Learning by Teaching

Taking time to volunteer with kids is a win-win

Author: Dean Scott Beaulier 

We are all so busy these days and the thought of volunteering to teach and mentor kids may seem like a waste of time, or a poor fit for many of us. Maybe you don’t think you have anything to offer, or you brush off the idea because you’re “not good with kids.” Yes, patience is certainly required—I have three children under the age of seven!

But the reality is, taking time to engage with kids as teachers and mentors is enormously beneficial for both parties. Doing something outside of your domain—in my case, a university setting—offers the chance to improve your skills, try and fail without much penalty, and then transfer practices that worked back to your own enterprise.

For example, I make a habit of stepping out of my comfort zone to coach six-year-old girls in soccer. I see these interactions as a chance to test my own abilities as a leader: Six-year-olds don’t kiss up, they don’t care about the big title of Dean, and they are brutally honest—if I’m not doing a good job, they let me know!

In short, I’ve been humbled to find that my intentions to teach and “give back,” often result in invaluable learning and personal development for me.

Below are few lessons I’ve learned teaching kids that I have been able to apply to my profession.

Ask Questions and Listen

Kids love participating, and they also enjoy asking questions—lots of questions, both relevant and completely irrelevant. People at every level within companies and nonprofits aren’t all that different from kids: They want to feel comfortable asking leaders questions; they want to be asked for their opinions; and they want to feel like asking and learning are part of day-to-day culture. Organizations that encourage a culture of inquiry are the ones that will flourish in the long run.

Encourage Your Mentees to Learn from Their Peers

On the soccer field, this means encouraging the players to teach each other. They all have different strengths and weaknesses, and it can be more effective to let the top goal scorer explain how she does it, rather than have me explain the technique of a good shot.

That same approach, which is premised on the idea that the expert at the top of an organization doesn’t know everything, can be extremely effective within a company. I, for example, don’t know all of the nuances of our departmental budgeting processes. But, my different unit managers know a lot and often find ways to do things better by sharing knowledge with each other.

Be Imaginative and Tell Stories

We’ve all been victims of boring meetings and generic, impersonal office-speak—if you don’t know what I’m talking about check out this video, or this one, or just watch Office Space again. Try that on a six-year-old and the face you’ll get back will range from confused to painful boredom. Here, again, grown-ups aren’t that different from kids—the only difference is that kids will let you know their feelings.

Good stories, imaginative role-playing and analogies can draw your audience into situations and help them execute. In the case of soccer coaching, that sometimes means I play a pirate trying to steal soccer balls from mermaids. In the case of everyday management, being imaginative and creative in conversation means that you’re constantly pulling in messages and references that connect with your team. References to the Chicago Cubs stinking for 100+ years and then being World Champs, for example, are understandable for most people and have relevance in talking about organizational turnarounds.

Putting What You’ve Learned into Practice

Leaders have a lot to give back and taking time to apply those skills to an unfamiliar situation like working with kids can be an invaluable way to refine practices that have become routine in our daily lives.

Passing our knowledge along to people far removed from our daily lives—soccer kids, in my case—doesn’t always feel natural and can sometimes feel less important than other activities. But, doing something outside of your bubble offers the chance to improve your skills, try and fail without much penalty, and then transfer practices that worked back to your own enterprise.