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The Legacy of Inspirational Teachers

I can count on both hands the number of teachers I’ve had – from the primary to the graduate level – who I’ve found inspiring in some way.

I can count on only one hand the number of teachers from whom I have received guidance or insight so profound that it made an indelible imprint on my brain. A neuroscientist probably has a more precise description of that process, but that’s the best way I can describe it.

As for why a handful of teachers made such a big impact, I can only offer a three-pronged explanation: they had a passion for their field of study, genuine care for the growth of their students, and gave straight, thoughtful feedback. Sometimes the latter was tough to take, for those of us who’ve been there, but it was also laced with enough encouragement to neutralize any feeling of defeatism. Sometimes the feedback was like a time bomb: an abstract learning finally collides with real life, detonating an insight that truly sticks. “Oh, that’s what he meant!”

When I have been fortunate to have teachers who had confidence in my (or my team’s) ability to tackle a challenge and come out ahead, I responded by pushing myself harder. I believe I did so because these teachers threw traditional transactional teaching out the window and raised the stakes. They wanted to encourage big questions and more expansive thinking. So I pushed myself, and saw others do the same.

This isn’t to say that pushing more than usual yields positive results every time. Have you ever pushed yourself at the gym after a hiatus? It hurts. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes there’s bruising – of the body and the ego. But if you keep going, you build endurance. And an inspiring teacher is like a personal trainer who knows how to lead you to your limit, but not let you give up or pass out.

Something else interesting happens when a teacher is your advocate: you feel the freedom to take risks. So you try a different approach, or adopt a new mindset. You may even feel your creative fire take you around unknown corners. And then on the other side of it, despite mistakes and failures (maybe because of them), you feel a little bit wiser. And you gain a little bit more confidence. The stretching and the bruising don’t feel so acute – you’ve learned that you are made of tougher stuff.

Rob Richter, an Investment Advisor in Panama decided to switch industries in business school. “I was a US-based graphic designer and marketer prior to business school. I took FORAD [Multinational Corporate Finance] with Professor Michael Moffett, and I felt like a financial idiot all the way up through graduation. But it was afterwards, once I was in the real world that I realized, ‘hey, I can do this – and better than most!’ I was the CFO of my company in Panama before becoming an independent investment advisor this year after having sold it. The entire process of Professor Moffett’s class, and his faith in us, were apparent only AFTER I graduated.”

Julia Collins is a Senior Consultant at Deloitte based in Cleveland, Ohio. She’s also a former Strategy student of Hult Labs’ Managing Director, John Beck, who recently wrote about cultivating faith in his students over the years. Five years after graduating from business school, she still applies what she learned in his class.

“There is a reason excellent professors inspire; they have passion. A passionate professor’s belief that a student is worthy is the equivalent of hours of reading, vigorous discussions, and challenging assignments. Professor Beck told us at the beginning of his class that he was going to push us to the ‘precipice of the learning cliff’. I still think of that example as I consult to my clients. I try to bring them to the edge of that cliff and push them to their precipice. The result is almost always excellence.”

Seth Isenberg, a Trade Analyst with the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington D.C., was also in Beck’s class. “It continues to impact my thinking to this day. He deliberately pushed us both with our workload and the brevity and intensity of our presentations. He shared with us his theory that pressure produces better and better work, until one falls off a cliff – and he aimed to bring us to the precipice without tumbling over. That faith in our performance, along with his positive attitude towards us taught me a lesson about what I am capable of achieving, and fulfilling my true potential.”

If you are currently a student, know this: When you come across a teacher who makes the time and effort to help you build your skills, and provide critical feedback, digest it – and then ask for more. School provides a safety net that you won’t find in the real world (mistakes generally don’t get you fired from business school) and finding a good advocate/mentor is not always easy. Get accustomed to soliciting and accepting feedback. When you’re on the job, resisting feedback gives the impression that you are inflexible, and without it you can’t learn and grow.

If you are a teacher, know this: it’s OK to raise the stakes in your class if you are genuinely doing it in your students’ best interests. Business school students like a formidable challenge, which is why there’s a good chance they will raise their game, curiosity level, and creative drive. They won’t always know what they’re capable of unless you push them a little, and if you do, there’s a good chance they’ll be thankful long after the “bruising” is gone. And they’ll remember what you taught them for a very long time.

Photo courtesy of Nguyen Vu Hung.

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