Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Teacher, teacher...

Teacher, teacher
can you teach me?
- 38 Special (1985)

Let’s take a trip down memory lane shall we?  Think back to when you first got interested in engineering.  Was it when you first took something apart just to see what was inside?  Perhaps when you first got interested in the way bubbles formed in milk carton when you blew in the straw?  Maybe when you first realized that the teeter totter exhibited a mechanical advantage depending on where you and your friend/enemy sat?

Now think about what got you going academically in the direction of engineering.  For me it was a particular high school science teacher followed by a couple of rockstar professors in college.  Those people made things interesting and brought a new view or a new explanation of the physical world that had me in awe.  Some the best were the ones that made science into a “story”.  As the story unfolded, both my knowledge and my interest would grow.

Wake Up!

You’re an engineer!  Snap out of it!  We don’t have time for this stuff… dreaming about milk bubbles and teeter totters. Come on.  We’ve got real work to do… or we?

Unfortunately, the principles of learning and wonderment are lost in the day-to-day tasks of most engineers.  However, true rockstar engineers are able to hold on to this – and more importantly, they are able to communicate it.  Being a teacher is a hallmark of being a rockstar engineer.
Now I’m not saying that you need to become a professor or worse yet force people to listen to you ramble on and on about something that only you are interested in.  I’m saying that being a teacher makes you a valuable team member and can pay huge benefits to your effectiveness.

The highly regarded financial advisor, Dave Ramsey, says that when you hire a consultant – always hire someone that’s a teacher at heart.  Here’s a hint for you… if you are an engineer, you are in many ways a consultant.  A consultant gets paid for sharing and applying knowledge.  An engineer gets paid to apply his or her knowledge.

So here are some quick tips to make you a better teacher.

When in front of the room:

1. Most importantly, get in tune with your audience.  Learn to pick up on their body language.  Some people don’t want to be taught.  So, when in front of them, quickly present the answers and move on.  Other people want to be taught but are afraid to ask for fear of looking stupid.  It’s up to you to take the lead with these people and offer more information.  They are the ones that I love to work with and they will give you a chance to shine as a teacher. 

2. When presenting, seek out the chance to share the “why”, not just the “what”.   People are more willing to buy into something that you present if they understand a bit of what went into it.  By understanding the “why” behind a particular engineering solution, they are already closer to accepting the “what”.  When sharing the why – don’t use big “show off” words.  The smartest guys in the world don’t need to act smart with big words.

3. Finally… don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t ask questions in front of a room that cause people to put themselves down.  Asking the question “is anybody not understanding this?” in front of an audience is the equivalent of asking “who would like to be singled out and called stupid in front of the room?”  Instead, try “should I cover this in a bit more detail?” or “would it help if I explained this a bit more?”  These questions put the ownership on the presenter not the student.  We don’t want to be condescending to an audience, but worse yet we never want to make them feel stupid.

When one-on-one or in a small group:

1. Learn to listen. (This is hard – especially when you get excited about what you are talking about.)  Here’s a trick I use when I sense I’m having trouble listening: repeat the question back. 

2. Learn to draw. (this applies to a large group as well) I know we are engineers not artists, but the ability to make simple sketches to illustrate a point can increase your teacher rating enormously.  In my world of measurement there are several sketches that seem to be useful in many different settings.  I’ve actually spent time practicing the drawing of certain sketches in order to make me better at presenting concepts “on the fly”.  Now these things don’t have to be beautiful – they need to convey a point.  The cool thing is that as the picture develops so does a story; revealing a bit more with each stroke of the pencil or pen – and stories are a great way to teach.

3. Don’t be afraid to have fun.  Make fun of yourself, make fun of the topic.  Smile – it knocks down barriers to learning.  Remember: teaching is about investing in a person other than yourself; so create an environment or conversation that helps them feel comfortable.  In fact, it makes it more fun for both of you.

Dave Ramsey recommends looking for a teacher-minded-person when hiring someone to help you.  A teacher is a person that helps others learn and thus adds value to them.  If you want to amp up your effectiveness as an engineer, be a teacher for those around you.  It will raise them up and in the process it will further elevate you to rockstar engineer status.

Rock on!