Teaching Gold

“Which planet would you like to be?”, the swimming teacher asked, to a group of four and five-year olds, anxiously sitting at the edge of the pool.  I was curious to see how my five-ish year old daughter would answer because, other than maybe a random book before bed and a few dozen hours of the Ice Age movies, I was fairly certain that we hadn’t covered the nebular hypothesis or the protoplanet theory and really really certain that my daughter might answer “a monkey!” or  “my dog farts!” or, even worse, “Pluto”.  Nothing says X-Gen parent more than a kid who knows what Pluto is; it’s a newer version of our latch-key baggage.  I wasn’t too far off.  

The swimming teacher was doing a fabulous “drill” called spaceship, where the new swimmers extend their arms forward above their heads, hands touching, and their legs extended kicking their feet, keeping really flat, while the teacher balances them on their arms while floating, blasting themselves around the pool by the force of their own propulsion, while also not downing yet.  Great drill.  Wrong context.  And this is something that I see all of the time in training programs.  

Know your audience.  One of the biggest downfalls I see with instructors, and have experienced myself as a student, is as the teacher – the one tasked with presenting the information so that all can understand – they don’t know their audience.  And I don’t mean to personally know someone – you don’t have to spend a day together scrapbooking – I am talking about you knowing your audience in a teaching sense.  Who are your students?  What is their current level of knowledge about the subject?  What is their experience with the subject?  What is their goal with the information?  What are they working to achieve?  Where are their gaps? And it keeps you from falling into the pit of ‘leading’, which is what happened here.  Planet? she had asked.  Who knows what my daughter interpreted that as.  So, “Mars?”, the teacher said, leading Judy.  “Mars,” Judy replied.  Knowing your audience is knowing the broad strokes of their frame of reference.  Having a simple framework of answers for these types of questions will give you the basic understanding of who your audience is.  Knowing your audience is like having a map of a town you are traveling to: you don’t have any firsthand experience with the town yet, but you get a sense of where everything is located.  Especially the pits.

Work with what you have.  Sometimes knowing your audience doesn’t put you in a good place.  Sometimes maps are wrong and you have to be ready for the “my dog farts” answer and be able to deal with it.  Personally, I love those answers because they are the truest ones.  How does my daughter know what planet she wants to be?  Seriously?  It takes two adults a minimum of fifteen minutes and a professional level of negotiating just to get her dressed or bathed.  She is, literally, light years away from knowing what planet to be.  But “my dog farts!”  I can totally work with that.  Whose dog DOESN’T fart?  And who hasn’t, either as a dog owner or a house guest, used the ol’ “I think the dog farted” to cover their own tracks?  That’s like having pocket aces.

We have all heard that there are no dumb questions, and each of us also knows that couldn’t be further from the truth.  There definitely are, and there’s some really dumb answers as well.  And both are totally ok.  As a successful teacher you are going to have to be able to find the thread that can weave a dumb question into a fairly sensible answer blanket.  Or at least a hand towel.  Maybe a kerchief.  The point is: you need to be confident enough in your depth of knowledge of the subject to be able to take a random kids’ dog fart and use it as rocket fuel to zip around the pool.  Dumb questions and dumb answers are only a problem when the dumb teacher doesn’t know what the dumb truth is.  Know your material.  Thoroughly.  If you are truly a master of your craft you will find a way to work the dumbness in.  Working with what you have is a shared relationship based on where both of you are.  Just remember that you are supposed to be the one that knows where you both are going. 

Translate the material.  When it comes to the material you have to be able to answer – as the purveyor of the learning – what is the student getting out of the drill and why?  Your students – if they respect you and trust you – will do anything you ask them to do.  That is the power of teaching.  They will follow you on any adventure.  They’ll swim around the pool because you tell them to, but if you teach them why they’re swimming around the pool – maybe they fell in the pool or off a dock, maybe a wave snatched them off the beach or some other accident – the will understand.  My story is about five-year olds: they’re not thinking they are swimming because they figured a way to get out of Carl’s boring meeting on 3rd quarter P&L or they’re dreading Sue’s birthday party because she always has everything so put together.  They’re in an environment they do not control and do not have the skills to survive.  This is where all of your students are.  Translate the material, regardless of what it is, in a manner they can relate to and understand.  Webster’s defines translate as “expressing the sense of”.  Find your way to express that sense.  I use story.  I use experiences.  I interact.  I role play.  Translating the material is just like traveling and not being able to speak the local language, you need to find what totem, experience, story, prop, saying, or gesture works for you.   

Bring it back to the beginning.  This is one of the more nuanced aspects of teaching and can sometimes be a little tougher to define, especially if you are teaching to a large group or each person is doing a variety of tasks within the same timeframe or same space.  I have found the most successful way, for me, to tie everything back to the beginning of the learning is to simply tell people what you are teaching them.  Their learning, and your teaching, shouldn’t mimic The Sixth Sense of The Usual Suspects.  There shouldn’t be questions at the end about what they just went through or who did what.  It should be clear, clean, and replicable.  This is a lot easier to do when you have taken the time to know your audience, and definitely easier to do if you know your audience and have been able to successfully translate the material.  Remember the student is here to learn, and you are here to teach.  Right out of the gate you are a winning team.  Bringing it back to the beginning, for them and you, is tying it all together.  You job is to make the process – going from unknown to known – complete.  

Now take that dog fart and run with it.  That’s teaching gold.