Mentor, coach, and teacher

October 2010 » Web Exclusive » INSIDER'S VIEW
Jason Burke, P.E., MPEM

No matter what your job function or those of your co-workers, someone is learning from you. Are you fulfilling your obligation to be a good teacher? Many managers act as mere supervisors, whether their roles are formalized in an HR document or not. Perhaps as a project manager providing direction on specific tasks or at a department level supervising a team, mentoring skills take on a lower priority when it comes to actually leading others or the firm as a whole.

As much as we discuss the alleged managerial shortcomings of university graduates and even engineers with years of experience, there is another gap that appears when it is time to accept greater responsibility in one’s career. All too often, engineers of all levels are called upon to prepare a presentation, a lunch seminar, or even a short coaching session on some technical subject. The problem? Few of us have had any preparation for our role as teachers. This is not to say that every coaching session needs a lesson plan or a quiz, but it behooves us to realize the unique aspects of on-the-job learning and the teaching needs that go along with them.

Engineers spend a great deal of time with inanimate objects and abstract concepts during their educations and early careers. Those that move into managerial positions are often fending for themselves when it comes to adapting their professional expertise to their new reality of guiding others. Aside from professional courses that focus on project management or HR courses about such topics as conflict or communication, there is little thought given to building a teacher-student relationship in the workplace. For example, many communication courses focus on how to keep one’s audience awake and somewhat engaged with stories, visual aids, and timing. There may even be a cursory examination of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as an insight into behavior and motivation. On the other hand, very few (at least among those targeted at an engineering audience) talk about how people actually learn — especially when it comes to the differences between age groups. This further marginalizes those who have a wealth of technical experience but may not have the means with which to transfer it to others.

In a famous experiment, researchers were interested in demonstrating and quantifying the “internalization” of a task — in particular, the catching of a baseball. Able to do this since we were kids, few of us could actually verbalize the thought processes that we perform in order to do so. By selecting actual baseball players, it was hoped that their years of learning and coaching could provide further insight into how the brain is wired to accomplish this and similar complex tasks. Unfortunately, the professionals were not much better than you or I at putting these thoughts into words. And there are deeper problems awaiting those who hope to explain engineering design or business management on the job. The awareness of this limitation is actually quite important to any learning environment. Engineers — as do other professionals — gradually build on experiences across several years, often subconsciously, without turning around and re-teaching their advancements to others. By doing so, we do ourselves and our younger peers a disservice.

Even if you do not consider yourself a teacher in the traditional sense, and regardless of whether you think an engineering graduate should show up at your door ready to hit the ground running, the mere act of performing engineering design on a day-to-day basis requires some familiarity with the teacher’s role. Even professional educators are not immune from the need to enhance their teaching style. How many instances are there, from grade-school to university, where teachers were simply not effective for various reasons? If it can happen to them, it can surely happen to any of us unaware of the special relationship of the teacher to student, mentor to protégé, or coach to team.

One example of the resources available to expand this knowledge is Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain. Well-known in the educational field, this framework remains the basis for countless learning programs to this day. Specifically, it formed the foundation for ASCE’s own Body of Knowledge (BOK). The BOK modified the language and application of the more abstract concepts into more complete recommendations for the engineering industry, but the fundamental structure remains unchanged. In addition to providing guidance for those responsible for developing a formal curriculum, both the BOK and Benjamin Bloom’s original work provide valuable insights into the most effective ways to transfer knowledge and practice to others. If your job involves improving the capabilities of your staff (and it does), it pays to find out the best ways to reach them.


Jason Burke, P.E., is a project manager in Billings, Mont. Find additional information at http://pmug.wordpress.com.


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