Great teachers don’t teach

Please don’t think that I wanted a title with an oxymoron effect! I actually mean it and let me explain. To be sure, I’m not talking about teachers whose job it is to teach, but about managers and leaders.

An event happened in my life more than 17 years ago that has had a profound impact on me. I didn’t understand the full impact of what happened then but life’s experiences keep bringing me back to that event. Okay, enough of the build up, and onto the details.

It was my first trip to the USA and I was on an yearlong assignment at a NJ-based insurance company. As many of you know, you cannot really survive in the USA without driving a car. I was a bit afraid because all I had ridden till then were bicycles and mopeds and the high speed traffic was a bit much.

Unfortunately, my finances didn’t allow me to goto a proper driving school and chose to learn driving with the help of a few colleagues. Interestingly, all my teachers, except one, adopted this strategy – they would sit in the passenger seat, yell and scream and literally do side seat driving. At the end of the session I would be a nervous wreck.

Through my long experience with bicycles I already did have a strong sense of traffic but this side seat driving style was driving me crazy. Obviously they were all doing me a favor and I couldn’t be complaining about their teaching methods. Fortunately there was one colleague who adopted a totally different strategy.

He would explain the general principles and then let me drive. He would sit in the passenger seat and be generally quiet. He would let me make some minor mistakes and gently point out to me the mistakes I was making and allow me to correct them. From time to time, he would also gently appreciate me if I was driving steadily.

I found that my confidence was building up and within a few hours of driving with him I became a pretty good driver. He even taught me parallel parking which is a tricky manouver to learn using the same approach. During my first year of driving I made a couple of errors – nothing serious but I did damage the car.

Next time when I returned to the USA 6 years later, I quickly obtained my license and in the next 10 years I didn’t have a single accident. Of course, I had a few fender benders but nothing major. I owe my accident-free record to this great teacher that didn’t teach. As I gained experience in my life, I have realized that you can learn so much from making your own mistakes. [ Yes you must learn from other people’s mistakes as well. ]

Generally, we tend to manage people by telling them what to do to a degree of detail that makes the task mistake proof. But by doing that we eliminate the opportunity for them to figure out things for themselves, the learnings from mistakes and the coaching opportunities. Another big lost opportunity is the creativity the team may employ to do the task which we may not have envisaged when we handed them the task. I have applied this lesson many times within my teams and I find that it is very empowering and helps grow the team’s capabilities. I believe this is one of the biggest practical lessons I have learnt.

Please tell me, do you agree with this lesson? What lessons have you learnt from your best teachers?


  1. Quote
    Anonymous said August 21, 2007, 11:11 am:

    Certainly agree with you. I personally like teachers who make you think and help you make your own judgments.

    When I saw the movie “Legally Blonde”, I came to know about a teaching technique called “Socratic Method“, which is followed at the Harvard Law School. This is basically teaching, by asking questions. It doesn’t teach you how to do things, but it will certainly make you think and apply your learning.

  2. Quote
    Anonymous said August 21, 2007, 9:51 pm:

    How true Sukumar !!! My dad was a state topper in aquatics for consecutive 5 years and was a swimming coach in IIT. Yet he was a bad teacher to me, atleast. He tried a lot but somehow I had developed a mental block. But, believe me, I learnt from my friend in a farm well (which was about 40 feet deep) in flat 1 hour. He really didnt teach me anything. He just stood there with the other end of rope tied to me and watching me giving some instructions occasionally.

    It depends more on attitude, I guess. My dad wanted to me learn as quickly as he did and master all the skills in a week, which he had acquired over years of practice. He wanted a successor to him. He couldn’t accept the fact that his son doesn’t know how to swim !! On the contrary, my friend just taught me how to stay afloat and move. Thats all !! The transmitter and receiever were in perfect sync.

  3. Quote
    Anonymous said August 22, 2007, 4:02 am:

    Thanks Harish. Socratic Method is very interesting.

  4. Quote
    Anonymous said August 22, 2007, 4:04 am:

    Thanks Mahesh. I think you have hit it – when the teacher wants to teach it to you very quickly all that s/he has learnt, i think it tends to lead to frustration on both sides. In the case of driving, there is the additional anxiety of the teacher based on the fear that the student may crash the car and cause damage.

  5. Quote
    Anonymous said August 22, 2007, 12:18 pm:

    This reminded me of my driving days. My dad used to teach me. He used to scream and shout at the top of his voice. My mom, she did not know driving but she is the best teacher I had. She just got into the car and let me drive. Never made a big deal about my mistakes.

