Those who can, teach.
Can you remember a favourite teacher from your schooldays? Someone who inspired you? Someone who really made a difference in your life?
For me it was Mr Dearman at my junior school. We called him Doddy. He taught us science and let us do practical stuff that was really exciting, not just prescribed experiments out of textbooks.
Teachers are often among the most memorable characters from our childhoods, for good or ill. And the act of teaching is a particularly selfless one.
If you are being paid, well, there are easier ways to earn a living. If you aren’t, then it’s already freighted with altruism.
At work, though, we forget about teaching. Instead we have this activity called training. We attend, or run, training courses. Someone trains us to perform a specific task, creating pivot tables in Excel, perhaps, or interviewing graduates.
Training is for dogs. Stimulus, response, reward. Stimulus, response, reward. Stimulus, response, reward. Over and over again until the response is conditioned. Then you cancel the reward and you still get the response.
Not much of a way to treat adult human beings.
But teaching? Teaching is an intellectually, emotionally and often physically involving activity. It depends on consent and mutual respect. And it yields deep and lasting changes in the way people behave.
I am a writer by trade. And when I am not writing, I am teaching. HR departments frequently want to talk about training, which is fine. But when I describe what I do I always talk about teaching people to write better.
Writing is a fundamental part of any advanced society. Which makes people who can’t write feel excluded (which they are).
About 15 years ago I took a course in teaching adult literacy. I wanted to do some voluntary work and a friend suggested this might be a suitable avenue for my talents.
It is very humbling, as a university-educated professional, to sit with somebody who, for whatever reason, simply didn’t ‘get’ writing (and reading) at school. And who has the guts to admit that fact and come to an evening class to get help.
After we had children of our own, I also spent some time helping out at their primary school, working with children, especially those who were struggling, on their reading and writing.
Being pointed out in the playground to their Mum or Dad – “There’s Mr Maslen – he’s helping me write my story” – gave me a real sense of having made a small difference to one child’s chances.
Does your job fulfill your every need, intellectual, emotional, financial and social? Or do you ever wonder somehow whether “there’s more to it than this”?
You have many skills I’m sure, and virtually all of them can be shared – taught to others.
Are numbers your thing? Are you a really good organiser? Do you work with words, as I do? Are you super-empathetic? Or a fixer?
Ask yourself, “Who could benefit from being able to do this thing that I do so well?” and then think about where the opportunities are for you to teach them.
Whether you get paid for your teaching or not is almost beside the point. The rewards are immediate and palpable, the moment you see the person you’re teaching nod in understanding, or smile as they realise they have done something they had given up ever being able to master.
Having the opportunity to teach – for an hour or a morning or a day – is like having a butterfly land on your outstretched palm.
The effect is amazing. Yet it doesn’t require seniority, or letters after your name, or the biggest SUV in the executive car park.
Just a willingness to provide a place where somebody else can benefit from what you have to offer.
Andy Maslen is the managing director of Sunfish – a business writing agency – and also runs his Copywriting Academy, an online learning centre for writers who want to improve their skills. He is the author of four books on copywriting and speaks regularly on communicating with the written word. Find out more here.