Career Pivots, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Teaching Experience

Three years ago, I was an English as a Second Language teacher at a university in San Francisco. I was excited that my degree helped me get a position at a university, and I was excited that I wasn’t teaching at a language school anymore. Three years ago, I thought that learning Mandarin or Korean was the key to my future. I was already planning to move abroad and teach English, and maybe to use my degree in Linguistics to teach at foreign universities. Then, three years ago, I fell in love with User Experience Design.

I was a teaching assistant in a UX Design course at my university and realized that UX Design and the methods it encompasses are more than important; they’re necessary for products that people will want to use. My passion grew so strong that I quit teaching to join a 3 month personal accelerator called Tradecraft to focus on my design skills and career. At the time, I thought that I’d have to learn a whole different mindset to be a successful designer. I learned, though, through all the project work with companies that teaching developed some useful traits that lead to effectiveness in design.

1

Empathy

I’m no stranger to cultural difference. My mother is from Jamaica, and I was born and raised in Miami, which is one of the more ethnically diverse city and hub of international business and culture. Similarly, English as a Second Language teachers have to connect with large, diverse groups of individuals — people who are just as interesting, boring, entertaining, and frustrating to you as you are to them. As a teacher, you have to give a shit about each individual in your class, their goals, their problems and their strange habits on any given day. 

The root of empathy is not only being aware that you are working with others, but caring about them. If these were people on the street, you could be sympathetic to them. You’re with your students for months, though, so you know what they’re feeling with psychic precision. You know when they’re tired, frustrated, distracted, or homesick, and you want to help them. People will ask you how you know. Do you “sense” things? Are you trained in emotional intelligence? Usually, you just talk to your students and try to understand their story.

Designers, like teachers, need to understand their users better than users understand themselves. Empathy in design is about caring and therefore understanding who your work is for. It’s impossible to design a good experience with apathy.

Being relevant to your audience

Especially when you’re teaching writing or public speaking, you focus on the audience. You have your students ask themselves: Who are you speaking to? What are you telling them? Why the fuck should they care? And you ask yourself those same questions that you asked your students every day before you get up in front of them. You have to design your activities and lessons to communicate what’s useful, but more importantly, why it’s relevant. You spend a lot of time connecting ideas to what’s happened in your class, but also to things outside of your class because all of your students have lives as unique as your own. When you understand how your students relate to your class, you can invest your time and energy on activities that help them instead of on some new technique you just read about that they’ll be indifferent to. For example, when you know that your class is a safe space in a foreign university for some of your students, but a perceived waste of time and money for others, you can frame it differently for both audiences at the same time. It can be a chance to practice new skills and to improve the ones that they think they’ve mastered, but they won’t see it that way till you tell them.

Design shows people what’s relevant and why. If you don’t consider your audience, then why the fuck should they care?

3

Read between the lines

When you’re talking with native speakers of your language, it’s hard enough to communicate without misunderstanding. There’s body language, tone of voice, facial microexpressions, and your ex’s sarcasm. When you’re teaching non-native speakers of your language, especially when it’s a group who don’t all speak the same native language, you have to be psychic. You have to make assumptions about why they’re saying something to figure out what they’re saying. That way, you can help them communicate with other teachers, plus you have magic to translate the joke that your student said in French-English to the Korean-English or Chinese-English that your other students understand. 

A large part of reading between the lines is assuming that people are cooperating with you in the conversation. If that fails, you ask for clarification. This helps you have productive conversations because it removes the doubts about the relevance and purpose behind each other’s comments. For example, if your Asian students ask your Middle Eastern students about Muslim women covering their heads in public, maybe it’s because they don’t know much about Islam and would like to know more. Maybe it’s also an opportunity for your otherwise reticent Muslim students to share their expertise and beliefs. And if the students were actually criticizing each others’ culture, then it’s a good thing you just changed the conversation into a learning experience.

When you understand the relationship between what people say, what they mean, and what it can be interpreted to mean, you have the power to turn arguments into useful conversations.

4

Leadership is not about you

I think the best explanation of what leadership is to you as a teacher is:

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” —Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Often, the class you’re teaching is not the reason why someone is taking your class. Your class is required, so you have to figure out why it’s required, what value the students might get from your class, and how you can help them recognize and appreciate that value. You tie your assignments to their goals, and if that fails, to the course’s goals. Another way to say it:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Your job as a teacher requires you to motivate other individuals. It involves balancing intrinsic motivators like being part of a group and feeling accomplishment with extrinsic motivators like grades and even praise. 

