I’m Not a Teacher

Posted on July 7, 2009

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I’ve been working for two years at a business that scores standardized tests. Many of the people who work there are teachers, or retired teachers and school administrators. I’m none of those things. After my first two months there, my supervisor was absent and the project lead asked me to step in and supervise the team for that day.

Now, I’m the oldest of the four siblings in my family. The youngest of my three sisters was born with ADHD. I learned patience early, and my parents always put me in charge of one or more of my sisters.

I’m also a dog owner, and a fan of Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer. Cesar always says the key to living with dogs is being the pack leader. They key to that is staying calm and assertive at all times.

I was an Army officer. I led a tank platoon in the First Gulf War. So in addition to having the leadership traits a lot of eldest siblings have, I also have formal training and experience.

That day at work last year, I had a plan in seconds: Use the patience I developed growing up to remain calm and assertive. Remember that I’m a substitute, and don’t rock the boat. Get the team through the day without reinventing anything. At the end of the day, several veteran supervisors complimented me on how well I did. They seemed surprised, but to me it came naturally.

This year I supervised a team for an entire project. After a few days, a team member asked me where I taught. I explained that I was not a teacher and never had been. My team was shocked. Apparently my calm, assertive manner and my ability to explain how instructions applied to individuals made them believe that I was a teacher. Or maybe they just assumed that my background was the same as theirs.

It got me thinking, though, because many people who have known me a long time – one friend since the 4th grade – think I would make a good teacher. Maybe they’re right. I don’t want to find out.

I have taught, but I’ve always taught my peers. I naturally found situations where I instructed fellow students, officers, or soldiers. In fact, instructing soldiers is part and parcel of being an officer. I’ve taught in classrooms, offices, and in the field – literally in open fields. I’ve never taught youths, and I have no desire to do so. The truth is, I don’t like kids in general. If I’ve been around your kids, you don’t know that about me because I do like your kids. Given a chance to build a relationship with a small number of young people, I enjoy it. Once we get past any shyness or reticence, I’m happy to get on the floor and play with the kids or carry a kid on my shoulders through the zoo or park. I occasionally think about volunteering with the high school youth group at church, or tutoring at the library or community center, but I have no desire to teach professionally.

In my work, I’ve been on two projects where I worked with material submitted by teachers rather than by students. In both cases, I observed that at least half of the teachers didn’t follow instructions. I’m talking about simple instructions, with illustrations and diagrams. I can’t know if they chose not to, if they were congenitally incapable of doing so, or what. I suspect that they simply become so used to being in charge of their classrooms that they don’t think about switching off and letting someone else be in charge. I have trouble working with people like that – though I have no trouble supervising/leading/coaching them because the first thing I do is address that issue. Once it’s clear that they need to let someone else be in charge and follow instructions, we get along fine.

Last night I attended a training session for a part-time gig proctoring standardized tests. It seemed like a fun thing to do because I would get to meet new people and earn a little pocket money at the same time. Many of the other people at the session were people I knew from the last two years. During the training session I discovered that the leader of the group didn’t know how to teach, and that many of my fellow trainees couldn’t follow instructions. This might be less fun than I thought.

Here were my key takeaways:

  • Repetition is the key to learning. I discovered this by osmosis. Army training is very repetitive, and it works – in high stress situations, you rely on the comfort of the familiar, and repetition makes things familiar. Last night, I would have been repeating (without being sarcastic or sardonic), “As you can see in the handout…If you’ll follow along in the handout…Read the handout and you’ll see…” This reinforces the process as well as the information. Just because I’m calm doesn’t mean everyone else is, and repetition can help settle people down and get them in a better mindset to learn.
  • Peer pressure is your friend. Make it about them, not about you. For example, if people keep interrupting you, point out that everyone has to stay there until you cover all the material. Suddenly half the room will turn into tutors, helping the confused people while you move on. Do not let classroom “helpers” become sarcastic or disrespectful. If there’s an issue that affects the majority of your class, address it. If one person is having trouble following along, let a helper act as a study partner or aide – but make them sit next to each other so you don’t make yourself harder to hear.
  • Hold your questions. Seriously. When you’re teaching, know the difference between participatory and non-participatory situations. In the former, encourage and solicit questions all the time. In the latter, for example when you have to deliver standardized information, only allow questions at the end of a topic, and only allow questions on that topic. Use a whiteboard or butcher paper to record questions that you’ll come back to at the end, because you don’t want to shut anyone down. However, if you reach the end of your presentation, you can dismiss the people who don’t have questions and focus on the smaller group who need your help.
  • Use your handouts. If you hand something out, it better be because you want people to follow along with you as you go through it. Otherwise, hand it out at the end. If you are going through a handout, insist that people follow along. Be extremely clear about which part you’re reading now. Don’t make people guess what the handout is for, and don’t let people ignore it.
  • Focus on problems. Don’t focus on people, focus on problems. If the same question keeps coming up, over and over again, stop what you’re doing and address the confusion. When I say stop, I mean stop the entire class. Raise your voice, get everyone’s attention, and focus everyone on the fact that you’re repeating information rather than moving forward, and ask why that’s happening. You may need to have one or two people stay after the class is complete to go over something. It may be that a small change in how you present the information clears everything up. If you just muddle on and keep repeating yourself, you’re just making the process longer for everyone. Address the problem so you can move on.
  • Don’t allow hypotheticals. Hypothetical questions can bog down your process. The best response is something like, “If that comes up, we’ll deal with it then.” Don’t stop delivering the information that 100% of the people will need 100% of the time to deal with something that 1 person might have to deal with once in their entire career.
  • Identify geniuses. I had an IQ test as part of separating from the Army after the First Gulf War, and I scored something like 142. It’s not genius, as far as I know. I’m certainly no member of MENSA. However, a key part of the process last night was learning about inventorying our testing materials. This year I was part of a team that inventoried, organized, and tracked 130,000 test booklets. I just finished a project where we had to inventory about 35,000 test submissions. This project won’t have more than 100 or so per proctor. Since last night’s instructor knows me from the job where I did all that warehouse work, it should have occurred to her that I could help teach that part of the course – or at least that that not everyone in the room would need the same level of instruction on that part of the work.

I would bet money that after a session or two, they’ll ask me to be a hall monitor or a floater, so I can use my patience and calm to settle down problem rooms and address issues as they come up.

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