Teaching Experience Is Your Greatest Competitive Advantage: Sharpening Your Communication Skills

The skills you gain when you teach are valuable to any position in any profession.  In this post, we'll focus on how teaching experience sharpens your communication skills.

I encourage you to take advantage of opportunities to teach whether you’re in graduate school, working as a postdoc, or working as a part-time or full-time faculty member who is ready to transition to something new. Here are 10 transferable skills you gain when you teach:

The Top 10 Transferable Skills in Teaching:

  1. Communication skills
  2. Presentation and facilitation skills
  3. Organizational skills
  4. Feedback and evaluation skills
  5. Critical thinking skills
  6. Leadership and mentoring skills
  7. Management and supervision skills
  8. Creativity and innovation skills
  9. Listening and reflection skills
  10. Learning skills

Learn more about these transferable skills in this podcast episode.

As you can see, when you teach, you are learning, practicing, and refining skills that transfer both within and beyond academia. That’s why teaching experience can be your greatest competitive advantage when you’re applying for jobs, starting the next step in your career, or transitioning to something new.

Let’s start with the first - and probably the most important - skill on the list: communication.

Transferable Skill #1:  Sharpening Your Communication Skills

In my first semester of graduate school, I was hired as a teaching assistant as part of my master’s program. One day, early in the semester, I was responsible for leading one of the lab sessions. I walked around the room helping students and answering questions as they worked through the assignment.

During one of my interactions with a group, I distinctly remember saying, “We’re fixing to move on to part 2 on your worksheet.”  One of the students looked at me with a strange expression. He made eye contact, smiled, and politely asked, “What do you mean when you say we’re “fixing to”? That’s interesting…I’ve never heard it before.”

He wasn’t being disrespectful. He was genuinely curious.

Some context: I have lived in North Carolina all of my life. It’s the land of made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits, fried chicken, collard greens, pecan pie, sweet tea, and the infamous Southern accent.

I grew up saying [Insert southern drawl…], “Hey y’all” and “Cut off the light!’ and “Mash the gas pedal” and “We’re fixing to go to the store.”  

Prior to this conversation with my student, I didn’t realize how these common Southern expressions might be interpreted (or misinterpreted) in a classroom.

When the student asked me what I meant, I admit I was a little embarrassed. I smiled and clarified my instructions which led us into an interesting conversation about regional differences in the U.S., dialect, and accents.

After class, I realized I needed to think more carefully about my professional presence. I wanted to reconsider how I communicate with students, colleagues, and supervisors in professional settings.

I’m not diminishing my Southern heritage. It’s part of who I am. But, this interaction raised my awareness and helped me see the importance of appropriate types of communication.

When you teach, you will experience a similar situation. It may not relate to your accent or background, but there will be moments when you think you’ve clearly explained a concept only to find you’ve created more confusion or frustration for your students.

You’ll have to make adjustments, re-think your approach, and maintain your professionalism. This is why teaching experience is your greatest competitive advantage.

Every day, you have the opportunity to practice and refine your communication skills in front of an audience, and the lessons you learn will be invaluable as you prepare for the next step in your career.

Let’s take a look at three ways teaching experience sharpens your communication skills and prepares you for careers in and beyond the classroom:

Teaching Experience Sharpens Your Ability to Communicate “In the Moment”

Perhaps one of the most powerful communication skills you will gain when you teach is the ability to “think on your feet.”  When situations happen in the classroom, you will be able to make adjustments in that moment.

If a student asks a question and you don’t know the answer, you know how to respond and maintain credibility. If a student interrupts your lecture, you know how to adjust and stay focused. If a group of students arrives late to class, you know how to avoid the interruption and proceed.

Being able to communicate effectively in “real time” is a skill that will serve you well in any position in any profession. Teaching helps you sharpen this skill because you will practice it every day you’re in the classroom.

Then, when you’re asked to lead a meeting, make a presentation, give a demonstration, or make a pitch for a new idea, you will be able to rely on your teaching experience to help you communicate clearly, handle the pressure, and maintain your emotions in that moment.