Another part of leadership in teaching is recognizing other people’s strengths and weaknesses because you’re a person-optimizer. You can leverage someone’s strengths to improve their weaknesses and build advanced skills on top of foundational skills. You help people who are learning to speak better by tapping into their love of watching The Big Bang Theory (Why, god, do all of them love Big Bang Theory?). You draw out people’s narrative skills by having them tell you about something that happened to a classmate. And when you’ve helped someone with lower-order behaviors (spelling, pronunciation, verb tenses, etc.), you can help them integrate their current skills into higher-order behaviors (telling stories, persuading, presenting). As the semester goes on, you feel both accomplished and somber because you’ve made yourself progressively less necessary, and you hope they’ll keep improving after you.

Your success often comes from making the people you work with successful, perhaps as much as from when you get shit done.

5

Constant personal and professional development

You read about new research on how people learn, about new activities for your classroom, and about new technologies and platforms like flipped classrooms and Massive Open Online Courses. You try, or would like to try, a lot of them. You’re not interested in the next big thing; you have educational values, and you want to maximize your time spent on effective activities. It’s your Teacher’s Pareto Principle: let’s say you think that 80% of the insights students have don’t come from lecturing, but from when you answer questions that come up in class while they’re working on a project, but you only spend 20% of your time doing that. Of course you’re going to try everything you can to reorganize your activities to optimize your use of class time. And every new thing you try is an experiment, so you’re excited. Even if a new activity doesn’t go as well as planned, you can reflect to learn something useful about that lesson, your class, and yourself.

To return to the topic of motivation, but this time from a personal perspective: you know what’s disappointing? When people are struggling and don’t understand you even though you’re trying really hard to reach them. You know what’s fucking brilliant? That moment in flow when they do. This combined sense of purpose, progress, and competence is why you’re motivated as a teacher, and it’s why you’re self-motivated to learn.

You have to figure out what you value and strive for your personal interpretation of success. Experiment.

6

Finally, being comfortable changing roles

Teachers have a unique relationship that involves a conflict between the power of the position and an intimate relationship that comes from being so close to people for so long. Do you mind if students add you on Facebook ? Will you go to their birthday party barbecue? What do you say when you run into them under a redwood tree in Muir Woods? And because you meet so many people, you get to see all they ways they relate to you. Do they think you’re strict? Pedantic? Funny? Attentive? It’s hard for the average person to balance who they are with how other people see them, but you have the experience of being many things to many people. 

“You’re born naked, and the rest is drag.” — Ru Paul

You are funny and serious. You eat dinner with students — after all the papers have been graded. You teach, and you listen when your students teach you. Your identity is more nuanced than a rigid persona, and you can recognize that in other people, so you know that even though you have professional relationships, the people you work with matter, too.

Relationships and authenticity are more important than titles or positions.

Ultimately, Reflection:

 

Both teaching and design require a diverse set of skills and more agility than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. They require action with intention. I can’t say which intentions are inherently better than others. I can say, though, that because my main intention is effectiveness, I can focus on the people I help instead of myself or my position. I also can’t say that I’m the most effective designer or teacher. I can say, though, that I am always learning to be more effective through reflection. While teaching, I learned that reflecting helped me focus on the root causes of what was effective and why instead of getting stuck in a routine of lessons I’d taught before. When I started designing, I realized how important that same reflection was for managing my time and energy for creative work, collaboration, and presenting work. In the spirit of community, I share some questions that have helped me:

  1. Who does your work communicate with? What are their goals? What is the context for your work? And why the fuck should your audience care about it?
  2. What is effective, and in what situations? How do you know it’s effective?
  3. What do you value in the work that you do? Why? What assumptions are you making about the sources of value? How can you increase the amount of effort you spend on what you think brings value? (the Pareto Principle again)

I hope these questions can be as useful to others as they have been for me. And if you have more great questions, dear reader, please send them to me. And please attach cat gifs.

Clarke Hyrne is a UX designer in San Francisco. This post previously appeared on his website. Critiques, comments, and discussion are welcome and invited.