[Image from The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers]
Teaching people is a lot like feeding people. Since I’m familiar with the idea of feeding people in our restaurants, the analogy works well.
Some people hate your food. They don’t like it, and won’t have it again. Others didn’t like it before, but they were forced to see you a second time because a friend dragged them in. They actually hate your food so much, they’re prone to throw some back at you. Like a monkey that throws poop. Or a spitting llama.
Other people enjoy your food, and really appreciate being at your establishment. But you’d never know it by the way they talk. Nor do their faces give anything away. They’re a hard read with no kickback. The only reason you know that they like your food at all is that they keep coming back. But even this could be because of neophobia.
The people you really want to see are those that down-right love your food. They walk in with wide eyes, they eat on the edge of their seat, and always ask you for more. If you’re a buffet, they’ll bankrupt you; if you’re a fine dining locale, they’ll bankrupt themselves. And then die of fat cancer. (Hopefully they tell all their friends about you before they die).
I do a considerable amount of teaching. And imparting, demonstrating, coaching, counseling and mentoring. In fact, as a pastor and a geek, I’m in the business of passing on everything I know and everything I do—it’s a prerequisite for the position. And while any one of us in key places of teaching others could be and should be spending long hours perfecting our craft, there’s something to be said for asking our students to perfect their craft.
To me, the “eaters” that are the most frustrating are actually not the first group I listed above. People that hate my instruction are at least being honest with me. As long as we can get past their personal attacks, we usually end up having a decent and civil dialog in which they express they don’t want to hear anything I have to say. And I don’t want to share anything with them (citing the pearls before swine algorithm), so we’re cool.
And the third group is certainly not the segment that frustrates me the most either. Eager learners? Frustrating? Come on. That’s like being upset that the state fair just have you 100 free VIP tickets to see REO Speedwagon with all your friends.
The people that are the most confusing, most disconcerting and most draining are those that you can’t tell if they’re excited to be learning from you or not. They showed up, which is a good thing. But you’re fairly sure they’re thinking about baseball while you’re talking. (Which is great if you happen to be a baseball coach. Not so much if you’re teaching them about marriage, audio mixing or writing technique).
You’re probably going to learn something today. It may be by accident, it may be because you’re paying to be in a class. But either way, the chances are that one person or another will be involved in the educating process, intentionally or not. So try this on for size:
• At least act like you’re interested. If you’re not interested at first, sometimes the acting bit influences your reality, especially when a bad attitude is getting the best of you.
• Take notes. Copious note takers are the quintessential markers of eager learners. Having a notebook says, “I came prepared, expecting to learn something worth writing down, and because I’ve written it down, I’ll most likely look at it again.” Fewer things tell a teacher that you value their knowledge and experience than taking notes does. (Oh, and be sure to look up occasionally too; nothing makes a teacher curious as to whether or not you’re drawing pictures of ligers than zero eye contact).
• Ask genuine questions about the situation. Not edgy questions, not baited questions and not barbed questions. Ask honest questions that you’re interested to know the answers to. The best teachers are those who love dialog. So resist the urge to sit there stiff and mute, and say something.
• Thank your teacher twice. Once when the lesson—accidental or otherwise—concludes, and a second time a few hours later. I spent a few hours pouring into two different guys yesterday in two different meetings, one on media arts, the other on his life-course. Both guys were thankful for the meetings as they left my office, but by the end of the day, both had sent me a meaningful text message, thanking me for specific aspects of my investment. Guess who’ll be getting follow up meetings with me.
You have learning opportunities all around you. It might be an argument with your wife, where you look eagerly to see if you’re wrong, take a note on something she’s asking you to do, and followthrough with a text later in the day, thanking her for what she revealed in you. It might be a run-in with a boss or a co-worker. Or maybe you’re in school and recognize you’re not on the edge of your seat, and you never even thought about thanking your professor.
It’s your proactive response to these moments that dictates how much you value the wisdom and life experience of others. You just don’t owe it to your teachers, you owe it to yourself. Because it’s you’re own time you’re wasting if you don’t appreciate them.