Because I’ve been in learning/absorbing mode lately, I thought I’d touch on the subject of teachers. Into this category, you can throw in all sorts of people, if you think about it: not just the actual paid teachers from your elementary, high school, or college years, but also parents, relatives, work leaders, coaches, mentors, authors, on-the-job trainers, and many others. You can think of a teacher as someone who, after you encountered them and they imparted something to you, you thought differently.
Why should teachers matter within the scope of technical writing?
While we might, as people, be the sum of our experiences, inheritances, and assumptions about the two, we also are, to a great extent, the products of the people who taught us. The lessons we learn from teachers can affect how we operate as professionals and as people. Our teachers can serve as examples–good and not so good–for how we behave and create. And let’s face it: as technical communicators, the odds are more than favorable that we will end up teaching others as well, either formally or informally. We pass along our intellectual DNA, which is inherited from many sources.
Our first teachers
For most people, our parents become our first writing teachers, simply by reading to us or correcting our homework as we struggle to learn our alphabet, words, grammar, sentences, paragraphs, essays, and other projects on the way up the chain. Our parents’ attitudes toward learning can affect how we approach writing–as a pleasure, a chore, or a form of torture. I was fortunate to have a couple of somewhat bookish parents who had great respect for the written word, handled well. (True story: one time my father had my sister and me look up words in the dictionary as a game.) While not writers themselves, they were clearly spoken in their use of the language, and those patterns shaped how I put words on paper today.
Not everyone is so lucky. I know of people who grew up with parents who dreaded writing, or worse, who were hostile to learning: “Don’t get getting too big for your britches” being their general attitude–in other words, “Don’t go trying to get smarter than me or putting on airs because you’ve had some education.” Others can have parents who go too far in the other direction and try to push a young person beyond their abilities too soon and thereby shame the child who is unable to reach impossible standards. Others have well-meaning parents but grow up with dyslexia or other challenge that is overlooked because people don’t want to take the time to address the problem. Learning to write well isn’t impossible under those circumstances, but it can be quite difficult and require a lot of personal dedication and passion to overcome.
The point here being: our original teachers–our parents–can and do have a large impact on how we approach our role as a communicator. If some of your attitudes are very strong or set, odds are you can trace that back to your original teachers.
Teachers in school
Your formal teachers for the basics, like your parents, are people you don’t choose for yourself. You have no control over the content, teaching methods, or grading mechanisms. If you and your teachers are persistent, you can and will learn. (Science fiction author Jerry Pournelle likes to tell the story of his mother, who taught farm children in rural Tennessee, and over her years of teaching, there was only one she could not teach to read and write. “Though he wasn’t able to learn much else, either.”)
If you’re very fortunate, you encountered teachers who are exceptional at recognizing skills, challenging those skills, and inspiring students with specific skills to improve them. That’s true about teachers you had in school and just about any other person you learn from over the course of your life. Not every teacher “inspires” in the same way. Sometimes you learn to improve just to avoid public humiliation in front of your peers as the teacher insults your work in front of all of them. Sometimes a teacher provides negative inspiration (expiration?), where their teaching methods manage to prevent or turn you off from learning. I was lucky to have several teachers along the way who could get me to channel my abilities, do my homework, or improve the quality of my work (I was and am quite lazy when it suits me).
I think, if anything, academic teachers give us our strongest impressions of the mechanics of writing and thinking skills. Positively or negatively, those individuals affect how you approach the formal rules of your trade.
Authors–teachers you find on your own
People who write for a living also tend to be avid readers. Those black lines on the white paper call out to us, beckoning us to understand them and learn more. That collection of authors, from Dr. Seuss on up, teach us subtly about how writing works–or doesn’t work. As we read more and more, we learn what we like, both in terms of subject matter and style. Our innate interests draw us to particular topics, and the skills of particular authors draw us to more of their particular works.
Early on, I developed an interest in transportation–cars, boats, and airplanes. From there, it wasn’t much of a stretch to get me interested in rockets and spacecraft. Eventually, I grew interested in the genre of science fiction and most other types of fiction bored me from that point on. Still, if you look at my book collection, in addition to SF, you will also find a lot of philosophy, politics, and history, followed by a smattering of other genres. This mishmash of writings has given me a rather academic, technological focus to my writing; and for whatever reason I’ve been drawn to writers who are excellent in conveying technical information intellectually, if not visually. As a result, I’m not the flashiest writer when it comes to physical descriptions or emotional depth (note that I am a technical writer by trade, not a novelist).
The thing is, consciously and unconsciously, our writing style quirks and obsessions are often drawn from the books and authors we read. If you find your style lacking in some areas, you might need to find other books and other authors.
All of our other teachers are primarily informal or people not necessarily trained as educators, from managers and peers to customers and random strangers. Our dealings with our peers are what teach us–again, with the inevitable mixed results–how we interact with others. A supportive family life can provide confidence in dealing with other people while a long string of bullies can make us cautious in certain situations. Yet still: we learn.
A coworker of mine whom I was training to take over my job actually helped me with the process. I was stuck in a corporate writing style and trying to get her to write in the same way. Frustrated by my approach, she asked, “Why don’t you just say what you mean?” The question helped shake loose my emphasis on style and shift my focus to meaning. The transition process went better after that, and I’ve carried that approach with me since then.
Sometimes we learn lessons from friends, peers, or coworkers that we would rather not–like misplacing trust with an untrustworthy person or discovering that a specific person is not meant to be the love of your life. Again, such lessons are not always pleasant, but our experience with those particular “teachers” can identify a weakness in how you behave and “inspire” you to act differently in the future. We all have our moods and our attitudes when it comes to dealing with people, but our teachers in human interactions will often guide what we do with them.
Seeing yourself as a teacher
Looking back on your own teachers, you might find yourself repeating some of their most important lessons when teaching others. Therefore, it’s worth considering who your teachers have been and what lessons you’ve learned from them. Perhaps you had good teachers and can share a lot of positive wisdom from them. Perhaps you had a lot of bad teachers and have a desire to share lessons on “what not to do.” If the “lessons” you share with others are not going over well, perhaps it’s time to unlearn some of the lessons that shaped your past and acquire some new teachers–a new mentor, perhaps, who can help you identify ways for you to improve how you operate and what ideas you share with others.
I spent a single semester teaching Business Writing at University of Alabama-Huntsville. I tried to teach as I would have preferred to be taught (not always a good approach, but what the heck, it was my first time at the front of the classroom). And while I learned early on that I didn’t have the right disposition for teaching, I did try to incorporate the practices or behaviors of my favorite teachers from back in the day. And so, if my sense of humor sometimes got the better of me in the classroom, I at least tried to challenge my students to think. Mind you, not everyone appreciated that mindset (“We don’t all want to be professional writers”), but that was my intent.
In the workplace and even in my nonprofit activities, I’ve been eager to share what I know about the operation, partly because I like to and partly because I’m lazy and am quite content for more than one person to know what I know so people don’t keep coming to me. That was a side-effect of a lesson I learned from a peer who enjoyed being “the expert” on something: everyone had to go to him for particular types of information, and he held that information close, like a miser. I found that mindset selfish and counterproductive, he saw it as “job security.” The point being, as a professional communicator, you are constantly applying lessons from the teachers in your life and passing on those lessons to others. Therefore, it makes sense to learn and teach the best lessons you can.