On Teachers

It started when I found a wallet at the airport.

Well, I noticed it.

A thick brown leather wallet was relaxing in a nook between the chair I was sitting in and the chair the older gentleman next to me was sitting in.

I pointed and asked, “excuse me sir, is that your wallet?”

“No.” He quickly grabbed it and took it to the Lufthansa counter a few meters away. (He obviously didn’t trust me.)

When he came back we started chatting about losing wallets and other things.

Eventually it came out that him and his wife (sitting beside him) are schoolteachers who were laid off, then left the US to teach at international schools, and have been living in France for 3 years after retiring.

Me: “Oh, so you speak French?”

Him: “Oh, no, I’m bad at learning languages.”

Me: “Interesting. Isn’t learning a language sort of like learning anything? You have to put some work into it.”

Him: “No. I just can’t learn a language.”

His wife (again, also a retired schoolteacher): “He’s really bad at languages. Just like I could never learn math. I just don’t get numbers.”

Me (in my head): “Wow.”

Me (out of my mouth): nothing but appalled silence.

The sad thing is this isn’t uncommon.

I know there are great teachers out there, but I never had them. When a friend or colleague talks about a favorite or inspiring teacher I always get jealous. I wanted one of the good ones! But the fact that most people have just one great teacher out of hundreds over a 20 year school career is telling.

The point is: you don’t go to school to learn because the people employed by “learning” institutions aren’t there to teach. Not necessarily because they don’t want to. I’m sure most have good intentions. But they can’t teach because they don’t even know how to learn.

So how do you learn when the people paid to teach you aren’t cutting it? Well, you learn on your own. You seek out books and people who’ve done what you want to do. You fail here and there. You make mistakes. You don’t do it because you want to get a good grade or impress your parents or get a “good” job. But because you simply want to – need to – learn.

And then, I hope, when someone asks you teach them what you learned.

[UPDATE] This video almost made me cry:

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Hmm, I guess I see your point…anyone can learn anything. But, it hit me as odd that you would say you never had a great teacher in all your schooling years. I look back at every teacher I ever had as being great. They were humans who are good at teaching, but like all humans, sometimes are not good at learning things they don’t have a natural bent toward. Probably due to lack of really caring about the subject. I seem to learn “anything” I want IF I really want to learn it.

  • I’m curious. Did you see the wallet in the Lufthansa waiting area in Houston? I have never left my wallet anywhere till about a month ago and it was returned to me by the rep at the counter right before I boarded my flight. Whewww.

    Either way, thanks for your posts. I always find them entertaining/thought provoking.

    • No, it was in Munich about 2 weeks ago. Glad you got your wallet back! And happy you enjoy my posts.

  • I am just in Laos, where people are eager to learn. They do it because it means survival. Everytime I hear “I can not learn…” makes me crazy.

    Nice post.

    • Thanks Sergio!

      I’ll possibly make it to Laos this year. :)

      • You must! It is an amazing country, lovely people. Wish I could meet you somewhere, really admire you.

        All the best.

        • Great! The plan is to head to Vietnam in July for the duration of the visa (90 days, hopefully), then Thailand, and after that is up in the air.

  • hey Karol! great thoughts… and funny. Like you, I found most teachers lacking- and I was lucky enough to grow up in one of the best public school systems in the country (Yarmouth, Maine, and I dropped out after two years.) But in college- art school at Maine College of Art- it was different. I had lots of great teachers who were passionate about the subject matter.

    I love to teach myself, but find it really challenging to teach other people.

    Over the past five years or so I’ve been in the position of teaching a lot- to employees, most of whom haven’t done any professional sewing before. My job was to teach them production sewing, professional sample-making, as well as pattern-making in some cases. In every single case where I was “successful” – the person I was teaching was someone who already knew how to learn on their own. I’ve frequently described myself as a terrible teacher- and carefully sought out employees who demonstrated the physical aptitude that will allow them to succeed on the project- good hand dexterity, basically- and told them to figure out how to do it ‘their way.’

    Clearly- we all have aptitudes toward somethings- I prefer work that is word based, others prefer linearity, etc. I think it would be too much to draw a link between the ability to teach well to others and the ability to teach oneself- but I’ve found it an interesting observation…. good to hear from you!

    • Thanks Brook. Interestingly, because you’re good at learning (teaching yourself), you’re probably a better teacher to others than you think. One of the most important lessons I get from good teachers nowadays is, “I don’t know everything, but I can figure out most things.” A direct, “this is how you do it,” is rarely useful. Your idea of looking for the physical aptitude and giving the “do it your own way” instruction is likely the best lesson you can teach your employees.

      By the way, I think you’ll enjoy my friend Nicky’s writing. Example: http://nickyhajal.com/move-ahead-with-what-you-know/

      • thanks for the link to Nicky’s site- very interesting!

  • You are so right about this! I had one professor (Ancient Greek; funny enough one of the “hardest” languages to learn) that shared the concept of “taking control of your own education” and it changed how I view schooling. Because of his advice I have learned more after graduating than I learned in my 16+ years of schooling.

    Many of my teachers supported the idea of certain topics being out of reach for certain students instead of encouraging them to putt time and hard work into comprehending a difficult topic.

    I shared my view on learning in an old post of mine – I posted a whole academic paper within the post (we all have learning to do!), but it’s not at all necessary to read to get my point :)
    http://beinguniquely.me/a-slice-of-my-useless-education/

    I really enjoy the insights you share through your posts and emails; thanks for doing what you do!

  • Brilliantly said. I’m currently teaching in Korea (not sure how it happened), and the saddest thing I’ve seen here is western teachers that doesn’t give a shit. It leaves a bad taste of dirty human intentions in my mouth. There’s this children, some of them so eager to learn and to be inspired, and all they get is ignorance and empty shrills. Teachers, oh how I wish I had a real one myself.

  • YES. I used to say that, actually I do still tell people I can’t math… although now it’s more of a joke about something that just doesn’t come naturally to me than something I believe to be true. It wasn’t until I got a phenomenal teacher in a random university course that I realized a) of course I can math and b) I had to teach MYSELF how to teach myself.