Do You Have to Be a Master to Teach?

On the first episode of Teach With Your Hands, Matt Kenney made a pretty strong assertion, that you shouldn’t be teaching until you have a rock-solid understanding of the content. Other guests, like Kip Christensen, have made similar assertions, that you need to get as much experience in your content field as you can to be an effective teacher.

And yet, many teachers (like Chris Gochnour in episode 2) also agree that teaching is essentially a learning experience. In fact, one of the most effective ways to learn as an intermediate student is to start teaching what you do know. Going through the process of organizing information reveals gaps in your understanding that you might not have previously recognized, and helps to further cement what you do know.

Teaching, if it’s done well, also opens you up to opportunities to learn from your students. Maybe they know something you don’t. Maybe they think to question something you hadn’t. Maybe they take the information you gave them to new places, finding new applications that open your eyes, too.

So, do you have to be a master to teach? It seems like it depends on what kind of teaching you’re doing. Is your relationship to your students vertical, where you have all the information and they have none? Are they dependent on your for success?

Here, I’d agree that mastery is required. There’s nothing wrong with teaching this way. Some situations (like Matt Kenney’s example of machine safety) absolutely call for it. I wouldn’t want someone showing me how to use a table saw to have anything but a perfect understanding of how to use that machine in a way that wont lead to me losing fingers.

But what if your teaching is more horizontal, where everyone has something to contribute to the learning environment? Where student success isn’t dependent on you so much as it’s dependent on the richness of collaboration and the plentifulness of sharing? Maybe you’re teaching design, or an experimental technique. Maybe you’re teaching about teaching itself (Hi, yes, I’m talking about myself).

By all means, learn everything you can learn about those subjects, but don’t wait until you’re the perfect designer or a world-renowned expert in the subject before you start sharing. Your own learning, as well as the learning of your “students,” absolutely calls for it.