What I Learned by Teaching at Universities

I had the opportunity and privilege of teaching three classes at two universities. The first of these was at the Santa Clara University on October 2nd – a group of young students considering various career options – including digital marketing.

The second and third were at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, on Oct 18 and 19. The students in these classes ranged from working professionals looking to familiarize themselves with online marketing to students learning digital marketing to be future marketers themselves.

After over two decades as a professional marketer, the opportunity to teach came as both a refreshing change and an opportunity to learn. I was supposed to be the teacher in these classes. However, I believe I walked away with as much learning – if not more – as the students. Here are a few of my take-aways from revisiting a vocation that’s close to my heart – one that I believe is the highest of all – teaching.

What I Learned by Teaching at Universities

  1. Taking nothing for granted:
    As I started preparing for my classes, one of the first things I realized is do not take things for granted. Working in the online marketing industry, we tend to take at least a basic familiarity of various channels of marketing for granted. With clients and colleagues alike, we interact with these assumptions in place. While preparing to address students I had to be extra careful to not assume the students know what terms like SEO or PPC mean.
    At the same time, I couldn’t let the class be so basic that the savvier among the students did not takeaway some new insight, learning or perspective. Striking a balance between the two was arguably more pressure than a demanding client or a problematic marketing situation.
  2. Revisiting the basics:
    I had to revisit the very basics, and I was surprised at how much research it required. As I re-familiarized myself, I realized how little the basics of search engine optimization, paid advertising, email marketing, etc., have changed. I actually found possible solutions to a few complex situations for a few of our clients. The best solutions are usually quite simple and may lie in what we often dismiss as being too basic or simple. Sometimes we have to step back and remember what we were first taught before we can solve complex problems and this experience was a good reminder of that.
  3. Stepping away from jargon:
    Another trap many professionals get into is the use of jargon. In some cases, it just becomes part of the language – like WHO, UN, FBI, etc. It is also possible that some feel that not using jargon may make them come across as less informed. That speaking in simple terms may be perceived as being less knowledgeable. But when you are interacting with someone who may not be familiar with terminology we take for granted, you can unintentionally make them feel ignorant. Language can break barriers but can just as easily create a wall and close the doors of communication. Taking extra pains to ensure a jargon-free class taught me the value of simplicity and how it can break communication barriers.
  4. Storytelling:
    I sprinkled a few experiences from my career in each of my classes. These were what seemed to make the best connection, got the most reaction, and even provoked questions. We often forget the power of story-telling in everyday professional life. And yet, everyone — from students to colleagues and clients — humans react to personal experiences, and the three classes reconfirmed for me the value and power of a story.
  5. The pressure:
    I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel nervous walking into each class. The responsibility of influencing students and the unknown variables of how they would react to me would have been pressure enough. I also had the pressure of being on unfamiliar ground. Speaking at conferences, participating in meetings with clients and making professional presentations aren’t new to me, but addressing a class of students was. Truth be told, I was petrified walking into each of the classes, and I have no idea whether I managed to hide the fears well enough or not.
  6. Being surprised:
    I had told myself to be ready for a few surprises – I was prepared to be challenged, to deal with questions ranging from the elementary to the outlandish, and not to be fazed by bored expressions. Still, I was surprised at how similar the groups of students were to clients and colleagues. Their questions were sharp, well thought out, and refreshingly curious. I found myself responding to the infectious energy and curiosity in each of the classes. I walked away surprised at how much I felt like the student while I was supposed to have been teaching.
  7. The protégé effect:
    In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had read about the protégé effect where you learn when you teach. The learning started when I started preparing for the classes and continued even while I was teaching. It’s as humbling an experience as it is enriching.
  8. Communication:
    Teaching is an excellent opportunity to test out your communication skills. It is said that if you cannot explain your subject to a six-year-old, you do not know your subject well enough. While I was teaching university students and not six-year-olds, it taught me to consider every word I used in class, every slide I created, and every question I answered. I believe teaching is a great way to continually improve your communication skills because only when you can communicate effectively with someone who may have no idea about a topic can you claim to communicate well.
  9. Humility:
    Last, but perhaps the biggest takeaway for me was that I left the classes humbled. Everything about the experience was humbling – from the wide-eyed curiosity of students, the open interactions and debates, the discussions, questions and reactions to my answers, and of course, to the new connections and acquaintances made.
    At the end of the day, a teacher is a reflection of what the students take away. In that, I would feel accomplished if even just one of the students from these classes chose online marketing as a career and if the class I taught had a role to play in the decision.
    As I was returning home from the last class, I realized how many of these learnings apply to my everyday life as a marketer working with peers, juniors, clients, and other professionals in the industry.
    Finally, I also realized just how much there is to learn – not only in online marketing but also about various aspects of learning, human nature, simplicity, and more. I do believe teaching is a great way to educate yourself and I hope to carry my learnings in my everyday life and interactions.
Tushar Prabhu

November 8, 2019

By Tushar Prabhu