Teaching: an Overloaded Word

One thing I feel people get wrong about “Be the Master” is around teaching.

The word “teaching” gets a bad rap in many organizations, because nearly everyone immediately visualizes a classroom environment. They start to worry about resources, like where they’ll find room for it, and how they’ll set aside time for everyone to basically take off work and go into class. That’s not what teaching should mean, but I get that all of our cultural experiences tell us that’s what it is.

“Mentoring” gets more love in most organizations, but I still dislike it. Mentor was a dude in “The Odyssey,” and his student wasn’t named “Mentee.” And mentoring STILL creates that toxic “teacher-versus-student” vibe, where one person is demonstrably better than the other.

In most true apprenticeships, teaching isn’t a formal thing you set aside time for, go into a different room for, and so on. Teaching isn’t one person being set above another. In a true Master/apprentice relationship, it’s just people working together. One of them likely has more experience than the other, but they can both learn from each other.

When I worked as an aircraft mechanic apprentice, I worked alongside a journeyman or Master mechanic. They taught me a lot, much of which wasn’t in our extensive manuals on how to assemble the aircraft. The “tricks of the trade,” so to speak. Yet even as a first-year apprentice, I could contribute, because I was never made to feel like I was in a traditional classroom environment where my instructor was “superior” to me. A good example: there are a couple of hard-to-reach spots in an F-14, and you have to snake your hand up through machinery to install cotter keys in the end of bolts. It’s hard, because you can’t really get any tools in there, so you have to bend the end of the cotter key by hand. I suggested snaking a piece of safety wire up and round the cotter key, and then yanking down on it to bend the key’s “leg” down. “Huh,” the guy I was working with said. “Let’s try it.” It worked, and it called a couple other mechanics over to show them.

If you read “Timothy the Blacksmith” again in “Be the Master,” you’ll see that Timothy and Edmund learned from each other, and though Timothy was in the “superior” position in the smithy. THAT is what apprenticeship and Mastery is all about. It’s teaching in that it’s knowledge transfer, but it’s not a class, it’s not a “lunch and learn” session, and it’s not “mentoring.” It’s simply working alongside someone, showing them what to do but also letting them actually do it – and paying attention to their observations. Apprentices often bring a fresh, unbiased view to their work, and it’s useful to have them articulate that view. It’s a good way to have “ah-ha!” moments and change your perspective on something that you’ve just gotten in a rut about.

A true Master/apprentice relationship doesn’t require you to take time away from work to teach; you teach AS PART OF that work. Working and teaching as there exact same thing. Sure, it takes a little longer to get things done, because you’re letting your apprentice do some of the work, and they’re just learning how. But it’s nothing like hauling everyone into a classroom and talking at them for a few days, hoping they remember it all, and then tossing them onto the job. Because apprentices get to work right along their Master, and because they get an opportunity to make mistakes (which their Master will catch and correct), they actually learn faster and more thoroughly than the “tried and true” classroom approach.

It’s 30 years later and I can STILL absolutely remember which actuator in an F-14 needs that safety wire trick.

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