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  • rsmilor

Developing a Calling

Becoming a teacher was a long and winding road for me.  When I was a boy, I never consider teaching as a possible career much less a calling. As a boy, I wanted to be a fleet-footed wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns.  But since I was short and slow, that proved not to be.

After teaching at the Texas State School for the Deaf for two years, I discovered that I liked being in a classroom, engaging students and creating a learning environment--for myself as well as my students. But I also learned that I didn't know for sure if that was the direction that I really wanted to go.  I needed to test this further.

So during my second year at the School for the Deaf, I went back to St. Edward's University in Austin to get my Texas teacher's certificate.  The university gave me credit for my current teaching experience so I did not have to do any student teaching but I did have to take several courses required by the state.  Once I got my teacher's certification, the Austin Independent School District hired me. I taught English and social studies to 7th and 8th graders at Burnet Junior High School for the next two years while working on my PhD at The University of Texas at Austin.

I loved teaching these kids. They were rambunctious, spontaneous and willing to try new things. And they taught me.

I learned the importance of the "teachable moment"--that unexpected opportunity for reflection and insight that was off-script from the lesson plan. For example, I was teaching a lesson on playwriting in which teams of four had to create and then perform a 5-minute play in the classroom. One team asked me if they could use "cuss" words. I asked which words they meant, and they responded that they wanted to incorporate "damn" and "hell" in their dialogue. I discussed with them the importance of being judicious in their word selection, the problem of overusing a word so that its meaning is diluted and the value of using a word in the right context at the right moment.  They said they understood.  I permitted them to go ahead thoughtfully. 

The team began their performance with a loud banging on the classroom door and the exclamation, "DAMN it!  Who the HELL is knocking on the DAMN door!"  For the next five minutes, they set the world record (still unbroken as far as I know) for the use of "damn" and "hell" in a short play. A concerned teacher from across the hall came rushing over and asked me if everything was alright.  "Yes," I said, "aspiring playwrights at work." A teachable moment ensued as I had a chance to discuss with the class the importance of words, the use of language to enhance or inhibit the impact of what one says and what makes for a really good or bad play.  I began to look for more of those teachable moments in every teaching setting thereafter.

After I completed all my course work for my PhD and became ABD (all but dissertation), I taught U. S. History at UT-Austin for a few semesters--my first foray into college teaching. I loved this too as I began to experiment with alternate teaching techniques like using slide shows (this was before PowerPoint) to set a tone for a situation (like Matthew Brady's powerful photographs of Civil War battles) or music to reinforce an historical period like the jazz era of the 1920s.  I did not realize it at the time, but I was beginning to address the different learning styles of the students in the class.

My most unexpected teaching opportunity came six months after I became a research assistant in the new IC2 Institute at the Graduate School of Business at UT-Austin in 1979. (How a history major got into the Graduate School of Business is a surprising story for another day.)

The chairman of the management department asked me to teach the required Principles of Management course to undergraduates.  I told him I did not have a business degree, but he said no matter. I was conducting research at the Institute and had a PhD.  Those credentials would allow me to teach in the department (and also helped the department reinforce its accreditation). So I bought the text book and volunteered to teach the 7:30 am course to a class of 220 students. I taught that course for three years and achieved a key goal--no one slept through a single class. Energy and enthusiasm for what one is teaching (and learning), I discovered, can be force multipliers in the classroom. 

Then, another surprising turn. The chairman of the marketing department asked me to develop the first course in the school focused on high technology marketing. I told him I did not have a marketing degree, but by that time in 1984 I had been doing research, conducing conferences and writing about technology and new venture creation at the Institute. So I designed and taught that course.  

During this same time, I began to teach in the Executive Education Programs at UT.  These were 2 to 4 hour sessions on specific topics like Customer-Driven Marketing, Designing Great Customer Service, and Enhancing Creativity in Organizations for groups of experienced executives as part of their continuing management and leadership development. I often co-taught these with a remarkable teacher from the School of Communication at UT, Dr. John Daly.  We became something of a dynamic duo.  The head of executive education at the time, who became a dear friend, told me years later that whenever one the School's programs seemed to be in trouble, he would call in one or both of us. These executives were (and are) a demanding audience. I benefited from every chance to interact with them because they required that I be prepared, flexible and responsive to their learning requirements and expectations.

I began to realize that there are two key components to teaching for me.  One is substance; the other is form. I liked putting content together-- assembling information and insights in new and sometimes unconventional ways, bringing theory and practice together, identifying and sharing what people and organizations were doing and why they were doing it.  And I enjoyed the performance element--being "on stage," facilitating lively discussions, engaging others actively in the learning process, trying out different learning techniques and having fun doing it.

All of these teaching experiences, I realize now, prepared me for the teaching opportunity that shaped my career and became my actual calling. But that's a story for another day.

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