04/13/2011 12:36 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why Everyone Should Be a Teacher

There's an old saying that there are a handful of jobs everyone should have because they teach you essential life skills. I've heard different variations on this theme, but they essentially boil down to these four:

  • Food service (empathy)
  • Retail (patience and respect)
  • Customer service (kindness)
  • Manual labor (diligence and a work ethic)

I've done all four of these along the way and agree with the analysis, although my first job as a waitress also taught me why it's important to have a good boss.

But today I'd like to add a fifth to the mix: teaching a class.

As you know, I recently returned to the classroom after a 10-year hiatus, to teach a journalism seminar to some secondary school students in London. I'm pleased to report that it went very well: the students seemed really keen to learn what I had to teach, and I had a lot of fun doing it.

But this intensive, two-hour session with a bunch of 17-year-olds also reminded me of some crucial life lessons, which I thought I'd share. Here are five things you learn from teaching:

1) Giving back is meaningful. OK, cue the violins. I know this sounds cheesy: 'tis better to give than to receive and all that good stuff. But sometimes clichés are true. And it turns out, all those things that people say about teaching really are right on the money: It's rewarding. It's meaningful. It's inspiring. When you see a kid not just completing the assignment you gave but doing it with spark and enthusiasm and panache, you say to yourself, "Wow. I just made a difference in someone's life." The bottom line? Helping others will actually make you happier, too.

2) You learn by doing. I think one of the most valuable life lessons you get from teaching is that it forces you to roll with things. You can have the best lesson plan in the world. (And it will surprise exactly no one to learn that I was quite possibly the most over-prepared person ever to grace that particular school's doorstep.) But when you're actually in the trenches, you often need to throw out the outline. A writer friend of mine who's been teaching secondary school boys for the last couple of years here in London put it this way: "Sure, have a lesson plan when you walk in. But be sure you've got plan B, C, D in your briefcase. Because more often than not, you need to improvise." How true it is.

3) The best part of life is surprises. Further to (2), teaching also surprises you. You find yourself telling anecdotes about your own life that you hadn't anticipated. The part of the lesson plan you thought was weakest turns out to be the most useful. The kid in the back who's writing with his headphones on (gasp!) produces a beautiful piece of work. Another kid who impressed you with how bright he was during the discussion turns out to have real difficulties when it comes to writing. Particularly if you approach each class with a beginner's mindset, you'll start noticing things about your teaching -- and your students -- that you hadn't realized were there.

4) You laugh at yourself. This is key. When you're a teacher, you can't take yourself too seriously. That's true with any age group, but it's particularly true when you're teaching teens, because they are inherently skeptical of authority. About two minutes into my presentation last week, I announced that in addition to being American, I also talked very fast, so they should feel free to interrupt me if they didn't understand something. Suddenly, a boy's arm shot up in the back. "Yes?" I asked. "Give us an example," he said. "Of?" I responded. "Of you talking fast." So right then and there, before I'd even begun the official lesson, I imitated for the class the way that I motivate my kids to get ready in the morning in the frenzy of the school run. (Hint: I sound like a swim coach, and it isn't very pretty.) We all laughed, and that instantly broke the ice.

5) They call you "Miss" (or "Sir"). At least here in London. I don't usually fuss too much over titles, but as someone who's perpetually trying to achieve that elusive element of gravitas, I loved that the kids addressed me as "Miss." It reminded me of Zoe Heller's fabulous novel "Notes on a Scandal" (without the corresponding affair with the 16-year-old boy, that is). And I instantly felt like I belonged there.

How about you? Have you ever taught a class, and what did you learn?