When the Student Becomes the Teacher

Published: April 9, 2024

For most of us, learning happens every day. Most often, lessons arise from experiences rather than formal teacher-student alliances. Focused attention to the environment always illuminates or validates. When we build a connection with our surroundings, new pathways to growth open up. The same is true for formal pedagogy. It is the connection between student and teacher that becomes the ecosystem for exploration and discovery.

The nuance of the connection takes many forms – parenting, caretaking, coaching, counseling, mentoring, ministering, to name a few. Each of these relationships is populated with a giver and a receiver and all of them are designed to transfer knowledge, insight, love, perspective, kindness, and a host of protective functions that a power differential assumes. Yet, more often than we realize, roles reverse. The student becomes the teacher.

When I enter the classroom as a college professor, my students expect me to transfer 40+ years of professional experience into brains that, for the most part, haven’t even finished developing. If I remain behind the lectern and pontificate, some of those nuggets might get absorbed. Usually not. However, when I join my students in a circle of sharing, I create a connection based on mutual respect and open exchange. Needless to say, more nuggets are accrued – by everyone in the circle.

When I enter the studio as a music student, I understand that my instructor has a deeper understanding of theory and technique than I possess. That’s partly why I take weekly lessons. The most valuable learning doesn’t result from being shown things. It comes from the partnership and the musical interaction where the theory and technique come alive.

On whichever side of the partnership you reside, be assured that the relationship is the spark that ignites the fire. Each connection creates its own unique chemistry from which unpredictable discoveries are hatched. Sometimes you’re the teacher and other times you are the student. Most of the time, you are both.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.