How Teaching Can Help You Learn

Pencils. Books. Tests. If September automatically brings pleasant “back to school” memories to mind, you’re in for a treat—and I’m not talking pumpkin spice lattes (though if that’s your favorite fall splurge, indulge! I’ll wait ‘til you come back with cup in hand).

For many, the start of the school season inspires them to think of new things they want to learn. Lifelong learning, whether in an informal setting or an actual return to academia have their rewards, but what if you could learn by putting yourself in the other seat- as teacher rather than student?

The Roman philosopher Seneca was a proponent of this very idea, declaring that “docendo discimus” (“by teaching, we learn”). In a recent Lifehacker article, Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Mike Kenny described it thus: “Being able to understand an idea well enough to convey it to others will help you internalize it yourself.” This month, I encourage you to experiment with the concept of learning by teaching and share your experiences with the Idealist Careers audience.

There are many ways to put yourself in the role of teacher, even on a small scale. You don’t need to get a teaching certificate or create your own Udemy course. You can do it on a more informal, less structured scale, in a small group or one-on-one. You can tutor a college student, give a friend some lessons on running an effective job search, teach your child to make pancakes or a treehouse, or even train new staff at your organization.

Any of those scenarios will allow you to impart your expertise and knowledge. Here’s what you might gain in the process:

  • Deeper understanding of the subject material or a new insight for applying it to your life.
  • An opportunity to increase your observation and interpersonal skills.
  • Insight into presentation methods that work best at attracting and maintaining your student’s attention and concentration.
  • Understanding of different learning and communication styles, along with insights on  adapting your message to reach different audiences better.
  • Improved cultural awareness when teaching someone whose background is different than yours.

What you gain by teaching can strengthen your own capacity for learning and improve your interactions with different people throughout all areas of your life.

What I’ve learned by teaching

I had my own experience of learning while teaching. I started teaching belly dance by “accident.” The instructor at my much-loved studio had a scheduling conflict, and the owners asked if I could fill in. Having studied the dance for seven years, I knew I had a strong enough background in the basic moves. I also knew that teaching is different than learning and met my new position with some trepidation. I felt the weight of the responsibility: to effectively share what I knew, to make the class fun, to keep everyone safe from movements that could cause injury, and to be patient when they weren’t “getting” it. There was a whole lot to learn right there, before I even started!

I knew I would need to be ever-aware that many of them were beginner students and that for some, a lifetime of being told to “suck it in” would take more to undo than just saying in an encouraging tone to “let it hang out” and feel the rhythms of the music. That desk jobs and family issues lead to tense necks and rigid bodies. That even “relax the shoulders” takes work for some.

Sure, some of what I taught was modeled after those who taught me. They gave me a great education, not just in the dance but in formulating my own teaching and presentation styles. And then there’s what I learned from my students. The most surprising thing to me was when I discovered something new about the way the body moves, and even more intriguing- how to describe the mechanics of those movements. Sometimes a student would do a particular move “wrong” in terms of “not what I was actually describing” but still managed to eke out a bona fide move- quite beautifully, in fact!

This is where my investigative nature came into play. What caused their body to move that way instead of the way I described? It could have been a kinesthetic issue or a disconnect in understanding the words I used or visualizing the image I was describing. Not all bodies move the same way. Not all are capable of moving in the same way. By carefully observing, I was better able to suggest ways to modify the movement.

Watching others in motion, I learned more about the movements myself- what muscles made which infinitesimal movements and in which direction they were working, and at what moments they tensed and released. It was in one of those moments observing my students that I realized I was learning just as much by teaching them as I did as a student myself. My own dancing improved after seeing the movements mirrored by my students.

Insights from a few teachers

After reflecting on my own experience, I asked other teachers, “What have you learned while teaching others?” The first up was Crystal Hamai, a faculty member and doctoral student in the Urban Teacher Education Program at Rutgers University-Newark. She shared,

Teaching is a dynamic activity. Material that I’ve taught six, seven, eight times, the students will still come up with new ideas and surprise me with what I didn’t think about before! I understand my own learning better from the years I’ve spent teaching.Teaching isn’t about leading someone down a path; instead, it is illuminating the possibilities, both easy and difficult, and walking along beside the student as you both discover something. Working with students is a joy. When they have that “a-ha” moment, and their face just lights up, you get a feeling of joy, not so much in your own work, but in knowing that you’ve given a gift to someone that they’ll be able to use their whole life.

And my mom Maria Crispo, a retired NYC public school teacher (who was always teaching me something at home) reminisced with me about her experiences. What she learned was the importance of knowing your audience and being able to capture and retain their attention.

“You can’t just stand there and lecture. You need to change your facial expression and be animated, share some jokes, tailor your message to your audience, and be personable. Even if you’re not a teacher, being able to do this will help you anytime you need to make a presentation or address a group of people.”

She also shared with me a suggestion she received from one of her kindergarten students- to have a “Student of the Day”:

At first I thought it was too much, and would give too much attention to one student at any given time, but then I realized that there is something of importance to gain from acknowledging the merits of one student each day. It prompted me to find something about each one that was special and encourage them to celebrate what made them special. It spurred me on to learn something about each of them that made them unique. It showed my students that I was interested in them. Everyone has something that makes them stand out, from kindergarten to adulthood. People like others who pay attention to them, make them feel special, and take interest in their gifts.

In each of our experiences, we can confidently say that we learned something while teaching. How can you get started? Here’s a sample checklist, which you can modify to your needs:

  1. Pick a subject and the forum in which you want to teach. (Online, video tutorial, in person? Group or one-on-one?)
  2. What parts of the subject do you need more clarification on before you start teaching? Do your research and fill in any missing blanks.
  3. Find your student(s). You can use social media or your personal networks to announce your interest in teaching the subject or giving a tutorial. Remember your student(s) should genuinely be interested in the topic, rather than going along with it to appease you.
  4. Anticipate questions your students will have and outline possible responses.
  5. Fine-tune your teaching style based on what you observe of your students’ styles of learning. Reflect on what you learn based on these observations.
  6. Observe new insights you have about the material, different perspectives you gain, or epiphanies you have about your interactions with your students and how your personalities meld. Use what you learn in your day-to-day communications.

What are you excited about teaching to someone else? If you’ve ever learned something while teaching, tutoring, or training someone, post in the comments below!

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I became acquainted with Idealist in late 2000 while working in the career development office at a private liberal arts college in NYC. I used it almost daily to help students and alumni find meaningful careers. After a 12-year stint in higher education, I worked as a career coach for professionals in various industries (and still used Idealist). During one of those many searches, a listing really caught my eye- the one for the newly-created position, Careers Program Coordinator. So... I jumped at the opportunity. Since then, I took on the role of Manager of Career Content for Idealist Careers, creating career content for job seekers, leaders, and other nonprofit professionals. Understanding the roles that a positive outlook and holistic self-care play in career success, I've shared with our readers time-honored methods for improving confidence and productivity. Now, as Manager of College and Professional Development, my focus is on lifting the advice from Idealist Careers "off the page". Drawing from my experience in career development, I propel job seekers and career changers towards taking control of their searches with confidence and removing fear, uncertainty, and other blocks to success via in-person workshops and seminars, webinars, and conference programming. My great loves are cooking (preferably without a recipe, otherwise I doctor it up), dancing, live cultural performances, identifying the tasting notes in a good cup of coffee, exploring neighborhoods for hidden gems, and anything else that sparks the senses and allows me to experience all the beauty, dynamism, and intrigue that vivaciously living in a remarkable world offers.
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