Here I Go Again

21 Oct

Photo by DMT

Teacher, teach thyself.

I spend a great deal of time trying to teach students to “go with the flow” and accept that the only thing we can control are our own responses to situations.  But I also recognize that this is much easier said than done, since, for those of us who like to feel like we’re in control of our lives, change can be incredibly challenging.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had to let go and trust that the changes that are happening are going to make my life better, but I’ll tell you, it ain’t easy.

I spent this past weekend training to begin my second job, which involves selling computer technology. While it was exciting and invigorating, I kept asking myself whether or not this was going to not only interfere with my dream of moving to New York, but also if I was being asked to do something that goes against who I am and how I view the world.

One of the things I have always dreaded about shopping is walking into a store and feeling pressured by pushy salespeople to “buy, buy, buy!”  In fact, in my experience, the pushiness of sales people is precisely the thing that will cause me to turn and leave without buying anything – even if I need it.

I’m pretty stubborn.

I understand that, on a basic level, selling involves educating people in order give them the information they need to make a purchase, but I wasn’t sure if I was someone who could participate in pushing people to buy things. As a result, the intellectually idealistic part of me argued with the pragmatic realist part of me all weekend.

As a teacher, part of my job is to “sell knowledge,” and since I do this in a proprietary institution, the sales feature is a large part of what I do, but it’s never felt like the main purpose.  I’ve always viewed education as a free and open exchange of ideas, rather than the process of “selling a product.”  I don’t go into the classroom with the notion that I have to convert students to my way of thinking because, for me, that feels like an abuse of knowledge and power.  My goal has always been to give students the information they need in order to make decisions that will benefit them.  How they use that information is entirely up to them.

However, I’ve also come to recognize that part of my job is to show students the value of the education they’ve purchased.  If they can’t see the value and, as a result, decide not to continue to pay for access to the information my school offers, then I will be out of a job.  Coming to that realization made me feel uncomfortable, at first, because it made the relationship between education and economics uncomfortably clear.  It’s not an open and free exchange of ideas. In the end, it’s a service that people are paying for and my job involves selling that service to the best of my ability.

What I realized is that my primary concern was with what I view as the ethical responsibility of educating people.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t view myself as any more ethical than the next person, I just know what I believe and every day I do the best I can to adhere to the beliefs that my conscience can bear.  If I can look myself in the eye every day and honestly say that I’ve treated people in a way that recognizes and respects their human dignity, then I’m satisfied I’ve done the best I can.  If I don’t feel that I have done that, then I admit my mistakes, evaluate what needs to be changed, and improve the next time.

My Cultural Diversity class happened to provide me with one of these teachable moments this past week.

This class is an evening class that runs from 8:30-10:30 two nights a week, and has 40 students registered, and on this particular evening we’d engaged in a lively discussion about the challenges related to becoming culturally diverse.  The class engaged in an exciting conversation, and I’d had to remind people not to talk over one another a number of times.  At the tail end of the discussion, two young men [who’ve been in classes with me before, and are good students] had a side conversation going while I was trying to explain the directions for the quiz that was to be given during the next class period.  Without asking any questions, I turned and barked at them, “Stop talking!  NOW!”  And they did.

Later, I felt guilty about my reaction.  Not because I’d wanted them to be quite while I was giving directions, but because I felt like I’d failed to model the kind of professional behavior that I want students to adopt, and because I felt like I’d missed something important.  Over the next few days, I thought about why I’d reacted the way I had, and came to the conclusion that it was the result of a number of factors – one of which I could actually change.

I realized that one of the problems with the large group discussion was that while, in theory, it gave everyone a chance to talk and listen to what others had to say about a particular issue, it really didn’t get students involved in an active sense.  The sheer number of students in the class combined with the limited time we have, means that those who wanted to participate had to wait their turn to be called on, and with a discussion like this, there was a lot to say.  I could see that in a late-night classroom full of students who, for the most part, are experiential learners, this could be frustrating, thus the side conversations.

So, I came into the next class period and admitted my mistake.  The guys I’d barked at didn’t even remember what had happened, and that made me laugh.  Then I informed the class that as a result of my epiphany, we were going to change it up a bit and get everyone more involved in the discussion.  I assigned small groups a portion of the information we were covering that class period, and made them responsible for making sense of a few key points and then explaining these points to the rest of the class.  As I watched the groups discuss their topics, I was able to see that students who had been quiet during the large group discussion now felt more comfortable talking and students who wanted to talk were talking. As an added bonus, while they wrestled with the ideas I was able to move around the room and push them toward developing more nuanced explanations, which they later shared with their classmates.  Overall it was a successful change, but it also made it clear to me that I am in the business of “selling knowledge,” and I have to make it useful to my “consumers” in order for them to “make a purchase.”

What made me connect all of this?

I spend a lot of time thinking about things – obviously.  I am constantly looking for new ways to learn and teach, but it was the push I got from the weekend training for my new job that helped me make the concrete connection.  I realized this new job will be something that I’ve already been doing.  It will utilize my teaching skills since I’ll be working for a corporation whose belief is that they “enrich people’s lives” – and the extent to which they believe this means that they don’t have to try and sell anything.  At the end of the weekend training, I was shocked to learn that there are no numbers or quotas for the sales people to meet.  The job of sales people in this company is to provide people with the information they need in order to make decisions that will improve their lives.

That’s it.

At my new job they actually believe that “those who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world – are the ones who do” and as a result the profit this company makes is viewed as the logical by-product of treating people with kindness, dignity and respect.

My conscience can definitely live with that.

One Year to Move Soundtrack

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