Manager as Teacher; Learning to Learn

Preface: This posting was triggered by a video I saw on the CBS Evening News called “Preventing future college dropouts” (see footnote). The first section, Learning to Learn, is part of a speech I often give in schools, to help teachers inspire their students to connect the way they learn with their Ho‘ohana. It’s a true story, and I’d like to share it with you too.

My message for students is that unless you are extremely lucky in a first job, in that you have an Alaka‘i Manager for a boss, ‘working with intention,’ the definition of Ho‘ohana, is something you will have to learn for yourself when school is over. Ho‘ohana is important within the bigger lifestyle goal of ‘Imi ola; actively creating your best possible life with healthy work, for work is a fact of life. So the best way you prepare for your future, is in your grasp right now: Learn how to learn for you. Not for your teacher, not for your parents, not because the law says you have to come to school and you have no choice” learn how to learn for you.

I wrote Business Thinking with Aloha as an ebook with a similar message for college undergraduates and all young adults, using my then-26yo daughter, 23yo son and a group of their friends as my editorial advisory committee. The message there is, Use your starter jobs to your best learning benefit, and Aloha value-mapping is the skill set presented. Faithful Talking Story readers will remember I was passionately lamenting our Lost Generation at the time (still am.)

If there are teachers reading:
I am a big fan of flipping the old model most of us grew up with. The flip: old-style homework is actually done in the classroom, with you there to help students work through it, for you can do so much better than their parents can: We love our kids, and ache when we see them struggle, but we don’t have your teaching skills.

With all the digital possibilities, and techno-habits kids prefer anyways, give them the lecture online for home viewing. Turn them onto resources like the Khan Academy (TED video). Have reading and other without-you-there assignments be the homework which is actually prework. I would imagine that this will give you less papers to grade as your solitary homework too!

Learning to Learn

Pretty sure I was in the 6th grade, maybe still the 5th, when I figured out why we go to school.

I liked school up to then, and did well, but the 6th grade was when the homework I’d bring home began to feel overwhelming. It would cut into the free time I’d taken for granted up to then, for the rule in our house was that you did your homework first, chores second, and then could head outside for what was left of the weekday. We lived on a dead-end street that was neighborhood central for most of the ballgames we’d play, and you could hear the noise level outside rise to a crescendo as the afternoon wore on. Seemed all our parents levied the same rules.

So as the amount of my homework grew, so did my frustration. This was long before there was any such thing as a personal computer or ipods for mood music, and we all sat around the kitchen table doing our homework quietly, with pencils scratching on paper the only sounds made. Our screened windows let in Hawai‘i’s natural island air-conditioning, and I could hear all my friends outside. I’d imagine it was every one of them in the neighborhood except me, sure I could pick out their voices in the laughter, and my younger brothers didn’t miss their chance to taunt me as they slammed their books shut and headed out too: By the time I got outside teams were picked, games were in full swing, and all I could do was sit on the curb and watch.

There were more and more days that I’d still be sitting at that table when my dad came home from work, and that was signal that I’d have to help with dinner soon; there’d be no outside play at all that day. My dad would always come over and hug my shoulders when he came in, and say something like, “that’s my girl, your schoolwork is important, you know” or some similar encouragement, and most times I’d just nod, bite my tongue and pout. But one day I couldn’t hold it in, and I blurted out, “I hate my teachers! How can they be so mean? I mean really Dad, who cares about most of this stuff they want us to learn?”

The moment the words slipped out I started to cringe and shrink a little, for talking back to my dad was something we never, ever did, and to say something that in response to one of his hugs and encouragements” what was I thinking? No; I’d stopped thinking, period. That had to be the only explanation.

However my dad didn’t seem surprised. He pulled out the chair next to me and swivelled it to sit facing me, hunched toward me eagerly, as if he knew my outburst would come one day, and had been waiting for his chance to catch it. I’m paraphrasing of course, not remembering his exact words, but they were something like this:

“Rosa, do you know why kids go to school? It’s not so you memorize the order of the American Presidents, or will always remember which countries are in Europe and not Asia, or even those rules in punctuating sentences. Everything you need to know can be looked up, or you can ask someone. You go to school to listen to people teach, so you figure out what’s the best way you learn, your way; that’s what you’re supposed to take away with you by the time you graduate.”

“You see school is this place where you get to try out a whole parade of different teachers. They change with every grade, and then every class, because they all teach different things important to them in different ways. Some of them are going to connect with you, and some aren’t. All of them, but especially the ones who do, are just using the stuff in your homework to get you to continue learning without them around because you’ve found a good way, for you. If you’re getting more homework, it’s because they know you can handle more, but you have to stop fighting it first.”

“You’re in school to learn how to learn, but there isn’t just one way, not even for you. So your time in school is all this experimentation, and this practice, for when school will be over. Because then, you’ll have to learn for yourself for the rest of your life. So use your homework to do that; use it as the stuff exploring the way you’ll learn best of all.”