    I remember once I banged into a lorry and came home with a fully mangled bumper (lucky it was an amby;only the car suffered the damage). She did not complain, scold or panic. I got the confidence to drive only because of her.

    Not only in driving, at all times she has been the best teacher I have had. She was never critical and always encouraged even small success. It built my self image and made me a confident person.

  6. Quote
    Anonymous said August 22, 2007, 2:38 pm:

    Loved the post! .. made me introspect a good deal..

    My greatest teacher is my mother. Just the way she lives her life and conducts herself is a lesson itself. I beleive the greatest lessons in life aren’t really taught.. rather they are learnt!

    Thanks a lot… this is going right into my Shared items!

  7. Quote
    Anonymous said August 23, 2007, 8:44 am:

    Thanks Archana. It appears that learning by making mistakes on our own gives a big boost to self-confidence. I wonder why?

  8. Quote
    Anonymous said August 23, 2007, 8:45 am:

    Thanks for stopping by Amit and for the kind words. I agree, some of the biggest lessons are learnt not taught.

  9. Quote
    Anonymous said August 23, 2007, 10:15 pm:

    Great post Sukumar!
    When I was in the 7th std, I had this class teacher called Julie ma’m. I wanted to participate in an elocution competition but was extremely nervous. Julie ma’m knew that I was nervous. So she came to the class and all of a sudden called my name out and said “Now Saraswathi will speak in front of the class on the elocution topic”. I just went ahead and spoke in front of the class and there was such a huge applause at the end of it. That was when I just lost my fear of speaking in front of a crowd. I owe it a lot to Julie ma’m who was not just a teacher but one who could encourage students to be better individuals.
    Infact it was also because of her I started writing poems and essays better. I Julie ma’m this year during the school alumni meet and when I told her she was the best teacher I could have, she replied back saying that she is not a great teacher, instead each of her students was a great teacher to her!!
    Such teachers are truly rare to find!! And oops..I just got carried away with some nostalgic memories and ended up in a big comment:)

  10. Quote
    Anonymous said August 27, 2007, 1:44 am:

    Thanks Saraswathi. I can see why Julie ma’m is your best teacher. Thanks for sharing that story. BTW, are you the same Saraswathi who used to write in ch1blogs?

  11. Quote
    Anonymous said August 27, 2007, 12:10 pm:

    Oh ya am the same Saraswathi from Ch1Blogs:)

  12. Quote
    Anonymous said August 28, 2007, 11:26 am:

    Cool. I have subscribed to your blog. – Sukumar

  13. Quote
    Anonymous said September 2, 2007, 8:22 am:

    great post sir. Aptly timed too…teacher’s day is round the corner.

    One more thing that I feel aids great learning is the amount of confidence a teacher is able to have in his student. Perhaps the very fact that your friend kept quite could be because of his confidence in your abilities to learn driving.

    Many a times when leaders impart tasks, there is an inherent air of unceratinity that runs in his/her mind whether the job would get done or not. The leader might not show it outside, but the person who does the job can immediately make out that there does exist some air of uncertainity regarding his execution.

    Also the need to make the student feel that the work he does is indeed important can’t be brushed off. The task might be as simple as driving or swimming but I guess once the learner understands the bigger picture of things , learning automatically becomes a joyous experience. An empowering feeling can be a wonderful motivator to learn.

  14. Quote
    Anonymous said September 2, 2007, 9:16 am:

    Thanks for stopping by Ranjit. Yes, the confidence the teacher has in the pupils is very important. good point.

  15. Quote
    Anonymous said September 3, 2007, 8:33 pm:


    Relating this to management, I believe that you need to use different managerial styles under different circumstances. Of course, the nature, experience of the person you are training/coaching must also be accounted for.

    Here are some managerial styles – affiliative, coercive, coaching, pacesetting, democratic etc.

    In situations, where there is an immediate deadline and the person in charge of the task has minimal experience or is raw, pacesetting – where the manager/coach dictates exactly what needs to be done and in which order, could be the style that should be used.

    With an experienced team, you could use a more democratic style to let the team come to a decision and the coach acts just as a guide to make sure that the discussion does not go off-tangent.

    In situations where the task is compliance related, a coercive/authoritative style maybe needed.

    Depending on the task and the team, a manager may even have to switch between these styles in a single meeting even.


  16. Quote
    Anonymous said September 4, 2007, 12:22 am:

    Thanks Ganesh. Interesting point on management styles. Maybe you should do a separate post on it.

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