Why aren’t you teaching?

There is an old saw about teaching and teachers: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” This seems to be a widely believed thought in the engineering world (though perhaps less in the network engineering world than many other parts of engineering) — but is it true? In fact, to go farther, does this type of thinking actually discourage individual engineers teaching, or training, in a more formal way in the networking world? Let me give you my experience.

What I’ve discovered across the years is something slightly different: if you can’t explain it to someone else in a way they can understand it, then you don’t really know it. There are few ways to put this into practice in the real world better than intentionally taking on the task of teaching others what you know. In fact, I’ve probably learned much more in the process of preparing to teach than I ever have in “just doing.” There is something about spending the time in thinking through how to explain something in a number of different ways that encourages understanding. To put it in other terms, teaching makes you really think about how something works.

Don’t get me wrong here — engineers shouldn’t lose their focus on doing. But we need to learn to blend doing with understanding in a way that we’ve not done well with up until now. We’ve often been so focused on the what that we forget about the why.

Given that one excellent way to develop the thinking skills, to exercise our why skills as well as our what skills, is to tech, why aren’t you teaching?

Is it that you don’t think you have the skills to teach? Is it that you don’t think you have the opportunity? Is it that you don’t think you have the knowledge?

All of these are excuses, rather than real reasons. You can always take the time to put together a basic course in networking for the people in your company. In fact, maybe the reason they don’t really understand your job is because you never explain the technology you work on. You can always take the time to teach your peers, or even the junior engineers on your team, or another team. There are local high schools that could use your time in the classroom teaching networking technology. Where else are new network engineers coming from, after all?

I’m also not saying you shouldn’t rely on professional education — after all, I still want you to buy my books. šŸ™‚ But there’s something about building and giving a class that teaches things you just can’t learn many other places.

So — let me ask again — why aren’t you teaching?


  1. Orhan Ergun on 7 December 2015 at 10:01 am

    I am teaching šŸ™‚ And l like you to come to my classes and chat with the students.

  2. iamjeffvader on 7 December 2015 at 1:58 pm

    All good points Russ, well made as usual. I’ve been teaching informally for about a year and wrote a book. Absolutely agree you learn more when you have to explain to someone else or put something down on paper. It challenges what may be misconceptions on my behalf. Spent more time reading RFCs and analysing pcaps when ‘writing’ compared to ccie studies.

    • Russ on 12 December 2015 at 7:41 am

      Precisely. šŸ™‚ One reason this came to mind is my current work on an IS-IS recording for Pearson. It’s taking far longer than I thought to build the slides, partially because I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about IS-IS, or haven’t worked with in years so I had to go back and reread about it, etc.

  3. Daniel Himes on 8 December 2015 at 5:35 pm

    I tried doing an open to the community networking class, sadly no one showed up for any of the classes. I am going to be teaching youngens with the civil air patrol.it seems http://ae.capmembers.com/programs/cyberpatriot/ as they teach kids IT stuff.

    • iamjeffvader on 9 December 2015 at 1:30 pm

      Interesting point that triggers a memory. Maybe 5 years ago I built a ccie rs lab for the ine and ipexpert topologies at the time. Guess how many used it? Hint: excluding me, less than 1. You can want to impart your knowledge til the cows come home. People need to want to learn, which is unfortunately not very often for the majority I’ve seen.

      • Russ on 12 December 2015 at 7:38 am

        Yes — of course… But sometimes you have to go to where the audience lives, rather than what you know/want to teach. Especially in the beginning, as you’re building your skills, but even over time, as well.

    • Russ on 12 December 2015 at 7:40 am

      That’s a cool place to start… One thing I’ve learned, over the years, is that the presentation of the class is important. For instance, I have a class I’ve done for lots of people called “How the Internet Really Works.” A lot of people seem to be interested in this topic — you can find the slides on slideshare and reuse them. šŸ™‚ In fact, if you’d like the ppt originals to modify, just shoot me an email.

  4. Alan Wijntje on 11 December 2015 at 8:49 am

    Great blog Russ and something I can (to some degree) relate to..

    I’ve always thought that being able to explain some complex technology to different groups (consistently) not only demystifies this “network wizardry” but helps in creating greater understanding (as you point out) overall and this skill should be something each engineer (at any level) should try to master.

    That said I agree with Jeff in that the “audience/class” needs to be willing to learn and spend time to absorb (as in we need to challenge them to understand and not just dumb down stuff).

    • Russ on 12 December 2015 at 7:36 am

      Thanks for stopping by — and I completely agree about the audience. But part of the challenge of being an “open teacher,” or rather teaching where/when you can is that of finding out what the audience can and wants to learn, and addressing that need, rather than on what I might already know. I always treat an audience that wants to know something I don’t already know — but trusts me to give them that information — yet another opportunity to learn. šŸ™‚

      • Alan Wijntje on 16 December 2015 at 6:48 am

        He Russ, thanks for the reply and the final thought (on “something I don’t already know”) which is one of the reasons I really enjoy reading your blog posts as it challenges me think about things a little bit different..

        In dutch we call this “omdenken” (roughly translated “flip-thinking” where the principle is to not focus on the problem but accept things as they are and look at the opportunities it offers (i.e. going from “what do I teach this class” to “what can I and the class learn by teaching this class”)…