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#8: Teachers, Coaches, and Mentors

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine


We have all had teachers, some good and some bad. If we have played sports, we have had coaches. And if we are lucky, we have had mentors. These three groups play important but different roles in our lives.


It is the job of a teacher to transmit information to a student. It might be information about science, sailing, or sewing. A good teacher will use a variety of techniques to accomplish this task.


Some teachers are advocates of what has been called the milkman theory of teaching. Allow me to explain. Until the 1960s, people in many parts of America had milk delivered to their door. The deliveries were made early in the day, when it was still cool outside. Consequently, it was important for the milkman to make his deliveries as quietly as he could: wake people up, and he would lose customers.


A teacher who practices the milkman theory believes his job is to “deliver the milk” without waking anyone up—that is, to transmit information to students without also trying to transform them as human beings.


Coaches will necessarily play the role of teacher: a swimming coach will, for example, teach proper swimming technique along with strategies for racing. But a good coach will also do something most teachers don’t: she will try to get into an athlete’s head in order to improve his performance. This might mean praising an athlete, but it might also include taunting him.


A good coach realizes that if an athlete thinks he can’t do something, it pretty much guarantees that he can’t; if, however, an athlete thinks he can do something, it dramatically increases his chances of doing it. Consequently, one of the primary jobs of a coach is to open the athlete’s mind to possibilities. In the process of doing so, the coach will reveal much to the athlete that the athlete never knew about himself.


But a coach, after implanting a dream in an athlete, won’t allow him to spend his days dreaming; she will make very clear the price that must be paid for the athlete to achieve that dream. Besides learning how to play a sport, a well-coached athlete will gain some very important traits, including self-discipline and tenacity.


Although a teacher who operates under the milkman theory will not coach her students in the manner just described, other teachers will happily do so: they will try to get inside the head of a student in order to get the most out of him. This means that the line that divides teacher from coach can be blurry.


This brings us to mentors. The relationship between mentor and mentee—yes, mentee is a real word—is different from the relationship between teacher and student, or coach and athlete. For one thing, the relationship between mentor and mentee won’t be “contractual,” in the sense that both parties must agree to it before it can take place. All you have to do to make someone your mentor is decide that you are going to observe him carefully and maybe ask him questions, in an attempt to become in some respects more like him. Furthermore, whereas a teacher or coach will require you to complete specific tasks—such as writing an essay or running wind sprints—a mentor won’t.


A 21st century Stoic will constantly be on the lookout for mentors. She will be searching, in particular, for people who seem to have some important aspect of life figured out. They might, for example, have insights into how to deal with other people or how to deal with adversity. On encountering such an individual, the Stoic will spend time with him, so she can watch and learn.


Many people, rather than seeking mentors, deny their existence: they are convinced that they have figured out everything they need to know to live a good life. A 21st century Stoic, by way of contrast, will always regard herself as a work in progress, meaning that she will be perfectly willing to look to others for insights on living. It is a frame of mind, I should add, that dramatically increases her chances of living a good life.

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