Back then, I thought my dad gave my teachers way too much credit, for I didn’t feel the passion in all of them when they taught; if they really thought that stuff was important, they didn’t show it all that well. But he was so sincere in explaining this to me that the message did get through: I was in school to learn how to learn, and to shape my way of doing it, honing my methods into a tool I’d forever use.

Manager as Teacher

The conversation wasn’t quite over though. My dad got a bit pensive, and I realized he wasn’t waiting for me to answer him, he was still thinking about something. So I said, “I understand dad, and I’ll try to look at it that way from now on.” and then I asked him, “Is there something else?”

He answered, “Well, I just want you to know how important learning is. There will be times in your life it seems like being able to learn something is everything. Like when you have to go to work: If you’re lucky, you’ll have a boss willing to be a teacher for you too, but most of the time you’ll be on your own.”

“Have you had a boss like that Dad?”

My dad just looked at me for what seemed like a very long pause, but then he seemed to decide that honesty was best, and he simply said, “No, I haven’t. But I’m lucky, I like learning, and so I want you to learn to like it too.”

And with that, he got up from the table and pushed his chair back in, saying, “Now why don’t you get back to it, for I know you can do this.”

After that, my dad’s encouragements got a little different each day he’d come home and find me still sitting at the kitchen table. He’d say, “How’s the learning going?” and he’d expect me to answer in that way, about the learning itself. Whatever I said, he’d respond with, “That’s my girl, I’ve always known you’re a learner.”

My dad was successful: Even if I wasn’t yet a learner back then, he turned me into one, so much so that I’ve become a studying nerd, for I love to study things deeply, beyond the surface of just knowing about them. As the years went by, we’d have more conversations about learning at work too, and those have been the ones figuring strongly into my Managing with Aloha business model, and into my belief that great Alaka‘i Managers are the ones who are willing to take over wherever our teachers may have left off, teaching, coaching, and mentoring their people.

The subject matter has gotten much more important at work, and hopefully, it’s gotten much more interesting. It certainly has for me! … Learning Managing with Aloha: 9 Key Concepts.

Learning is essential in business, just as it is essential in an ‘Imi ola life. When you love it, learning is easy and it becomes self-perpetuating. When you struggle with learning, other difficulties seem to abound, and we often miss understanding that our poor learning skills are the root cause of those difficulties, and not the task itself.

My dream, is that all managers become the teaching boss my dad never had.

Here is what I have discovered in mentoring within the workplace: Learning can get overwhelming, even though people will universally agree that learning is a good thing. Managers-as-teachers find out how their partners (what we call employees in MWA) approach learning individually first; this diagnostics is job one before suggesting new learning. Said another way, they will teach from the place their students already learn, and help them develop learning skills from there.

You start by simply asking people, “How do you learn best?” Then listen for these cues:

  • Some people approach learning as a value. A manager helps, by taking their cues from ‘Ike loa in MWA, teaching in a value-based way, for learning is connected to that person’s beliefs and convictions. So how do you make business value human too? Start here: Wealth is a value.
  • Others approach learning as a skill connected to strength activities. A manager helps, by taking their cues from Key 7 in MWA, strengths management. Here is a good post to read: Feeling Good Isn’t the Same as Feeling Strong.
  • Those who call themselves ‘lifelong learners’ usually do both things: Learning is pervasive for them, and factors into nearly everything. This isn’t necessarily easier: The manager needs to help them focus so they use learning in a practical way at work instead of incessantly dabbling in a little bit of everything, and not finishing any of it.

Then keep the conversation fresh: If your partners aren’t prepared with an agenda of their own to talk about in a Daily Five Minutes, ask the learning question: “How about telling me about your discoveries or experiments? Have you learned anything new lately?”

Connect their learning to the right work projects, and learning becomes practical and mega-useful: MWA3P: Productivity and Projects.

Two related postings from the archives:

1. Alaka‘i Managers Coach, and they Facilitate

Some of the best management advice I got over the years came from my dad. When he heard my news of an early-in-my-career promotion, one of the things he said to me was, “Now you can find your decisions instead of making them all by yourself.”

2. Helping Without Hurting

We need to stop giving when we make it way too easy, and those we give to lose their own natural hunger. They don’t try hard enough, nor reach far enough, because we’ve robbed them of the experience of striving, and wanting more badly than they do.

We intended to help, and to love, but we’ve hurt them because we’ve robbed them of the joy which can come from expended effort. We’ve prolonged their path to achieving their self-reliance (if they ever do).

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Footnote: Video link for “Preventing future college dropouts”: College officials across the nation are attempting to address the issue of alarmingly high college dropout rates among undergrads. Michelle Miller reports for the CBS Evening News.

The quote which got to me was said by Sandra McGuire, Vice Chancellor of Academics at LSU, who feels “the bigger problem” is that “They don’t have study skills or learning strategies typically, so unfortunately they give up when they encounter difficulty.”

There was absolutely no way my dad would allow me, my brothers or sister to give up.