To be a good teacher, be a student.

Here’s a paradox in learning that I have come to understand, at a deeper level: to be an effective teacher, one must be a student.

What does it mean?

It means that learning never stops and to effectively embody what it means to teach, one must continuously humble oneself, keep an open mind and challenge oneself.

Let me illustrate this, from my own personal experience.

When I became a full-time faculty member in 2017, teaching for a living, I thought I knew a lot. Yes, I did. Both my academic training, writing and publishing and lived experience – in three countries, had given me enough theoretical and practical knowledge to share with my students a few things about the world. Of course, I had the credentials to prove it – a PhD, two Masters degrees from a top school of public policy.

I was confident in my abilities that I could meet the benchmarks set by my university and my own personal benchmarks in terms of doing justice, to my role.

The lived experiences of many of my students were very different from my own. I had grown up in India, lived in the Middle East for a few years and had lived in many American cities over the past decade, before moving to SoCal.

How could I really relate to these 20-year-old (or 30-year-olds) in the classroom, who saw the world vastly differently, than me? Many of them had never lived anywhere other than their county/city.

What could I do, to relate to them, better? What strategies might work, for me to understand and appreciate the pain points of these students – some of whom are the next generation – speaking of feeling old!

I thought long and hard about this.

The answer came to me slowly.

But as I continued to teach and learn, I realized a crucial detail: I couldn’t rely on my own experiences, as rich as they were, to fully communicate and teach students all that I wanted. There was always a gap between when I knew, what I thought I knew and what was going on, around me. I had to be immersed in what Pierre Bourdieu would call a “habitus,” a community of learning.

 The habitus of a scholar and teacher is slightly different from that of a student. I learnt that to be effective, I had to embody both, simultaneously.

One insight occurred to me: I could be a student, like them. Hangout with them (not my students, of course). I had to learn to see the world through their eyes.

This meant I had to go back to school. Again. After a PhD a two Masters Degrees. Some might consider this crazy.

But, why not?

I realized that since I have not developed my creative side, I should pick up a skill/hobby that I have always wanted to, and this turned out to be photography.

So, as I teach, I have enrolled in photography classes at a local community college. This has been one of the best decisions of my adult life, and also as a teacher. And I’ve taken some stunning photos of products, such as these and these.

What I see, hear and experience as a student is helping me understand and appreciate my students.

When I do the pre-semester survey around housing challenges that many students face, I realize that this could be happening with some of my own students. When I get excited about a photo competition that I apply to, I think of my own students and what challenges may excite them, as learners. When I fail at some assignments/ don’t do as well as I thought I would do, I remember that this may be how some of my own students may feel.

Most importantly, I am learning that to be a student, again, is to re-learn the important skill of humbling oneself before someone and saying “I don’t know it all.” This is a powerful attitude of mind and a skill that we will need, going forward.

We will need all the humility we can muster as technologies change and transform our work places, displace people, jobs and careers.

This humility and attitude of continuous learning can also make us better human beings.

Here’s some proof of doing, some photos I took recently, of a product for @tlalipani

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