Youth Canada

The Benefits of Teaching and Mentoring

13-10-2008 by Joshua Liu

The Benefits of Teaching and Mentoring

The following article is cross-posted from - a blog with entertainment and advice for budding physicians.

When people hear the word “teacher”, they often imagine a school teacher standing at the front of the classroom or a professor lecturing in a large university hall. Personally, I have a much broader interpretation of the word “teacher” to also include mentors, coaches, speakers, and so on.

What is a Teacher Really?

I think a teacher is anyone who imparts any knowledge or lesson on you, regardless of the content. Your parents are teachers when they teach you the personal values you have come to hold. Your sister is your teacher when she helps you with that homework problem you just can’t figure out. Your hockey coach is your teacher when he shows you that new puck handling technique.

When I say that anyone can be a teacher, that includes you. If you have experience or expertise in a particular field, be it academic or not, you have the necessary background to teach someone. At the same time, just because you can teach something, does not mean you would necessarily be good at it - an idea we will touch on later in this article.

Teachers of all types play significant roles in our lives. We may often assume that it is the student who can only benefit from this relationship. The teacher already has this knowledge or skill, and the student is the one learning; therefore, it follows that it is the student who mainly gains, right?

The Teacher Often Benefits More

On the contrary, I think that often times, the teacher or mentor benefits much more than the student. As someone who has experienced a variety of teaching roles - including tutoring, speaking, coaching, and mentoring - I feel that I actually gain just as much, if not more, from sharing my knowledge and experiences with others. Teaching and mentoring have helped me personally develop in four main ways:

1. It Forces You to Really Know Your Stuff & Makes Sure You Never Forget

A lot of times, as teachers, we think we always know what we’re talking about, but sometimes that couldn’t be further from the truth. As a student, you’re not really expected to know everything. And although that is probably not a fair expectation for a teacher either, I think it is fair to say that a teacher should know significantly more than a student about the same material.

Unfortunately, teachers and mentors are often older and busier, and due to time, are much removed from the material they are being asked to teach. For instance, you may recall from my article on Autopiloting that I am currently tutoring 1st year chemistry, biology, and mathematics at York University. I took all three of these courses two years ago, and while I still have the capability to handle the material, there are many ideas, concepts, and pieces of knowledge I have forgotten.

A few weeks ago, one student in particular asked me about a chemistry problem that had me completely stumped. I was pretty embarrassed that I couldn’t help her right away, but fortunately I had my handy answer key; it was just a simple concept I completely forgot about! And as embarrassing as it was, it was pretty cool to re-learn some chemistry.

Even though I don’t deal with detailed chemistry anymore in school or anywhere for that matter, having to tutor it forces me to re-learn a lot of key concepts. This is great because it helps keep chemistry a part of me, and solidifies any understanding about it that I may have lost.

While a lot of students in my biology program may have forgotten 1st year chemistry by now, I have the benefit of getting a free education every time I’m asked to teach it!

2. It Clarifies Your Understanding of Things

Teaching is a lot harder than it looks. In fact, I think we sometimes take teachers for granted. Believe me when I say that explaining ideas and concepts to someone who has no experience in that field is pretty darn difficult.

When we have become a relative expert in something, we often become complacent. We are so accustomed to the material that can often forget the fundamental understanding behind what we’ve learned. Teaching forces us to relive and rethink the fundamental and necessary ideas behind the lesson, which not only enforces our overall understanding of the subject, but also reminds us what we should be teaching students.

Have you ever tried teaching a friend or sibling something, and they ask you “why”, but you just can’t explain it? For example, there are a lot of students who understand the mechanics of solving chemistry problems. As a chemistry tutor, you understand the ideal gas law of PV = nRT, where for simplicity’s sake, we’ll just mention that P is pressure and T is temperature.

And you might tell your student: “As you can see from the equation, if we double the temperature for an ideal gas while keeping the volume constant, the pressure will also double.”

Then your student might ask: “I don’t understand… why would that happen?”

You might say: “Look, it’s a simple equation. If you double a variable on one side, the corresponding variable on the other side must also double.”

But your student might reply: “I get that, but what actually makes the pressure increase? What’s the science behind it?”

Does this sound familiar?

I’m sure many of us have been in this situation before. Because we’ve done the material so much, and particularly the mechanics of it, we often forget the concepts that underlie what we know. While it is true that doubling the temperature would double the pressure, that is not a reason for why this is true. It is easy to forget the underlying science, such as the idea that increasing the temperature will increase the average kinetic energy of the gas particles; this in turn increases the effective collisions of the particles with the container wall, which is an increase in pressure.

