7 Life Lessons I Learned from My Students

Kyle Smith

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In 2004, I began teaching at St. Louis Christian College in Florissant, Missouri. Over the past eleven years I’ve taught hundreds of students and have spent countless hours teaching and advising them.

When I started teaching, I thought I had all the answers. I had two Master’s degrees and was fresh from leading a church ministry where I had spent my 20’s getting lots of practical experience. I was ready to unleash my wisdom on the world.

I had no idea that I would learn as much from my students as they would learn from me. These seven lessons have reinforced key principles of success in my own life. They will also serve you well in your journey as you lead and influence others in any realm of life.

1. First impressions are sometimes wrong.

Time has a way of revealing someone’s true character. The student who comes across as confident and successful will sometimes end up on academic probation. On the other hand, the student who seems like a slacker will sometimes surprise you with their discipline, kindness, and creativity.

We tend to make snap judgments about people based on their appearance and a few scraps of knowledge about them. Sometimes these impressions turn out to be wrong as we get to know the person and their story.

2. Relationships mean more than degrees and titles.

The irony of education is that teachers spend years earning degrees that give them a position. But degrees, titles, or positions don’t guarantee you’ll change any lives.

People may respect you for your accomplishments, but they will love you if you invest in a relationship. The old saying is true: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

3. Feedback is critical to success.

At the end of every semester I hand out a course evaluation and ask students to honestly answer questions like “What can I do to make the course better?” and “How can I improve as a teacher?” They have given me lots of great ideas over the years.

Sometimes we’re afraid to ask for honest feedback because we’ll hear something we won’t like. But if we can set aside our insecurity, people will often give us great insights we couldn’t receive any other way.

4. It’s OK to not have all the answers.

Most teachers will tell you the three hardest words to say are “I don’t know.” We’re supposed to have all the answers, right?

True learning is not just about gaining knowledge. It’s about having a curious mind and a willingness to change and grow. It’s about the excitement of searching for answers, not the security of feeling like you already have them all.

People are tired of the “experts” who claim to have all the answers. They are looking for guides and coaches who can provide feedback, direction, and motivation.

5. Success is more about persistence than talent.

I once had a student who was a naturally gifted guitar player. He thought his talent was a blessing, but it was actually a curse because he operated under the illusion that he didn’t need to put effort into practicing. I’ve also had students who were only moderately gifted but showed up faithfully and put in the required effort. Most of them made good progress in the end.

When it comes to grades, a “B” that is earned in a difficult class is worth much more than an “A” that didn’t require any effort. Lasting success comes to people who are willing to work hard and do the day-to-day work required for long-term success.

6. Sometimes you need to show tough love.

I like to maintain a positive, relaxed atmosphere in the classroom. I have good relationships with students and don’t like personal confrontation, but sometimes it’s necessary.

I will occasionally kick a student out of class for being disruptive or sleeping. Sometimes I will refuse a student’s request to turn in late work because they need to learn the hard way to meet deadlines.

Being a leader isn’t about what makes you comfortable. It’s about doing what’s needed. Sometimes that means showing grace, and other times it means showing tough love.

7. You’re never too old to learn.

A few years ago I taught a course on spiritual development. One of the students was a 74-year-old woman named Barbara. She has been through a number of tragedies in life, including the loss of her husband and a child. No one would blame her for wanting to coast through life at her age.

Yet every day when I came to class, Barbara was there ready to learn. I was impressed with humility and her willingness to sit in a classroom taught by a kid half her age. There were many times when I wanted to step aside and just let her share from the depths of her wisdom and experience!

You never graduate from the classroom of life. These seven lessons have helped me be better man and a more effective leader, and they can do the same for you as well.

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St. Louis, MO
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