The Value of Failure

Part of the way I make my living is by teaching computer applications. Typically, it’s MS Office, but I’ve taught others. My classes are popular and I can pretty much guarantee if I teach one seminar, 90% of my students will come back for more – either to learn something new or to take more advanced lessons in the same application. It sounds like bragging, but it’s the simple truth. My classes are entertaining and informative.

On one teaching job, however, I crashed and burned. I was teaching a computer application I know very well, indeed. Because I knew it so well, I figured that a cursory review of the lesson plan and manual would be plenty.

It wasn’t, as any experienced teacher would tell you. God, that class was a fiasco.

Many years later, I got an opportunity to teach other class. It was in another application I know well and use daily. Oh my word was I scared! I knew why I’d crashed and burned the first time, so resolved to correct the problem. Were over-preparing possible, I over-prepared. I was terrified to get up in front of all these guys because I was terrified that I’d blow it and embarrass not only the person who recommended me, but the company who contracted me to teach.

I did okay. Brilliant? No, not that time. Though I did have several students come to more classes that I’ve taught. So, clearly it was at least a class where I was competent.

So often we fear failure when failure can be a great friend. I don’t think I would be the teacher I am today were it not for that colossal and embarrassing failure. I learned so much from it. I learned the importance of preparation. I learned not to be cocky about my own knowledge. I learned that knowing something doesn’t necessarily mean I’m ideally placed to teach it. It taught me that teaching is actually a skill one can learn!

Five Signs Your SME is the Wrong Teacher

Congratulations!  You’ve installed a new system or an upgrade that will make work easier for your office, automate some routine tasks and bring your organization up to date.   It’s fun and exciting to–

What?  Your end users are complaining?  Your staff hates the system?  Your IT person has rolled her eyes at the users so often that her pupils have fused to the back of her skull?

What happened?

Upgrading often has some resistance, yes.  The reality is that people often don’t like change.  The longer a person has used a system or, the more expert the user is in other areas, the more reluctant the user will be to embrace the new system.  A fact of life.  Even in the face of this, you might want to make sure that you didn’t fall down on the training end.

It is not uncommon to shoehorn teaching duties into your IT staff.  They know the material, right?  So they can teach it, no problem!

Wrong.

Teaching –especially teaching a technologically resistant learner, is an often frustrating job requiring a specialized skill set.  Your IT guy may be brilliant at what she does otherwise, but might be exactly the wrong teacher.

Five signs your subject matter expert might be the wrong teacher

1. The SME is contemptuous of the end user.

Yes, everyone in the tech field has spelled “end user” “l-user” at one time or another.  We’re human.  We get frustrated.  I’m just saying that if your IT person has a shrine to the BoFH or has a mug that says RTFM1, this person might lack the necessary empathy in this particular area to be a good trainer.

2. The SME has a lack of verbal facility.

If you can’t translate “geek” to “normal”, you’re not in a position to train the end user on the new system or software.  Can that IT person you’re thinking of yanking away from his computer do that?  Talk to him.  If he uses expressions like “dumb down”, let him get on with what he knows and can do well.  Find someone else to teach.

3. The SME equates technological expertise with intelligence.

This is an incredibly common sin among the IT crowd.  While in theory, it needs to stop, in practice, you get someone like this as a teacher, and you’ve set yourself up for a real mess.  There are several professions notorious not only for intelligence but for resistance to change in computer systems and applications.  Don’t believe me?  Go to your nearest hospital and take someone from the IT department out for a drink.  Ask them who they hate to teach the worst.  You’ll get an hour on why they hate training senior physicians.

I think we’re agreed that to get an MD, one must be of at least slightly above-average intelligence, yes?

The problem is a bit of a lack of empathy on both parts.  Doctor Labrat really is used to being an expert.  She’s not used to the pain of being incompetent at anything.  Chances are good it’s been a long time since she’s perceived herself as having the time to study anything outside of his field.  IT is Ms. Sysadmin’s field.  Part of her job is learning new applications and systems.  This is routine for her, and it’s in her field.  Ms. Sysadmin, unless she’s a teacher as well, won’t know how to guide an intelligent, accomplished person through the pain of being incompetent and will likely chalk it up to mental laziness on Dr. Labrat’s part2.

4. The SME hates public speaking.

Teachers are public speakers.  We’re good at it; we know how to engage an audience.  We know how to be clear, and we know how to inspire.  If that’s not happening, it might be because your teaching candidate doesn’t like talking in front of people.  There’s no shame in this.  Let her get on with what she’s good at and why you value her work in the first place.  Don’t shoehorn her into something she doesn’t know or do well.  Training your employees is too crucial a job to give to someone who doesn’t know how to do it.

5. The SME doesn’t have the time!

Teaching a good one-hour class takes about three hours of preparation for new material.  If the system is less than three months old, or the teacher has not taught a live class on this very subject more than once, it’s new material!  While it might look like a good teacher just gets up in front of a class and spontaneously spouts that entertaining and informative lecture, it doesn’t work that way.  Spontaneity is often a matter of careful preparation.  Don’t mistake the casual competence for a lack of prep time!  If your employee doesn’t have three times the prep time that he has for face time in front of the class, your employee doesn’t have time to teach!  Get a contractor, hire someone, spread the duties around.  Do what it takes to get your employees trained properly.

The subject matter expert can be the right teacher.  Just keep in mind that teaching is a skill set all its own.  Study your people carefully and see if they have the skillset for training.  If not? Well, there are lots of trainers out there ready to help you on a contract basis.  Check around and good luck!

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1Please read the manual, sir.

2Not that mental laziness doesn’t happen at that level. It can be anywhere.  But unless you’ve got a real teacher, it might be hard to spot.”