My Path to Becoming a College Teacher

Scott Stanchak Lectures at NYU
Guest speaking at New York University. This is the moment I was “discovered” and offered an opportunity to teach at the school.

When I stepped into the classroom at 7 East 12th Street in New York City on Monday evening, it marked my sixth semester teaching at New York University. Humbly, it’s not even that it’s been six that’s so thrilling to me. It’s that I even get to teach there at all. 

I often have to remind myself — and, believe me, I never forget to do so — how lucky I am to not just teach, but to do so within the graduate program at one of the most distinguished schools in the nation. 

Over the last three years, I’ve got the following question a lot: “how did you get into teaching?” That’s led to many coffee chats but now is as good of a time as any to address the answer in this larger forum.

In December 2015 I received a LinkedIn invitation from Professor Kerry O’Grady, an amazing public relations teacher and my eventual go-to resource for questions about what I’m doing. She asked if I would be interested in speaking to her class about my experience at The New York Times and mobile marketing.

I had done a lot of public speaking, but outside of a talk to my former high school’s journalism class many years before, doing so at a college was new terrain. But I wanted in so we chatted and set up a day and time.

I can remember standing off to the side of Kerry’s classroom, against the windows and a white air conditioning unit that you all would recognize from any standard classrooms. Waiting my turn, I loved watching how Kerry commanded respect from the students and how they just absorbed her knowledge.

My presentation went well — and way over the time allotted. But the students were engaged and asked a lot of great questions. I even remember getting a handful of Twitter followers from the group.

Kerry and I chatted after class and she asked if I would come back the next night. I agreed to. Little did I know it was an audition.

In writing this, I asked Kerry what she saw in me to bring me back. I wasn’t looking for praise from her, but an honest take that I could also pass along to others interested in getting into teaching.

Here are a few of the points she made to me (thanks, Kerry!):

  • “I saw how the students reacted to you. Now only were you a natural at instruction (being able to take advanced concepts and break them down for the graduate audience to understand), but the ease you did so.”

  • “It was how kind, understanding, and inclusive you were with the students that struck me. You weren’t teaching because YOU loved it; you were teaching concepts because you wanted them to learn.”

  • “I also saw how comfortable you were in commanding a room, and not in a boardroom way. You were confident in a quiet way.”

  • “You loved interacting with the students; hearing their opinions and thoughts, quietly and strategically driving them to answers instead of hitting them over the head with it.”

  • “You can have all the degrees in the world — and all the experience — and be a terrible teacher. It’s all the stuff underwear – and the potential to be great — that matters.”

  • When I stepped foot into the classroom on night two, it was filled with 25 students and a pair of administrators. Again, I didn’t know it was an audition but also didn’t think much about the pair that didn’t seem like students.

    After class, one approached and asked if I had ever thought about teaching. The honest answer was no. My wife, prior to staying home with our two children, has 12 years experience as a teacher. My mother-in-law is a retired teacher. Me, none. I don’t even have a master’s degree.

    Despite my honesty, I was asked if I would consider teaching at NYU. I said I’d consider, but figured I’d walk out of there and never hear from them again.

    Shortly after, I got a few calls and emails asking me if I would like to join their adjunct staff and teach e-commerce marketing in the fall. Looking back now, I don’t know why it took me so long to say yes, but perhaps it was taking that leap into something so foreign to me. I remember the turning point, however, was a realization of how silly it would be to turn down not just a teaching opportunity, but at New York University.

    Everyone at the school was willing to take a chance on me despite my lack of a master’s degree and no previous teaching experience. The results thus far have been positive; at least that’s what my teaching scores from the students say.

    Teaching has not been easy. It’s been rewarding. Every time I walk out of the classroom, I feel like I’m not only a better teacher but a better communicator and purveyor of thoughts.

    My day job at the National Basketball Association keeps me plenty busy. Teaching on top of it makes things even busier. Not to mention, the nights away from my family and helping put the kids to bed. But busy is a choice.

    I’m grateful for the opportunity that Kerry and the rest of the team at NYU have afforded me. So to answer the initial question: I don’t have the best answer for anyone who asks how to become a teacher. The answer, “be lucky,” is one part. The other part is being ready to capitalize on opportunities once luck prevails.

    What is ready? It’s being a strong speaker. It’s being able to command a class for two-and-a-half hours every week with enough content and storytelling to keep them engaged and excited to come back week after week. You can’t cover everything, and have to be okay with that, but what’s the most important content without becoming boring.

    It’s also a desire to make a difference, to want to inspire these students to do something great, be amazing leaders, and think just a little bit differently. The way that I look at it is these students are fortunate to be able to attend New York University. They already have a head start on success. My job is to inspire them.

    Along with e-commerce marketing, I also teach digital marketing. This isn’t brain surgery. It’s not life or death. For me, if a student walks out of my class with a new perspective on how the digital landscape works and thinks more about leadership (and a desire to be a great one), I’ve done my job.

    One additional piece of feedback is to adapt. The first adaptation is around the content. Being in senior roles over the last five years, I haven’t needed to be in the weeds as much. But what I teach requires me to be in the weeds so I consume a lot about social, search, conversion, testing and more to understand the how. This has made me a better leader outside of the classroom.

    Adaptation is also important in the actual classroom. For example, starting this semester, I put together dedicated presentations on the content I plan to speak about. Previously, it was always notes and drawing on the whiteboard. In creating these decks, my hope is for the students to be able to bring them home with them as a reference. This also helps make my preparation for each class more efficient. It’s about recognizing what is working and not and making changes.

    Finally, my experience working for brands like The New York Times, News Corp., NBA and Avis Budget Group gives me an advantage in the storytelling arena. To be able to infuse actual stories and real-world examples into my teachings help make the class more relatable and exciting to students. These stories help students relate.

    I was recently reading the book, Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio. On page 108, Dalio talks about reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. What’s interesting is, in exploring what makes a hero heroic, Campbell writes that later in life, winning becomes less exciting and the ability to pass along knowledge takes precedent (i.e. they become the teacher). This transition of knowledge phase to their lives is freeing.

    I am by no means saying that I’m a hero. But what I am grateful for is the ability to have an amazing career and also be able to pass along knowledge at the same time. I don’t know it all; I never will. But if I can help inspire and educate students on the topics I stand in front of them for 2.5 hours every week, I’m instead grateful. Because as I tell them on day one: I will hopefully learn as much from them as they learn from me.

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