Tribute: What My Dad Taught Me About Teaching

“Okay, this is the best place for you to learn how to use a stick shift…”

I looked up to see my early childhood home, the barn where I’d helped my dad milk cows, and the corrals where I’d helped him deliver calves. I smiled as all of those memories floated across my mind’s eye and we pulled into the long, straight hay lane.

I’d learned how to drive the automatic in the mountains where we were living, but the car he wanted me to use regularly was a stick with a sporty turbo engine. Lots of power in this little car, and he wanted me to learn how to wield all that responsibility on a flat straight surface.

“So the first thing you need to know is that this takes some time to master. You’re probably going to stall the car a few times and feel frustrated, and that’s normal. You’ll get it. You picked up the automatic really quickly, and I know you can do this too.”

I nodded at him in understanding and smiled to let him know that I appreciated that he knew me: I was accustomed to picking things up very quickly and became frustrated pretty easily when something was harder than normal. (Some things never change!)

“Now, here’s what you’re going to do. I want you to slide your seat back and watch my feet. The stick is all about timing – sliding the clutch off,” he lifted his left food and pointed at it, “and pressing the gas down at just the right time,” he finished as he pointed at his right foot that was pressing the gas and beginning to move the car forward.

That looks easy enough, I thought to myself as he picked up speed, hauled ass down the hay lane, and then stopped the car.

He repeated this process at least a half-dozen times before smiling at me, “You ready?”

“I think so…” I said as I opened passenger door.

After I adjusted the driver’s seat, I started the car the way he had shown me and tried to reproduce the smooth “clutch off, gas on” action I’d just witnessed.

Lurch! The car stalled.

“It’s okay,” he said when he saw me startle. “Try to go even slower. You’re gonna have to do this slowly until it becomes automatic.”

Lurch. Stall. Lurch. Stall. Lurch. Stall. Every time, he’d offer assurance and another tip for making it easier. After a half-dozen little whiplashes, and watching me manage my escalating frustration, he decided to take a new approach.

“Turn off the car.”

Oh crap. I wondered if he was getting ready to give up on me.

“Now close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.” He waited for me to calm down before continuing, “Now, I want you to imagine your feet and the pedals just in front of them. You see them?” I nodded yes. “Okay, good. Now in your mind, I want you to watch your feet the way you watched mine. See the left food sliding off the clutch until that moment when you feel it grab, and then push the right down on the gas…” I nodded to let him know I was doing what he said. “Good, now repeat that in your mind until you feel like you know how to do it. When you feel ready, open your eyes.”

I took a few minutes to see this in my mind. It wasn’t a strange exercise for me, as he’d used visualization with me while helping me learn how to sink a free throw, memorize a list for a test, and even hit the 100-point hole in our favorite game of ski-ball.

When I opened my eyes, I felt like I knew exactly what I needed to do. And I did it.

“All right!” he exclaimed as the car moved forward and picked up some speed. “Now stop the car by putting your left foot on the clutch and your right on the brake.”

We screeched to a halt.

“That was great. You could slow down more easily next time. But let’s do it a few more times.” And we did. I practiced until I went a good dozen times without stalling.

“Okay, now, you can ramp up some speed, and when you hear the engine working too hard, I want you to put the clutch down, and put yourself in second gear.” He moved the stick shift between us to second gear and motioned for me to do it a few times while the car was stopped. “Why don’t you close your eyes and visualize that before you start?”

The first time I hit second gear, he said, “Okay, now go to third the same way.” And I did.

Ooooooooh, it felt so good to hear that little turbo engine racing down the hay lane and feel the wind on my face.

We practiced for at least another hour before he said, “Okay, you got it! Time for ice cream. Why don’t you drive us to the ice cream place?”

A few years later, I was watching him teach
his human performance stuff
to a small group of my college friends
and witnessing the experience through the lens of
what I was learning as a teacher-in-training.

Wow. He’s a really good teacher…

First, he chose a safe setting and environment that made the students feel comfortable and open…just like he’d done by taking me to the hay lane near my childhood home. The informality of my living room and the couches made everyone feel like they were at home and could relax.

Then, he created rapport and safety and set very clear expectations for the group and our time together…just like he’d done by telling me what to expect in the process of learning to drive a stick. He told them his own story – how he came upon this human performance stuff and how he’d used it to over-achieve in sports, academics, and work – and then he told them he was going to teach them the skills they needed to do the same, that it was a process, and that they would get it if they practiced it.

Then, just like he’d done in the hay lane those first few rides up and down them, he modeled the power of his stuff by memorizing lists of numbers, and even throwing a ball and hitting the target square-on repeatedly.

And then, just like he’d done from the driver’s seat of my first car, he assessed readiness and got permission for the experience by asking for a volunteer.

Then, he made learning the concepts he’d just taught an experience AND gave them tips for improving…just like he’d done by putting me behind the wheel and telling me to try it slower. He brought up the volunteer and took them through a few experiences to show them what their mind and body were really capable of.

And then, just like he did with me when I wasn’t quite getting it, he asked them to close their eyes and visualize themselves doing the activity until they felt like they actually could.

When they came up to a challenge, he used their prior knowledge, experience, and skills to build on…just like he’d done by using the visualization skill with me in the hay lane. It was a skill I’d used successfully before, so tapping back into that skill meant tapping back into the experience of success that was associated with it. With my friends, he’d connect what they were learning with something they were already good at to tap into that feeling of success, so they could use it in this skill-building process.

And just like he did with me when I finally got the car moving, he praised them as they continued to practice the skill until they got it into their bones before building in the next layer of concepts and skills.

And then he would build the next skill in the same way he built the first, just like he did when it was time to learn how to change gears. Now that they were in the flow of the learning experience he’d set up, he used their comfort with the process as leverage to build and move them faster.

And finally, he rewarded them with group applause and an opportunity for them to use what they had just learned on another activity that meant something to them. If they wanted to work on their memorization skill, he would take them through that experience. If they wanted to improve their reading speed, he would take them through that experience. If they wanted to manage the jitters when they were doing something high-pressure, he would take them through that experience.

No wonder curriculum design is so easy and fun for me! I love creating experiences students that follow all of these same principles of teaching that my dad has modeled to me my whole life!

In that moment,
I knew that it was a gift that I had learned from this man…
not only a whole lot of skills…but also how to teach.

Fifteen years later, I think of him and what he taught me every time I create a retreat experience or design curriculum.

I’ll be forever grateful.

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