point B without having any responsibility for their personal investment in the task.

Great teachers are also mentors, and great coaches also have teaching skills. But the shift in focus from teacher to coach was the “a-ha” experience for me. I figured out a lot about who I was and the purpose of the particular talents I’d been given.

It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize how much coaching is part of who I am in everything that I do. For example, a great deal of my role as a marketing consultant is coaching. Our clients have many of the answers they seek, but need to be coached to becoming aware of them. I like coming up with the methods to help them become aware, to find those answers. I like getting them on board and love watching them take ownership of new ideas, approaches, and ways of thinking that they did not have before they worked with me.

Dance Teacher Coach

Since 2007, I’ve taught dance part-time. People wonder why I spend so much of my already limited elective time doing this other “job”. It’s because I don’t teach so much as coach, and when I am coaching I am fully realized–I am wholly me. It’s not like work at all, it’s just time to be me.

Learning to dance as an adult is elective. The only way it can be accomplished is by drawing out and applying existing knowledge and skills, such as motor skills, musical awareness, knowledge of physics, experience in sports, relationship/partnering skills, etc. Most often, new students think that they “can’t” dance–in reality, they have most or all of the skills necessary and merely need to be made aware of them, then coached to apply those skills to the activity of dance.

The thing I love most about teaching dance or anything else–and it may be the thing I’m best at–is coming up with new and creative ways to do what I think the ultimate goal of COACHING is: to help another person to acquire the ability to DO new things. For me, the measure of being an effective COACH is the ability to help another person to achieve new abilities.

  • It’s not enough to have more information than someone else (a dance professional once told me that “anyone who knows more than someone else can teach”–but that is so wrong!)
  • It’s not enough to deliver information, no matter how eloquently you are able to do it.
  • It’s not enough to motivate and inspire (how many times have you left a workshop or conference or seminar incredibly inspired, only to lose that momentum a few days later?)

An effective teacher or coach needs an arsenal of skills, tools, techniques, and creative ideas–as well as the ability to apply them–to helps others achieve “breakthrough” moments in which a new skill is actually acquired. For me, it’s not so much the process of imparting knowledge that I enjoy, but the process of discovery that I love.

In that moment when a student discovers that they can do something they didn’t think they could, or when they fully assimilate an idea or concept that was previously elusive, or discover that they had a hidden ability in themselves, I get to experience the thrill of accomplishment, too. That’s totally addictive!