Teaching Experience Sharpens Your Speaking Skills

When you teach, you will enhance your speaking skills. As you lead a lecture, you will learn how to adjust the tone of your voice, vary your pace, add pauses, and re-state important points. You will become aware of how clearly you communicate instructions, expectations, and ideas.

You will also sharpen your ability to lead discussions and maintain conversations with your students as they interact with each other and engage with the course material.

Speaking skills will serve you well in any profession. You may be asked to answer customers’ questions about your company or present your team’s idea for a new product (or a product you invented!).

You may be asked to speak at new employee orientation or present a summary of your team’s accomplishments since last quarter. You will appreciate your teaching experience when you are asked to speak and present ideas to others!

Teaching Experience Sharpens Your Writing Skills

When you teach, you will strengthen your writing skills. As you create a syllabus, prepare lecture notes, and develop resource materials, you are communicating instructions and ideas through writing. Email, online forums, and discussion boards allow you to become more proficient in communicating, sharing ideas, and answering questions through writing.

You will introduce your writing skills to a prospective employer when you submit your cover letter. Then, if you get the job, you will be involved in a variety of writing projects: annual reports, memos, emails, website copy, blog posts, research articles, books, etc.

Another advantage: When you teach, you help students with their writing assignments. This will help you sharpen your own writing skills, learn how to edit your own work, and adapt your writing to different audiences and purposes.

Let’s Hear from a Scientist:

As part of this blog post series, I interviewed former graduate students and postdocs who are early in their careers. I asked them to share their advice and to consider how teaching experience has helped them with their current position. Here’s the advice from Dr. Alicain Carlson.

Dr. Carlson is a Technical Scientist at Syngenta Flowers, a global flower breeding company. She conducts research to gain information about how to best grow flowers. She completed her Ph.D. in 2014 and her postdoc in 2015. She began working with Syngenta Flowers in 2015.

Me:  “How do you think teaching experience (and the training you completed in learning how to teach) is helping you in your job now?”

Dr. Carlson:  “Teaching is all about effective communication and effective communication is a key factor to the success of my position. My knowledge of how people learn and different techniques for learning and experience in giving lectures make is easier for me to effectively communicate the results of my trials to the various audiences I work with and in several different forms.

I don't teach to students anymore but now my audience is my colleagues and industry professionals, which include our customers. It's important for me to give effective presentations and create take-away materials that help people learn about our flowers and influence them to remember Syngenta Flowers when they are making their buying decisions.

I could do the most thrilling, insightful research but if I can't communicate it to my colleagues and our customers then it's all a waste - I have to be an effective teacher to be successful. My training in teaching also helps me show others how to effectively communicate my trial results.

Our sales team needs to be able to talk intelligently on the technical aspects of growing our flowers and my knowledge of learning and teaching allows me to give them the tools to understand technical information and be confident talking about it with customers.”

Here’s one interesting takeaway from this interview: 

If you are teaching in a classroom, but you’re considering positions outside of academia, re-frame how you define “students.” 

As Dr. Carlson explains, her “students” are now colleagues, industry professionals and customers. She uses the communication skills she gained from her teaching experience to educate these audiences and help them learn about her company’s products and services.

As you begin preparing your job application materials, think about who your “students” will be and how you can best communicate with them using the language of your profession.

Additional Reading & References:

Cornell University Career Services. Transferable skills. Available online: http://www.career.cornell.edu/students/grad/skills.cfm Schram, L. (April 25, 2016).

Exploring your skills. Inside Higher Education. Available online: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2016/04/25/phd-students-can-identify-their-skills-through-career-exploration-programs-essay

Top Resume. The top 5 job skills that employers are looking for. Available online: https://www.topresume.com/career-advice/the-top-5-job-skills-that-employers-are-looking-for-in-2017

Just For Fun:

Southern Living Magazine. 24 phrases only Southerners use. Available online: http://www.southernliving.com/travel/southern-sayings#southern-saying-had-my-druthers-image

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