Can anyone really be a teacher? In short (and in my opinion), yes. However, I would qualify this by saying I don’t consider one to have to formally work in the education system to be a teacher. I tend to refer to this term in the broader sense, that is to say a “teacher” is one who is capable or enjoys the activity of sharing knowledge.
When I was first starting college, my father begged me upon bended tuition check to “please consider graduating with a teaching certificate”. He explained that I could go any direction I wanted (provided that I did in fact get a major) but that I would be well-advised to invest a little extra time and obtain the credentials necessary to fall back upon an respectable career as one of our nation’s educators.
While at the time I may have taken this request as a complete lack of faith in my actual dreams and an excellent excuse to angst-drink that first few weeks, in retrospect it was actually quite the opposite.
Looking back, my objection to his request was twofold. Besides my assumption that it was his way of saying that my lofty goals were more lofty and less goals, I also bristled at the idea because I did not consider myself a “teacher”. It was simply not part of my identity. When I filled out my profile on professional or social networks, it was among the last labels that I would have thought to assign. But upon completion of that first semester of college and eventual realization that I was not going to survive another four months on the free cookies they give out at Health and Wellness, I found myself in the market for a job.
I considered myself to be a decent writer, so I wandered into the writing center on campus and ended up getting hired as a peer tutor. I quickly realized that being a decent writer did not directly translate to being a competent tutor/editor. And in addition to my dismay that I was not immediately excellent at the position, I rather perversely found myself in a job where I was learning to be a teacher.
However, I swallowed my pride (mostly just so when my first payday came I would be able to to swallow something other than leftover ramen) and began to engage with the field. And of course, ended up loving it.
I realized that I had never in the past seen myself in a teaching role because (A) I equated it with a lack of personal success in a subject (spoiler alert — this is a myth!) and (B) I honestly didn’t think I would be any good at it.
Turns out teaching is just as much a skill as anything else. And the difference between being a teacher and a learner is similar to that of being a writer vs. a reader. Provided that you have fluency in the subject at hand, you will likely be more than capable of making the transition.
Another thing that I learned about teaching was that there was no detail too small or approach too obscure. It is useful to explore and express details and unorthodox methods in order to help someone understand something. Considering we all come from different backgrounds, one can never tell what description or analogy will be the one to really nail down the concept for your listener. Granted, it can be detrimental to bombard your listener with thirteen varying ways to approach a topic that they may already feel overwhelmed about, but I generally try avoid doing that and stick to the top three methods.
That brings me to another big lesson, that of knowing one’s weaknesses. As I previously mentioned, I have a ineffective tendency to bombard a student with too many explanations or activity ideas for them to process. I realized that this stems from me getting too invested in the problem than the person, and even if I succeed in solving the problem, that does not mean I helped the individual.
A significant part of teaching (especially in one on one) is reading your audience. I used to joke with my co-workers that I felt like being a writing tutor was very similar to being a bartender. You are fifty percent there to provide a service, and fifty percent to listen to their problems. This is incrediably important because as mentioned above, there is a big distinction between doing the work and helping the student. I have found the balance to be akin to riding shotgun in their creative car. Your there for directions, to provide a conversational sounding-board, and occasionally text their mom (the last one is purely metaphorical, at least usually), but at the end of the day they are steering the course.
Despite having gotten my start teaching writing, I have since expanded into teaching basically everything that I consider myself to know how to do. I routinely “skill swap” with my friends and peers (teach them how to do one thing in exchange for information on how to do another). I have discovered vastly more about my subjects of interest, as well as having honed my communication and social skills in delivering the information. In my experience teaching is less a conventional lecture and more an exploratory conversation, with each member contributing from their perspective and unique background. It is a form of brainstorming.
I also realized that I actually had already been “teaching” for a while, even before college. With my Instructables.com account, I had already been honing these communication skills. I understood that teaching is simply the expression of your knowledge resulting in the transmission of ability. (Side note, Instructables.com is an excellent place to go and practice sharing your knowledge, 5/5 stars would recommend.)
While my father’s initial request may have been a subtle slight at my chances of academic success, it ended up being an excellent suggestion. Curating the skill of communicating skills is easily one of the most valuable things I have learned in my three years of higher education.
“The best way to learn is by teaching.”