Those Who Can’t Teach, Do.

NYC subway ad reinforcing a ridiculous and all too common belief

Why being a great teacher makes you a great change agent

I have always seethed at the rhetoric that teachers are failed businesspeople or otherwise incapable of “doing.” What does “doing” mean anyway? Unless you are building an Ikea bookshelf, “doing” is not a straightforward act. You cannot “do” unless you know how to collaborate, shift mindset and persuade. This notion of “doing” needs a reboot. It comes from a time of rigid structure and process, where no one asks you to conceptualize and move a team of hundreds in a new direction. It comes from a world of products not services and a world without choice paralysis and social media.

This uniquely American sentiment towards educators is also attacked because it provides one of the last safe vestiges of job security — the teacher’s union. With tens of millions of Americans struggling to live a middle income life, bouncing from job to job without benefits, the systems that once supported and protected families have been torn down. Today, middle income security comes in the form of driving trucks. Yes, you heard me right. Truck driving is the most popular job in 29 states because it offers one of the few expansive opportunities for a middle class lifestyle.

So while part of this misdirection comes from the Shaw quote and the vilification of all things union, I want to take a look at why the opposite is true.

I have had the distinct pleasure to teach nearly all grades — kindergarten through high school, university and grad school. I’ve taught at MIT and Bard and the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. I can say, without a shadow of doubt, that if you want to be a great change agent, start by being a teacher. Here are 3 ways teaching builds your change agent skills:

1. Explainer in chief: Have you ever tried explaining a concept once to a large and diverse group of people (much less a rowdy, hungry group of 10 year olds?) You need to come up with multiple ways to get the same material understood by vastly different minds. This goes beyond the Albert Einstein credo “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” That’s step one. Step two is reframing that simple explanation a dozen ways to be absorbed by very different minds.

2. Selfless enabler. In a culture that lavishes money and fame to those performing a profession rather then teaching it, life behind the curtain requires a different lens. You accept others success as your own. You take the long view. As Confucius explained “If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.” Teachers take the long view — change requires the long view.

3. Operational expert. Unless ruled by a junta, the goal and process to achieving it can’t be singular. With an ideal outcome or lesson in mind, teachers can’t be wed to a single process. Process is a signal of change and change a signal of concern to all of us comfortable with status quo. We need to develop processes to calm multiple emotions and personalities. What better lesson for change is there?

What happens when you learn how to teach? You pursue a challenge ten different ways to be sure you connect with each student’s mind. And if you’re lucky, those same student minds gave you an eleventh and twelfth perspective you hadn’t thought of yourself. So the next time you hear that teacher’s are failed doers, remind them that the 21st century has no doers, it has change agents and teams. Teachers lead both.