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Learning More Than You Teach: The Mark of a True Master

Rather than "working on" people, strive to work with them.

With school board elections across the land, education has been in the spotlight-- again. Education is the key to a brighter future for individuals and society alike. But too many kids struggle to stay in school, much less enjoy it or find it relevant. Many teachers are overworked and unsupported, and some are woefully untrained or unsuited. Standardized testing in the name of accountability is undermining children's natural love of learning, discounting creativity, and bringing gifted teachers to their knees.

And if we look outside our borders, particularly to developing nations, we see even more challenging problems. How do you teach 60 children in one classroom? How do you inspire learning with only a blackboard and a dirt floor? How can children study when they are hungry? How do you reach girls, when the culture frowns upon educating them? How do you train teachers who have only attended maybe 3 years of schooling themselves?

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If you were given the power and resources to initiate improvements in education, what would you do?

Would you donate computers to schools in Central America?

Would you design student-centered curricula focusing on exploratory learning for underprivileged children in Southeast Asia?

Would you establish a training program to equip African teachers with modern classroom management skills?

Would you lobby for a girl's academy in a Middle Eastern country?

Would you abolish standardized testing and reinstate the arts and physical education in a conservative American school district?

Or would you stop, look, and listen?

That's what Jared Jones, Ed.M. is doing. (In the interest of full disclosure, Jared is my stepson. And yes, I'm a proud mama.) Jared just received his Master's degree in international education policy from Harvard's prestigious Graduate School of Education (HGSE). But rather than busting out and changing the world, he's letting the world change him. Instead of imposing his ideas on others, he's listening to the ideas of others. Of course, he shares what he knows too, but what he knows is continually shaped by learning on the job as an international educator, who is now serving the poorest communities in Nairobi, Kenya.  Before Harvard, he taught in China, Namibia, Myanmar, Egypt, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. He has been, as they say, around the block. He always sees room for improvement and instigates plenty, but he also holds a deep respect for what others know and do. And with an open, curious mind, he is just as eager to learn as he is to teach.

He had the opportunity to present his approach during last spring's graduation ceremonies, as he was chosen to be the HGSE Convocation 2011 Student Speaker.  In his much lauded talk, he asked:

Who am I, from Cambridge, to design policies and dream up programs affecting lives across the world? After a year of education at HGSE, who am I to tell a teacher who has dedicated 30 years to educating children in her own community how to run her classroom and, in part, her life? Standing here today, honestly, I'm no one. So if not international education, just what am I a master of?  ... If anything, I'm a master of I don't know. I don't know but I can help you find out. I don't know but if you will teach me, I can teach you too. .... I hope we will look back at the degrees we receive tomorrow not as certificates of mastery, or affirmation of our assumptions, but as written invitations to a life-long dialogue, to a lifetime of learning no less than we teach, adapting no less than we transform. For as much as education needs the genius beneath this tent, for as much as the world needs you to lead, it needs more the quiet heroism of practitioners who don't simply proselytize the change they want to see in the world, but live it, reflectively and humbly.

Jared's one regret is that he didn't broach this topic at the beginning of his stint at Harvard, because afterward, students and professors alike wanted to discuss it with him. If only the dialogue could've started months earlier. But he planted seeds that started germinating on graduation day.

This theme of learning more than you teach has a potentially broad application-and benefit.  Working in education, health care, business, the arts, etc.; with adults or children, colleagues or clients, a focus on learning can yield the following:

  • You remain open and humble, instead of becoming a closed-minded know-it-all. 
  • You continually hone your craft, sharpen your ideas, and widen your horizons, instead of becoming stuck in what you already know.
  • You facilitate others' exploration of what you yourself have studied, instead of directing or imposing your own views, solutions, or style.
  • You remain curious and respectful when anyone comes up with a new insight or a different way, instead of sitting in judgment.
  • You listen, encourage, and walk with folks on their unique journeys, instead of insisting they do it your way.

In short, rather than "working on" people, you "work with" them.  This open and collaborative attitude fosters compassion and cooperation, which can boost the productivity of any project. Learning more than you teach also demonstrates your faith in people and reinforces their abilities to find their own answers and ultimately determine what is best for themselves.  

By learning more than you teach, you become a true master.

 Have you ever been in a teaching or mentoring position where you ended up learning more than you taught? What were your take away lessons? 

For the rest of Jared's speech, view it here:

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and author of 6 books, including one about perinatal hospice titled A Gift of Time.

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