I touch the future. I teach.
— Christa McAuliffe (Challenger space shuttle astronaut)
I come from a family of teachers, including several generations. Growing up, I repeatedly vowed to myself, and to everyone in earshot, that I would absolutely, positively, never, ever be a teacher. Like, ever (apologies to Taylor Swift). My first career in the U.S. State Department seemed to ensure that I had succeeded.
But then … life happened. I started learning to fly in the early 1990s and, as I began to acquire certificates and ratings, ground instructor tickets were a logical part of the package. That led to flight instructor training, and so it happened that on an August day in 1996, I went home with a crisp new certificate. I also had a new part-time job, because the flight school hired me not just before the ink on my new ticket was dry, but in fact before the FAA inspector had even finished applying said ink to the paper.
Why We Fly, and Why We Teach
As a friend sagely observed, “you finally became a teacher because now you have something to teach.” He was right. I think teaching found me because aviation found me first.
These are themes that author and university professor Parker J. Palmer beautifully explores in The Courage to Teach. As Palmer observes:
Many of us were called to teach by encountering not only a mentor but also a particular field of study. We were drawn to a body of knowledge because it shed light on our identity as well as on the world. We did not merely find a subject to teach — the subject also found us. We may recover the heart to teach by remembering how that subject evoked a sense of self that was only dormant in us before we encountered the subject’s way of naming and framing life.
There are echoes of this idea in the work of Richard Bach, whose essays in Gift of Wings get to the heart of the “why fly” question. As Bach expresses it:
It’s possible that in flight you’ll find much to learn of yourself and of the path of your life on this planet. … Flight, to you, is a required essential tool in your mission of becoming a human being.
How We Teach
It’s true that, for many, flight instruction is a time-building waypoint on the path to an airline career. Remember, though, that having other career goals doesn’t mean that you can’t be, or won’t be, a good instructor. No matter why you are in the aviation instruction business, you can give — you should give — you must give — the very best you can offer to this time when you touch both the present and the future of aviation.
Of course that means you must instruct your aviation students in the specifics of what they must know, consider, and do to fly, or in the case of aviation mechanics, fix airplanes. But I challenge you to offer at least two more things.
First, as Khalil Gibran writes in the “On Teaching” essay in The Prophet, recognize that the wise teacher “gives not of his wisdom, but rather of his faith and his lovingness” so that he “leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”
Second, as Palmer suggests, remember that “good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts … the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.”
My thanks to all who teach. There can be no greater calling in aviation. (FAA Safety Briefing SepOct 2017)