If not for students asking us “why” what we say is true, we personally would have no reason to think about it ourselves, or look it up when we don’t remember. That is, teaching forces us to ensure that we really understand the material we are trying to teach. It forces us to clarify concepts that may have left us, because if we don’t, then both we and our students are left in the dark.

3. It Improves Your Communication Skills

Being good at something does not mean you’d make a good teacher. Being able to do something and being able to teach that skill or idea are two very different things. I’m sure anyone who has been through a post-secondary education will have had that one professor who was obviously a genius in his or her field, but could not convey his or her ideas and material to the students effectively.

How well you know or understand something doesn’t mean anything in teaching unless your students can understand you. Because you understand the material well, it can be frustrating when your explanations seem painfully simple to you, but your student is completely lost. A lot of the time, things seem simple in our heads, yet are difficult to put into words. Teaching forces you to put concepts you’ve learned in a way that makes sense for other people. In essence, it forces you to think about your target audience, and come up with a specific way to convey your ideas in a clear manner.

This skill is priceless, and being able to speak clearly and concisely is helpful in anything you might do in the future. Whether it might be explaining science to a friend, delivering a presentation to your boss, or explaining to your spouse about a story that happened at work - being able to explain ideas in a way that makes sense to any audience will serve you for life.

4. It Helps You Understand Other People Better

Understanding people is a very complex issue that includes analyzing an individual’s motivations, models of thought, emotions, and many other variables about a person. In my opinion, as social creatures, it is the most important skill for human beings to develop - but arguably the hardest and least realized. I don’t plan on delving into this idea too much in this article (as it would take me a whole series to write), but I want to point out that it is a skill that teaching can help foster.

Realize that true teaching isn’t about just “doing what you’re expected” and hoping that your students just “get it”. This is a problem that I see far too often in our education system. In my opinion, teaching is about finding the best way to connect with your students. It is an ongoing learning process. Every student is different and requires a different form of help – as a teacher, it is up to you to figure out how to best connect with that student.

As a teacher, you need to understand how your student thinks and approaches the material. How is he perceiving what you say? What types of examples would he understand better? Why is he confused? What would a better teaching method be?

By being able to model how your student thinks and approaches problems, you can better tailor your help to your student. You will gain a better idea of what types of mistakes he is making, what types of concepts or skills seem difficult for him to grasp, and most importantly: why. Being able to understand other individuals at this deep a level is invaluable when it comes to anything from conflict resolution to maneuvering an intense business deal. And teaching can help you develop this.

5. It is Deeply Rewarding on a Human Level

Last spring I attended an event at my university, and ran into a good friend of mine. He is a year younger, and an extremely bright and accomplished young man. A few times through the previous years, he had contacted me for advice on various things, such as scholarship interviews, university applications, and business projects - and he ended up being successful in many of them. He was always very receptive to my ideas, and I really enjoyed helping him out.

At the event, it turned out that we both had another mutual friend there. He started telling our mutual friend about how he viewed me as his mentor, and about all the times I helped him out. It made me really happy and somewhat inspired that he considered me his mentor, even though we had not spoken that often. It was moments like that which reaffirmed why I love to teach and mentor.

It goes to show you that you have no idea about the significant impact your teaching and mentoring can have on other people. In fact, I shouldn’t have been too surprised to hear that he felt so strongly the mentorship, because I have felt the same way myself before.

In a similar fashion, I had a sort of peer mentor during my late years in high school. He was a few years older, and coincidentally, I met him at the same conference that I met the friend I mentored. It was obvious to me that he was absolutely brilliant and that I could learn a lot from him. I would randomly email him whenever I was in a dilemma, and he always provided great and sound advice. He is a Rhodes scholar now, which did not surprise me because if you had asked me before if I knew anyone who should be a Rhodes scholar, his was the only name I would’ve put forward. I don’t believe he would’ve considered himself a mentor to me, but again, it goes to show you the significant impact you can have others as a teacher, even if you don’t realize it.

Teaching: Everyone Gains

Whether it be teaching, mentoring, coaching, or public speaking, you should really give it a shot. It will help clarify your understanding, remind you of important ideas, and improve your communication and interpersonal skills.

But like I said, be warned that it is by no means easy. There will be times where you are frustrated because your message just doesn’t seem to be getting through. Just always remember that figuring out the challenges is what makes the process fun!

JOSHUA LIU is currently a Biomedical Sciences student at York University. He is the founder of SMARTS: the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national youth science network, which connects over 300 young people and 200 schools today. He also currently sits on Shad International's Board of Directors. Joshua has spoken as a presenter, panelist, and keynote at numerous student conferences. He was named as one of Canada's "Top 20 Under 20" in 2005, and is a recipient of the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership.

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