February 16, 2023
Alan Chen


Two weeks ago, my daughter started year one with bright-eyed enthusiasm and a backpack bigger than her. When we picked her up from school in the afternoon, her teacher looked like she had been through a kumite while the kids seemed like they had been drinking cordial from a fire hose. It was chaos. There were over 20 of us collecting our frothing children, and none of us had the ability to calm our kids who were higher than kites. I looked over at the teacher, and spared a thought for her. In moments like this, we teachers will often ask ourselves why the heck we’re standing here in the first place!

It’s a tough gig being a teacher. There’s no room for mediocrity. In a student’s eyes, teaching is a black and white affair. You’re either great at what you do, or you’re the reason someone hates a subject or even learning altogether. I am lucky enough to have had some amazing teachers throughout my school years who have uplifted me, and given me words of encouragement that have stayed with me my entire life. These individuals helped me flourish as a learner and some of them, I still maintain a connection with till this day.

I’ve also had my fair share of teachers who left my confidence in tatters, and made me feel very small. In the 80’s I was caned by my principal, dragged out of class by the ear, and called ‘evil’ by the vice principal. My sister will attest that I spent a good chunk of my time at school on detention. I was called stupid, and kicked out of class for asking too many questions. I remember all of these teachers because of how they made me feel. But funny enough, the teachers who were lukewarm never left an impression…my memory seems to have purged them because they are not connected to anything important or deeply emotional.

A visual learner during the 80's
A visual learner during the 80’s

I struggled with the school system for ages, and it took me a long while to reconcile with the fact that I learn differently. Because of this, I thought being a teacher was the last thing I wanted to do. But in many ways, teaching is part of my own personal legacy. I come from a family of educators. Both my parents were teachers, my sisters are teachers, my wife is, as well as many of my friends. Even my daughter Arya has dipped her toe in teaching, and she’s only 6!

But the thing that my mum and dad really instilled in me as I began taking my first steps towards teaching, was that a teacher’s true responsibility was not to merely teach the lesson, but change the person. This was about reaching deeper, affecting people in more profound ways.

Professor Randy Pausch — The Last Lecture

The late Professor Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University called this a “head fake” in his viral “The Last Lecture” video. This term is used in football, where a player running with the ball looks one way, giving the impression that he is going in one particular direction, but is in fact aiming for another. This is the first kind of head fake.

“The second kind of head fake is the really important one — the one that teaches people things they don’t realize they’re learning until well into the process. If you’re a head-fake specialist, your hidden objective is to get them to learn something you want them to learn.”

As I’ve grown as an educator, I’ve always held this “head fake” idea close to my heart. And like many pearls of wisdom, it turned out that I too was learning a lesson and being head faked. One of the great things about teaching is that it is a two way street. We are both instructor and student. If we are open to it, we learn about ourselves by seeing how others respond to our ideas and experiences. All students, and particularly little kids, are great barometers for whether we are actually reaching them or losing them. This means that to be effective, we need to curate our ideas and words, choosing carefully what we say and show.

At the end of 2022, I started “Sketch Lab” with my friend and fellow teacher Diana Ayoub. It’s our very own school, and something of a dream of ours. The first course we’ve put out into the world is “Think Visual” which teaches people how to build confidence and strengthen their creative potential by developing simple drawing skills. Sketch Lab is also the perfect vehicle to sum up my whole purpose behind teaching.

Diana and Alan, founders of Sketch Lab - visual thinking school

Grow your practice: Each time I get up in front of a class, each time I share my experiences, I am developing my own practice by reinforcing what I know, and re-evaluating what is valuable for others.

Exercise empathy: I know what it’s like to be a neurodivergent learner, and I am sharing my insights into the creative process and my own learning journey in the hopes that it resonates with someone. We are not alone!

Pay it forward: To all the teachers who inspired me and saw the potential in me, I am standing on your shoulders and passing on what you gave me. Because at the end of the day, in order to build a better world, and leave a more meaningful legacy; we need others to come along that journey with us, and importantly, we need to help them with theirs.


Read this article on Medium


Randy Pausch, “The Last Lecture” article, The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2008/jul/28/psychology.healthandwellbeing