“How did you become interested in teaching and training?” the eager applicant for a training position asked. I paused, thinking about my mentor, the articles I read, as well as the lectures and workshops I attended. After searching for an answer filled with gravitas and augmented by the empirical literature, I landed on an unexpected response: “From lectures I gave to my nana and pop and the lessons they taught me.”
My pop, Friedel, arrived in the US in the early 1900s as an unaccompanied minor escaping from the pogroms in Russia knowing no English. He quickly adopted his Americanized name, Frank, and taught himself to speak English while he lived with relatives in New York’s Lower East Side, where he learned a trade as a furrier in the sweatshops. Over time, he started his own factory business.
Rose, my nana, had to quit school in the sixth grade to take care of her beloved brother and sisters. She always regretted that she had to leave school so early. Frank and Rose met, exchanged letters written in Yiddish, married, started a family, bought a house in a small town in New Jersey, and made a life where education was revered. Nana and Pop were voracious readers of news, devouring the daily and Sunday papers. Not surprisingly, they insisted that both their children, my mother and uncle, graduate from college. Frank and Rose built safe shelter by gifting the larger section of the duplex to my parents so my brother and I could enroll in a better school system.
So where does my teaching career come in? I learned to love teaching and taking care of others from living with my Nana and Pop. By the time I was in junior high, I became their de facto (albeit inexperienced) “professor.” They both lacked formal schooling but were curious listeners and eager learners. Upon my return from school, Nana Rose frequently asked me to teach her what I learned. Therefore, I had the incredible opportunity to present to a willing, never bored audience that gobbled up my limited wisdom the way I devoured the nickel a schtickle (a piece of freshly cut kosher salami)they regularly hung on a hook in the kitchen pantry. These experiences undeniably fostered my interest in clinical teaching.
The curriculum I developed for Nana and Pop was far ranging. Nana received lectures on chemistry, biology, and vocabulary. Pop learned about baseball from watching me play in the backyard and during our wonderful summer Sunday morning trips to Tommy’s Sweet Shop, where he would gift me with two packs of baseball cards, buy himself three cigars, and kibbutz with the locals. Experiential learning or learning by doing was liberally sprinkled in, even though I had no idea at the time what experiential learning meant! Nana picked up new words when we played Scrabble, and Pop learned the players’ names when I mimicked Bob Sheppard, the Yankees’ public address announcer, introducing the next player as I reviewed my latest baseball cards.
I learned that the more fun Nana, Pop, and I had during our lessons, the more the information stuck. Indeed, playfulness, fun, and good instruction go together nicely, especially nowadays. Studies from developmental, neurobiological, and cognitive domains show that play benevolently influences millennials’ learning (Tews & Noe, 2019). Consequently, I have taken to introducing my lectures with musical overtures that emphasize the theme of the class (e.g., playing “King of Pain” by the Police to begin a lecture on chronic pain). Bob Sheppard’s voice still rings in my head, and I often emphatically announce salient points in class like they were players in a lineup. Finally, in some classes, I dress in costume to illustrate various concepts (e.g., donning 1970s disco wear to point out the beginnings of cognitive behavioral therapy in the beginning of that decade).
All educators know we also learn from our students. While I taught Nana and Pop some things, I learned from them as well. I showed Nana how to play Scrabble, and she taught me things as varied as how to play hearts and make a spring salad. In particular, I fondly remember how she taught me to write a check, explaining each step in careful language, demonstrating it to me initially, and then coaching me when I tried my hand at filling it in. Nana seemed to instinctively apply effective pedagogical practices. The clear instructional process sticks with me to this day. Accordingly, economy of content and clarity are my pedagogical watchwords.
But making material understandable is not easy. Indeed, many professors suffer from the curse of knowledge. At times, the information I was trying to impart was confusing to Nana and Pop. For instance, when I quizzed them on the Yankees’ lineup, they both would mix up the names, with Nana often referring to “Ford Whitey.” To explain the names, I showed the baseball cards to Nana and Pop and told them the broadcasters usually called them by their last names during the game. I needed to diligently avoid relying on fancy words (e.g., photosynthesis) and abbreviations (ERA). Instead, I spoke in simple, unadorned language (“the way plants use light to get energy”). Learning to take the perspective of the novice is a crucial task often neglected by experts. Indeed, breaking lessons down, unpacking the salient elements, and modeling proper practices is key to effective instruction—whether it’s writing a check or implementing exposure therapy.
One of my fondest memories involves Nana Rose’s desire for me to teach her chemistry and then quiz her. She was not intent to just listen; she wanted to be tested. So I created a quiz that she took with great seriousness. Upon finishing it, she asked incredulously, “Aren’t you going to grade it, Bobby?” Of course, I complied, and she eagerly said, “Well, what was my score?” As with all good students, timely feedback, even if it was negative, was important to her.
Therefore, mindfully delivering feedback to students forms a centerpiece of my teaching strategy. Complimentary and critical comments must be specifically tied to behavioral anchors. Evaluations should be linked to operationalized learning outcomes. Certainly, giving positive feedback is easier, but criticism is also part of the training equation. Supportive mentoring balances praise and constructive feedback.
The lessons Nana and Pop taught me were indelible and profoundly influenced my academic career. In fact, I believe they contributed to me receiving three teaching awards! Due to my childhood experiences explaining chemical formulas to Nana and baseball basics to Pop, I now try diligently to make material come to life through experiential learning opportunities. The humility they modeled helps me avoid the curse of knowledge and adopt the perspective of others who are trying to learn from me. Finally, I came to realize the power of feedback and work to provide evaluative comments that catalyze rather than hinder students’ and trainees’ professional development. In sum, my passion for teaching grew from grandparents’ passion for learning and is with me to this day.
Tews, M. J., & Noe, R. A. (2019). Does training have to be fun? A review and conceptual model of the role of fun in workplace training. Human Resource Management Review, 29(2), 226–238. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2017.11.003
Robert D. Friedberg, PhD, ABPP, is a professor, head of the pediatric behavioral health care emphasis at Palo Alto University, and a licensed clinical psychologist. His professional experience includes work at Penn State Milton Hershey Medical Center/Penn State College of Medicine and Wright State University.