The 5 Things That Teaching Taught Me

I don't know how I gathered the guts to do it, but a few months after college graduation when I was only 21 years old, I taught two classes in my university. It all started one night when - in a sincere demonstration of my idealism and desire to make a difference - I told Fr. Ben Nebres, the president of my university, "I think I'd like to teach."

"What would you teach?" Fr. Ben asked. He was probably impressed with my exceptional academic record, and thought hiring me as a teacher was a low-risk proposition. I hinted that there were classes that I enjoyed in school - Algebra and Analytic Geometry and "The Creative Process" (a course for majors with an interest in exploring creativity in the arts), but admitted that I had absolutely no experience andno idea where to start. Before I could deliberate on my underdeveloped ambition, he said that the deal was done. It sounded to me like a Do-It-Yourself version of Princeton grad Wendy Kopp's "Teach for America," a program she conceived of that recruits corps members from the highest-achieving college graduates to teach in low-performing urban and rural schools in the USA. Except that my version was not in America, rather in the Philippines where I grew up; and that there I was the only member, without much of a support system.

In the days that ensued, I secretly hoped that he had completely forgotten about our conversation. But two months later, I received a message from him that I had better show up to campus because the registration forms for both my classes were already up on the university bulletin board and quickly filling up.

So many things about teaching scared me. But if something scares you, wouldn't it be a good thing to try? Yes, oh yes. Here are the top 5 things that teaching taught me:

1. Teaching forces you to conduct yourself like a role model - in the classroom and out. When you are a teacher, all of a sudden your students regard you as someone from whom they can ask not only about advice on how to solve mathematical equations, but also how to deal with love life issues, family problems, career uncertainties and anything else you would ask an advice column. Your students somehow give you the permission to shape their lives, whether you deserve it or not.

For example, I was doing a bit of modeling for tv commercials and print ads for fun while I was a teacher, and remember one particular incident where I was offered a spot to star in a beer commercial. Although it would have paid good money, I turned it down because it was unbecoming of a teacher to wear skimpy attire on tv while drinking beer! (Which I anyway think tastes yucky).

2. If you want to master something, TEACH IT. It wasn't always the case (and wouldn't always be thereafter), but at least during the year that I was teaching, I could magically solve whatever equation on analytic geometry you might throw my way. I am no math genius and I know I could never have done that if I didn't know I had no choice but to teach someone how to do it. Teaching forces you to think about a problem a different way. While in the process of explaining something to an audience, you somehow gain a much clearer understanding of the concept yourself.

Disclaimer: Through the years my interest in mathematics waned considerably and my selective memory has selected other memories, so please do not challenge me with any math equations! But I am happy to say that my affinity for the arts and all things to do with creativity has grown and grown.

3. "I don't know" is one of the smartest things you can say. Sometimes you will find yourself in a situation where, even though you are supposed to be the expert - you simply do not have the answers to the question asked of you. And when you find yourself in that spot, don't cover up your ignorance. The best thing you can say is "I don't know."

But do offer something else apart from your humility. Tell them you will look into the matter and get back to them. They will appreciate and respect you for your humility and helpfulness.

4. Teachers and speakers love it when you nod (up and down, not sideways!). It's so reassuring to see people nodding. I never realized it until I spent a lot of time in front of class. The next time you find yourself sitting in a lecture or listening to a speechand you are fascinated with the topic, love what you are hearing and want to show appreciation for the speaker, just nod your head up and down, please. It's only an inch up and down and won't make you sweat, but it sure makes the person in front feel appreciated. It's even better than a loud applause which is inappropriate in some settings.

5. It feels incredible to be of service. I have always wanted to "make a difference," and teaching was my way of serving others. At 21, it was the best match given my skills, interest and life situation. I was in a passionate but abusive relationship back then, and teaching gave me the sense of fulfillment and happiness that I did not get from my relationship at that time. The happiness and self-assurance I felt in knowing that I was making a difference to the lives of my students helped give me the courage to eventually get out of it and believe in myself again.

This, and many other life events through the years eventually led me to write my book "The Giving Way to Happiness," on the power of giving to change the life of the giver - to help us find purpose, elevate our careers into callings, overcome the most painful events in life, and find meaning beyond material wealth - all of which I experienced when I gave of myself by teaching.