BY PRESIDENT DAN WITTLIFF, P.E., F.NSPE
One of the occasional perks of serving in volunteer organizations at the national level is visiting new places. When that happens for me, I like to take some vacation time and get to know more about the destination than just the meeting site and the hotel room.
Some years ago when the NSPE Annual Meeting was held in Portland, Oregon, my wife Manda and I took a few days of vacation to see more of the state where I had never been before. We traveled down through central Oregon before turning west to our eventual destination—Depot Bay overlooking the magnificent Pacific Ocean.
As is our custom, we looked for fruit stands along the way to get some of the local produce for snacks and keep me from satisfying my sweet tooth with candy and sodas. We found just such a fruit stand on the side of the road where the state highway made a fairly sharp turn to the left.
Pulling into the gravel parking area, I noticed the neat white-frame farmhouse, the tidy barn, and small steel corral behind and to the sides of the fruit stand. About six Shetland ponies milled around in the corral waiting to be ridden by visitors. The inside of the corral was lined with 75-pound hay bales stacked about four feet high—apparently serving the dual purpose of safety for riders and food for the ridden.
Entering the fruit stand, I was greeted with, "Are you a teacher?" Struck by such an unexpected salutation, I took a moment to size up the person asking the question and determine why a person would ask such a question of a total stranger. My inquisitor was a young lady about 14 standing just over five feet tall wearing faded jeans and a white short-sleeved shirt.
She asked again, "Are you a teacher?" Recalling that I was an adjunct faculty member for two universities and had been a Sunday school teacher in the past in addition to coaching and mentoring young people and new engineering professionals, I said that I was.
Before I could condition my response by explaining that I was a licensed professional engineer and that teaching was not what I did for a living, the young lady asked the predictable next question, "What do you teach?" Relying on my adjunct faculty experiences, I said that I taught undergraduate business courses and a graduate course in construction management.
By this time, the young lady's younger sister had joined the discussion. She was about 12 and listened intently to her older sister's questions and my answers. Both girls were blonde with blue eyes and very fit. The older girl later stated with pride that she was the one who stacked all the hay bales in the corral.
In this unexpected conversation, the 14-year-old asked a third question that proved to be a real chin scratcher. "What was the single most important thing you taught people?" she asked. Realizing that my answer to this question might have a long-term impact beyond this chance encounter, I considered my answer carefully before responding. I said, "Always do the right thing. You'll sleep easier not worrying about the past."
As we finished making our purchases and departed the fruit stand, I reflected on this unexpected encounter. What marvelous parents this young lady must have to have raised a person capable of this kind of discourse with a total stranger. Were my example and my answers worthy of this potentially profound philosophical discussion?
After all, aren't all of us teachers in some way or another—some by profession, others by avocation, and still others by example? That said, what kinds of lessons do we teach others? Are we saying one thing and doing another? Are we rewarding a different kind of behavior than what our policies and instructions say is the desired behavior? Do we find fault with a client's dissatisfaction (however rare) with our work product and service instead of working with the client to make it right?
In all of these scenarios, what we don't say is just as important as what we do say, and what we don't do speaks just as loudly as what we do. We are always teaching even when we don't intend to. The question we must always ask ourselves is, "What kind of teacher am I?" If the answer to that question leaves us wanting, endeavor to fix it.