From high school dropout to cop to engaging professor | David Childers


From Contact magazine, Spring 2014

Sitting on David Childers desk is a top 10 list of human fears. Number one is public speaking. Number four is death. “That means if someone goes to a funeral, he or she would rather be the cadaver than give the eulogy,” says Childers.

The thought seems absurd but is a reality that Childers has to tackle when he teaches public speaking and fundamentals of speech communication. This along with all the dreaded physical reactions that come with the fear, such as shaking, sweating and voice cracking.

To gauge his students’ level of fear, he starts off his class by asking his students where they are on a scale of 1 to 10. “A one means that you wish I would shut up right now so you could get up and start talking. A 10 means that you think you will end up fainting, hitting your head on the board behind you and looking at the dots on the ceiling as the last thing you ever see.”

Childers knows that there are usually a couple in his class who are close if not right at the 10 mark. He hopes that by getting them talking a lot in class, as well as by teaching them to pause, breathe and especially rehearse, their fear will dramatically decrease. Laughter is another tool Childers uses to get students to relax.

“I use a lot of self-deprecating humor in my classes. Who can you make fun of except yourself?”

When a student gets up to give that first speech, another classmate videotapes them using the student’s cell phone. Then Childers instructs the student to go home, sit in a dark room and review, review and review some more.

“When I do a presentation, I might end up recording myself up to 30 times. I have everything choreographed down to a pause, a look and a hand gesture. Steve Jobs said that for every minute you speak, you should spend an hour practicing.”

Another lesson students learn: Don’t go over the allowed time. “If you have a 10-minute speech, go eight minutes; 30-minute speech, go 28. If you go over, it could spoil everything. You want to leave your audience hanging.”

Childers admits that students either love him or hate him. Those who don’t like him have often experienced a different Childers – one who remembers nine years of freezing nights working the midnight shift as a Detroit suburb police officer, often encountering violent situations.

“I’ve dealt with hardened criminals, been stabbed three times and shot at. Students who think that they can get away with being disrespectful or disruptive in class quickly learn otherwise.”

After a decade fighting crime, Childers hung up his uniform for a teaching fellowship position at Central Michigan University. His police experience, however, left a permanent mark, one he carries into the classroom. “There is no other job where you learn more about human nature than being a cop.”

While at Central Michigan, unbeknownst to Childers, a company started asking around at the university, seeking to learn who their top students were. That led to a call from Merck & Co., one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, and a chance to become one of their sales representatives. Childers spent the next year in intensive medical and sales training. On the job he excelled, earning the number two spot in the nation for highest sales three years in a row.

“People would ask me how I knew so much about pharmacology. I would say, I don’t know that much. But I do know about human beings. People buy from people they like and trust, and that’s the bottom line.”

Childers teaches this to his students, along with four skills he says are critical to get ahead in the corporate world: speaking, writing, reading and thinking logically.

need to ask…

Q  What describes your primary teaching method?

A  I am an engager. Marcus Tullius Cicero, an ancient Roman orator, said “Never tell when you can show.” I always try and practice this in my classroom, stressing the importance of nonverbal communication.

Q  Why did you want to go to college?

A  I dropped out of high school at 17 and got married at 19. To make ends meet, I started working at a steel mill. It was like Dante’s Inferno. We would pour molten iron making it 130 degrees where we were standing. We wore heavy clothing to try and keep the heat out and had to take at least two salt tablets a day because we would sweat so much. I knew I didn’t want to have a job like that for the rest of my life.

Q  How has social media changed your teaching style?

A  Absolutely zero! I think technology is taking away that interpersonal – look in your eye and communicate – interaction because 90 percent of communication is nonverbal.

Put yourself in his classroom:


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