for the university she teaches at and what drives her to love to teach
“When did you know that you wanted to become a teacher?” I am asked some version of this question when I do podcasts, interviews, or from my students when I teach. The answer often surprises people because I honestly didn’t know I wanted to teach until I taught my first class as a Teaching Assistant. I was not prepared to teach on that day but due to a personal emergency that had come up for the professor I was working with, I had to step in on the first day of the negotiation class. He had been talking to me about teaching for quite some time and I had rejected the notion because I was not comfortable with public speaking (a prerequisite for teaching I thought)! He recommended I at least try it out as a TA and see what I thought. Well, that was nearly 18 years ago. I can’t say I loved it from that very first day, but I was incredibly comfortable doing it which surprised me.
The first two years of teaching negotiations felt constrained. The truth is that I didn’t really believe in myself and given the self-doubt, I would map out every class, stick to the agenda I had in mind, show every slide I had prepared for the day, and rarely veered from my plan.
After two semesters of teaching, I wanted to reevaluate whether it was something I could continue to pursue. I knew I loved the subject matter. The more I taught negotiations, the more I learned about myself and my experiences and the more research I did, I realized the reasons why I love the subject was because I had a very different perspective about bargaining than most people. I had always started the semester by asking students about their level of comfort with the class and with negotiations in general, and it became clear that most students took the class because they didn’t think they were good negotiators, they thought about negotiations as something that was always conflict-ridden and as such, they were incredibly anxious about bargaining. I realized it was my perspective about negotiations that made me enjoy it so much. I thought about it as life. Conversations that are a part of our everyday experience. I wanted to deliver THAT message to my students and allow them to understand that anyone could learn to negotiate successfully. I wanted them to embrace it as a platform to speak their truth and communicate their interests. When done well, it was an opportunity for them to better understand themselves, to build connections, and to find fulfillment. I changed the class content, flow, and more importantly, the way I showed up. I wanted to humanize the subject and would go into every class solely focused on my students with a commitment to be completely present and in the moment. I wanted to make the classroom a safe environment where they could embrace their vulnerabilities and be open about their challenges and fears. My class would be a place where my students could understand who they were and proudly embrace their value. It would be where they learned life lessons and I would use negotiations as the platform to deliver the messages that could be life changing. I had big goals and was going to see if I could rise to the occasion.
The change was dramatic. While I had never allowed technology in the classroom (no phones, no laptops), I was going to be very purposeful and deliberate about communicating why this was so important. I wanted them to be completely connected to their experience which required self-reflection and vulnerability and a commitment to their classmates in their shared learning journey. The depth of my connection to my students allowed me to truly meet them where they were in every class. I learned everything about them before I met them at the beginning of the semester. When they walked into the classroom for the first time, it felt as though I already knew them and I used the rest of the semester to deeply understand them and as such, better help them achieve their desired learning goals. While the curriculum was the same, the way I taught the class profoundly changed the experience. Classes would be emotional, connected, and invigorating. I had a no absentee policy in the class and given the experience, students understood why. There was no make-up for the shared experience. Whether it was the exercises they did and the associated de-briefing or the depth with which they got to no one another.
That semester was an experiment in some ways. Could I trust myself to teach the subject in a way that made it so meaningful for me? Could I make this an experience that my students would not forget because it was more than what they signed up and everything they really needed. They thought they were going to take a class about deal making, “winning” arguments, or how to negotiate their job offers and salaries. While they got all of that, they would get so much more. This class was about life!
That was the first year I trusted myself and my skills as an educator. That year, I won my first teaching award at Wharton. That year I knew I was doing exactly what I was meant to do and fell in love with teaching, and I’ve never looked back!