Reflections on being a teacher

Published October 7, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Sonny Coloma


Sonny Coloma

On June 1, 1988, I began a new career as a teacher as an associate professor at the Asian Institute of Management. I had just completed more than a decade of work with a leading commercial bank where my last stint was in corporate planning after many years in the human resource management department.

On the occasion of World Teachers Day (Oct. 5) after the month-long observance of Teachers Month, I pause to reflect on what I have learned as a teacher.

My first assignment was to teach in the Master in Business Management (MBM) program. The first subject I taught was a second year elective on Labor Relations. Years later, while serving as program director, I was given the opportunity to redesign the curriculum and align it toward globalization which had become the lead driver of international business and economics.

I had the opportunity to be part of two trail-blazing initiatives: the Master in Development Management (MDM) and Master in Entrepreneurship (ME) programs that were led by my former Professor Ed Morato. He also tapped me to lead the Executive Execution and Lifelong Learning Center (EXCELL).

Allow me to share three reflections.

First, to teach well one must first listen well.

At the AIM, the case method was used to enable students to witness and analyze real-life situations in businesses and industries. “Because wisdom can’t be told” is a catchphrase that embodies the learning process in the case method.

Case studies are stories on the life of corporations and organizations: how they were organized, their fledgling years, their growth and evolution, and how they dealt with challenges. To quote Clyde Freeman Herreid: “Stories capture our attention, entertain us, stir our emotions, and expand our visions. Preachers use them for moral persuasion, comedians to tickle our funny bone, and teachers as exemplars of good practice.” Case method professors must wait and listen patiently as their students express their views on how the decision makers in the case studies tackled the challenges faced by their organizations. They must resist the urge to predominate the class discussion, mindful that every minute that they take up denies the same amount of time that could have been given to a student sharing what he has analyzed and learned from the case study.

Professor Gabino Mendoza, in my view, was the quintessential case method professor. He would stand stoically in front of the class, wait for students to start analyzing the case study, nod his head minimally, and utter the word “So?” to prompt students to carry on with their recitation. By encouraging students to speak up and analyze, professors empower them to become owners of the lessons they themselves have acquired.

Second, a good teacher cares about the needs of his students.

Professor Francisco Bernardo, Jr. was the Dean of AIM who invited me to join its faculty. He was our professor in Operations Management in first year MBA. From whom I learned the maxim, “I don’t care what you know until I know that you care.” I recall a student — one of around 150 in the Development of Enterprise course — who approached me to say that she was unconvinced that she deserved the grade I gave her: Pass or 82 percent. She said she believed that she deserved a higher grade. I was taken aback by what she said and could not remember anymore how I tried to justify or rationalize the grading system I used.

Years later, after I had returned from a two-year sabbatical during which I worked full time as a corporate executive, I adopted a novel grading method. I told my students: I will grade you on the basis of your best performance. That way, I think I succeeded in motivating them to do their best every time: be it in recitation, quizzes and exams, or in projects.

Third, the classroom is a microcosm of the world of lifelong learning.

My creativity and adaptability as a teacher was put to its most severe test in executive education. Learners expect to know about the latest knowledge and knowhow; they also place a premium on “war stories” based on a professors’ field of expertise. Partnering with corporate customers that were innovators in the banking, pharmaceutical, telecommunications and fast food industries enabled me to keep abreast of leading edge practices.

When I went on work leave to serve in the government during the presidency of Benigno S. Aquino III, I immersed myself in learning how to navigate the tough terrain of media and public communication. As Press Secretary, I shared with reporters the importance of context and perspective in understanding the events they were covering. One of them later shared with me that when asked to talk about news writing, she echoed this lesson to her audience of journalism students.

My sabbatical leaves from the academe enabled me to work for a total of 10 years in three government service stints plus two years in a corporate setting. Indeed, teachable moments abound in public service and in the business world — and it is up to each of us to embrace the vocation of being lifelong learners.