How teaching prepares you for a non-academic job

As an educator at the University of Kansas, I developed a number of skills that are highly transferable to  life outside of academia, and that’s our topic for the day.

What goes into preparing a course?

Most students take for granted the class they are taken as if the class has always existed and that particular instructor has always taught it. In reality, there is a long and methodical process into getting a class just right.

1. Setting up and communicating goals

Every class should have a set of clear, measurable and attainable goals in mind. If this sounds familiar, you are right! This is the most fundamental step of any project management. I treat my classes as projects, my students as the audience and the learning objectives as the end goals.

2. Syllabus as a contract

In conducting this project (course) there are multiple parties involved: the instructor, the students, the department, the university. Whenever parties gather to interact towards an objective but may have occasional diverging incentives, a contract works to reduce the uncertainty and put everyone on the same page (no pun intended). A course syllabus does just that. It establishes the rights and responsibilities of parties involved, the objectives, the timeline, the milestones and capstone, evaluation method and overall guidelines. Designing a syllabus comprises a variety of different skills, many of which are discussed in following sections within this post.

3. Supporting Materials

There are many things that fall under this umbrella of supporting materials. It is mostly about finding the necessary items to enhance the learning experience and skills development. This may range from choosing a textbook to selecting articles and papers and the appropriate media vehicle for the particular task/learning outcome in mind. Take a look at my post Using Kahoot in the Classroom for some examples.

4. Backwards Design

Once the objectives have been set and agreed upon; it is necessary to identify the necessary steps to both make sure the objectives have been reached (benchmark, milestones and capstone) as well as the appropriate way to assess its success.  I use a technique called backwards design, which essentially starts with the end goal in mind and divides it into smaller, attainable subcategories.

5. Timelines

Just like most projects, designing a course involves designing an appropriate timeline that is compatible with the the end goals, the milestones, and the participants’ ability to reach them within a certain time frame. Backwards design certainly helps with much of designing the timeline; but a key component of successful putting together an appropriate timeline involves knowing the students/team. You want to establish ambitious goals within the reach of the project participants, and make sure to account for some potential unforeseen circumstances as well as some scaffolding.

6. Communication Skills

Pierre Martineau once said “The great enemy of communication is the illusion of it.” and he was absolutely right. Teaching hasn’t happened if learning hasn’t taken place, and the only way both students and instructors will have accomplished the learning goals is by thoroughly communicating. This amazing ability to turn complex concepts into intuitive key words is the main skill required from an instructor; which is also one of the most transferable skills in a multidisciplinary environment of most workplaces.

7. Multimedia

It used to be that teaching was simply lectures in which the students would metaphorically try to climb further and higher towards this source of knowledge (the instructor). Sharing information and disseminating knowledge has truly become an art involving a multitude of media sources. In between slide presentations, Kahoot!, videos, and written class-notes; instructors are exposed and deal with quite a diversified portfolio of means of communication. It also isn’t just about learning how to use these various media sources, but mainly about knowing the best time and context to optimize communication and content assimilation. Having the audience in mind and being able to assess the best pedagogical resource to get the point across and be memorable.

8. Scaffolding

With any project that challenges the participants it also comes the ability to provide appropriate scaffolding. There is definitely a fine tuning to it that is developed over time and is a fundamental pedagogical tool in best business practices such as mentoring and coaching. Leaving students with an ambitious task without making sure they have enough building blocks to complete it will certainly backfire. Providing too much scaffolding inhibits the ability of students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

9. Mentoring

It would be a gross mistake to treat your students as blank canvases. They each have a lifelong goal and a career plan that somehow taking your class fits into it. Mentoring students such that they can make the most out of the course, give advice on how to succeed inside and outside the classroom, and help them reach their career objectives is part of any effective teaching.

10. Catering to a diverse audience

The ability to celebrate instead of fear diversity in teaching and product management is certainly something I’ve learned to appreciate more and more.  Students aren’t blank sheets of paper, they bring their stories, their experiences and world views to the classroom. The same is true with any teams within work environments. But how to let this work in your advantage instead of copiously trying to bring everyone into the “same page?” Focus on what is important! In order to work together people don’t need to think on the same manner or have the same opinions as each other. Rather, they need to have the same common objective and guidelines. This way, as the instructor or team leader, you’ll be able to witness something amazing happening: the diversity of ways in which people develop solutions and collaborate with one another, using exactly what sets them apart from each other to achieve greatness beyond your own expectations.

11. Fostering a conducive work environment

Being in front of the classroom isn’t merely about delivering content. A big part of the work is in creating and fostering a conducive work environment; in which students are engaged with the topic, are providing constant feedback of their understanding, and are putting their newly acquired skills in practice.

12. Supervising Team Work

It is encouraged to get your students to work in groups as a means to develop their ability to work in teams; but this also develops a fundamental transferable skill to the instructor to any leadership position. The goal for the final project is established by the instructor and delivered to the students. Any miscommunication about the guidelines and parameters for the project will yield unsatisfactory results. Moreover, in order to be successful at the fulfillment of group work, instructors ought to provide the necessary scaffolding. Coaching students on particularly challenging and long projects is necessary and a vital part of the process.

13. Assessment vs. Grading

So often the attention in the learning process is on the final grade. In teaching, just like most projects, you don’t want to wait until the end to see how things are going. Assessments are designed to verify progress, to provide subsidy for plan adjustments, and to verify which areas still need attention. In corporate environments we often observe these types of tools such as Balanced Score Card. I have dedicated myself to design and implement various assessment techniques; each targeted to a specific goal to be monitored.

14. Evaluations

360° feedback in large organizations are a common theme. For constant improvement it is necessary to be open to constructive criticism and suggestion. Teaching evaluations do just that; by providing feedback from students every semester and helping improve the teaching process every time.

The bottom line

The primary takeaway from this is realizing that in any work environment there is information transfer and knowledge exchange. A little pedagogy, though often overlooked and underappreciated, can substantially improve the quality of results within any organization.

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