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A Copywriter’s Blog
Ninja Teachings Ben Levy 17, February

I’m a teacher. (cue laugh track)

I’m done with school now, but I make it a point to go through life as a student, constantly looking for opportunities to learn from those better than myself (ie: just about everyone). Which meant that when the Ad School contacted me asking if I’d like to teach, it was a little weird. If I was still dedicating myself to learning, how could I possibly be ready to educate others?

I asked my CD (who also taught there) what he thought. He told me “It’ll force you to know your shit cold. There’s no way you can teach unless you do.” Which is interesting, because about sixteen years ago, Storm Shadow told me the same thing:

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Now my reasons for showing that are two-fold. First, GI Joe ninja comic. That is just about the maximum amount of awesome I can take. Secondly, while the whole “Ninja Force” concept may have turned Storm Shadow into a tool, he and my creative director had a great point.

I’ve learned a lot by teaching others. There have been plenty of “ah-ha” moments for me, where I realize the reason why some things work and others don’t in the process of explaining them to the class. Instinctive techniques get replaced by conscious understanding.

I’m constantly energized after class, excited by the raw concepting that goes on when there’s no budget, no brief, no pressure to land the client. I always go into work the next day with my mind a little more open, a little less constrained.

Teaching for me is one part performance, and two parts education. This is partly because I’m under this horrible misconception that I’m funny, and standing at the front of the class makes me feel like I’m on stage at the improv. But also, I want my students to understand that this job is fun, damnit. One of my favorite moments teaching so far was when a student raised their hand and asked “Is this what it’s like at an agency? Are people really tossing around ideas in a group like this and laughing all day?”.

It is if they’re doing it right.

So even though I’m teaching, I’m still learning. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t pretend to. I’m sure I’ll get even better at this teaching thing if I keep doing it. For now, I parrot the lessons I learned at school: Write how you talk. No puns. Strategy first, everything else second. That’s not me talking, that’s the advertising greats I learned from. Well, it is me talking, but the words come from people a hell of a lot smarter than me. Like Storm Shadow.

The crappy jokes, those are all mine. Hopefully they’re just ignoring those.

In college, I knew a lot of people who wanted to be teachers. I had always considered teaching a difficult profession. But I had never before considered how nearly impossible it is to be a GOOD teacher. I remember one of my friends- a guy- telling me: “In the class I teach, I have an 11-yr old girl who lives with her single mother. She’s never met her father, and is an only child. I’m not just her teacher, I’m the only adult male role-model in her life.”

Let’s just let that one sink in a bit.

Why am I waxing philosophic about education? Last night I covered for my CD in his “digital stew” (ie-interactive concepting) class. That’s right. I held the power of life and death in my hands. Or at least the attendance sheet.

I was very conscious of a couple facts going in. First, I love to hear myself talk. So I had to make sure I knew when to shut up. Second, I think I’m funny. This belief is not universally shared (just ask my wife) so I had to watch the jokes. Third, I had to prove I belonged on the other side of the desk. See, 6 months ago, I graduated from MAS. I’m not so egotistical as to believe that 180 days “in the real world” had suddenly made me better than anyone in school. So I felt like I had to prove I was worthy of the desk I’d be temporarily sitting on (I hate chairs).

Truthfully, none of this probably mattered. I was a sub, for one thing. For another, I don’t think I can actually ruin these people’s lives in a single class. I would need at least two for that. But I always wanted to try teaching. And since I’m an egotist, I always felt the world could benefit from my wisdom, and that I’d be rather good at dispensing it.

I am definitely not a GOOD teacher. But if last night was any indication, I could be worse. Getting bored students to talk is damn near impossible. I was about to poke them with electric cattle prods just to prove they were still breathing. I looked like an idiot on three separate occasions (that I’m aware of) by mixing up words and failing to find a particular website I was citing as an example of something.

The good news is, I’m halfway decent about picking apart the good and the bad in work. Even more important, I’m halfway decent at expressing those parts verbally. It was great to sit there and be able to say “this was good, but here’s how you can make it better” and then watch the lights go on behind people’s eyes. Oh my g-d. They got it. I know they did, I just saw dawning comprehension. Holy shit, that one’s nodding! They’re nodding! They get it and agree with me!

Did I say that was great? That was awesome. I suspect this is what parents feel like.

There was one surprise to the whole evening. I’m not the asshole I thought I’d be. I imagined myself ripping into every student who did sub-par work, who didn’t care, who was going to graduate and go abso-fucking-lutely nowhere because- while they might have the talent- they lacked the drive. I thought I’d verbally shred those students because when I was in school, they were wasting my time. And I would pray for the day a teacher would call them out on it.

I saw a few of those students last night. And I could have shredded them. With my vocabulary and lung capacity, I could have made them cry and wet themselves. But you know what? Why waste the time? I gave them the attention their work deserved (30 seconds of criticism), I drew what lessons I could for the class from the examples they had, and I told them to sit down. Why should I go to the effort of working if they weren’t? Save my energy for the students who spent theirs.

Which was why, when I was finished with the class, I told them they could go early. But if anyone wanted to stick around, I’d go over whatever work they wanted to show me one-on-one. I took a 15 minute break, and returned to find 3 students waiting for me.

Three students that wanted to make an effort. Three students that were willing to put off the drinking and put in the energy. Three students who were under the (probably mistaken) impression I knew something worth sharing with them.

I’m really proud of that.

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