Lessons from a Taxi Driver

Steven LevyThe Teachers' Lounge9 Comments

View from inside a taxi cab

One of my projects during the virus-forced sabbath was cleaning out my office. I still have files from decades ago: student work, lesson plans, projects, notes that surely I would need again one day. Well, if that day hasn’t come in 40 years, there is a good chance it won’t be tomorrow.

One folder had notes from a taxi ride I took in 2005, long before Uber and GPS. Let me share a few lessons I learned from the driver before I recycle that folder.

Living in Boston, I often took a cab to the airport en route to different schools for professional development. I have had many drivers, but they always took the back roads to Logan Airport, a route that consistently took 45 minutes no matter what time of day. The more direct highway route might take only 20 minutes, but that choice was a risk: it could also be an hour and a half, depending on the traffic.

On this particular morning, I could tell that my driver was heading straight for the highway. It is 8:30 a.m., the heart of rush hour, and I am thinking that I will never make it to the airport for my 10:30 flight. But he was the driver, so I gave him my trust.

As I feared, we get to the road leading to the highway, and it is backed up further than I had ever seen. The driver, undaunted, veers over, exits at Lake Avenue, goes through industrial zones, cemeteries, and hidden neighborhoods, then emerges on the other side of the rotary where traffic was backed up for miles. Wow! I was impressed. I took detailed mental notes because I had to get through that same rotary many mornings.

He continued onto Storrow Drive and headed to the airport. I was amazed! Storrow Drive was a breeze! We didn’t even pause at the final stoplight, where I have often waited 20 minutes or more. I thanked him for showing me the way and told him that I would be taking Storrow Drive from now on.

I was resting peacefully as the taxi entered the Callahan Tunnel, the last leg of the ride, with plenty of time to catch my plane. The driver looked at me in the mirror and confessed, “We were lucky this morning. Sometimes Storrow does get backed up, especially on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and most mornings this time of year between 7:15 and 8:00 a.m., when the sun glares over the bend at Nickerson Field. People always do two things there: they tap the brakes, and they pull down the visor. That’s all it takes to back traffic up for miles. You’d think they were surprised the damn sun was coming up again.” I sat quietly, guilty of both acts he described.

“Did you notice how, before I went into the tunnel, I shifted over to the right lane?” Yes, I remembered the switch. “After you come out of the tunnel, the road curves to the left. I always look ahead, and if I see the red taillights of the cars around that bend, I know I have to get off at Government Center. And if I am not in the right lane when I come out of the tunnel, I won’t be able to get across to the exit in time.” I began to realize his strategy was more complicated than I had thought.

“And when I get to the end of the exit ramp, I decide whether to go through Government Center or Haymarket.” I added this essential detail to my mental note as the taxi emerged from the Callahan Tunnel and passed under the large green sign for Logan airport. “But that’s only in the morning. Haymarket gets really congested in the afternoon, so after two I always. . . .”

He went on and on. He explained what he does when the Celtics or Bruins have a game, how he checks out the construction website every morning to see where roadwork was happening, how he avoids the short-cut that goes by Arlington High School between 7:50 and 8:10 a.m., and how he evades the dread of all drivers: the school bus.

Sitting in the backseat of my cab in front of American Airlines, I was humbled by the complexities of his strategies. For a few moments, I thought I had learned how to conquer morning traffic. I tore up my mental notes but still left him a big tip.

My experience struck me as a metaphor for how teachers might feel following professional development. I imagined the teachers after my workshop returning to their school, precious notes in hand (as I had done on numerous occasions), ready to transform their classrooms into exciting adventures of teaching and learning. I imagined them trying to implement some big idea I had presented and encountering the complexities 20-30 human beings bring to a classroom, factors much more mind-boggling and unpredictable than Boston traffic.

“That idea didn’t work, Mr. Levy.”

“Maybe your kids in Lexington could do that, but not mine.”

“You can do that in elementary school, but not in junior high.”

How we long for Storrow Drive! We want there to be a direct way, a best way, a right way. But the most we can get from anyone else is a map. It can show the roads, but not the traffic. Following someone else’s map often leaves us stranded in unfamiliar neighborhoods. We retreat to old patterns, follow the roads we know, and wait for another person, program, or class to show us the real right, best way.

What made my taxi driver so great wasn’t only that he knew the best way, but that he knew when to get off it. Sometimes, he even took roads in the opposite direction of the airport in order to get there faster. So what made this driver so great? What lessons can we learn from him about teaching and learning?

Here are a few lessons that translate to the classroom:

Anticipation. The taxi driver anticipated where the problems would be and avoided them. For educators, pre-assessments before a unit can predict hurdles. Or thinking through our lessons from the point of view of the students, imagining what concepts or skills might lead to misconceptions. Or actually making the product ourselves that we are asking our students to create. All these teaching strategies will help us anticipate what students need to succeed.

Flexibility. When my driver did get stuck, he was not afraid to let go of his plan and try something new. We need to do the same. We will be more prepared to let go of a dead-end route if we have a bank of protocols and flexible instructional strategies ready to go.

Knowledge. He knew many roads and how they were connected. There is no way around not knowing our content areas well. Often our teaching challenges are due to our own shallow content knowledge. We can’t pick the right case study, we can’t tell the right story, we can’t make the concept accessible if we don’t really understand it deeply ourselves.

Response. The driver knew which factors would have the greatest effect on the outcome. We need to know what practices will have the biggest impact for the largest number of students. For example, both conducting formative assessment and stating clear learning targets  positively impact student learning (see this research report).

So, our planning really matters, the map is useful, and it is good to know where Storrow Drive is in our classroom (the best way to get to our destination in whatever content we are teaching). But what counts most is how we assess interactions in real time and adjust our course accordingly. It is our split-second decisions: Do I ask a question or give an answer? Do I let students struggle or offer a hint? Do I review that concept again or move on? Do I stop the lesson to deal with a behavior issue or will that break the flow? Should we plow ahead or just stop and pray?

The success of our teaching depends on those moment-by-moment decisions as much as any lesson or project plan. I asked the cab driver where he learned all his moves. (I imagined the old guys standing around waiting for riders, sharing their secret shortcuts.) “No, actually the ol’ cabbies are pretty stingy,” he grumbled. “I did learn a lot from getting stuck.” We teachers know how that feels!

“But I learned most from my passengers. I’d be taking someone home, and they would show me a short cut.” Another lesson for the classroom. We learn how to make the right moves when we listen deeply to our students and to our God.

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9 Comments on “Lessons from a Taxi Driver”

    1. Meant to be shared! No stealing required. Praise God for all of you at Pui Tak. !I hope to sneak in on your graduation!)

  1. Spot on! What a great article. You brought me into the back seat to be amazed with you. Thanks for sharing that poignant lesson about the complexities of a world-class taxi driving demonstration in rush hour to get to Storrow Drive. That certainly set the stage to point us to the complexities of creating a powerful learning environment. I also wondered about Parker Palmer’s notion of projecting a piece of who I am (the soul) on to my students. Each teacher given the same learning goals and multiple paths to get there based on the factors you highlighted and more. So fun. What a beautiful picture!

    I wonder how many world-class taxi drivers are in Boston. Wouldn’t it be fun to line them up, give them the same starting location and the same destination, and watch them demonstrate their skills from a helicopter? Likewise, I find it exhilarating to watch a variety of master teachers meander their way through a lesson toward a learning goal, each taking different paths, and yet arriving at the same place together with their students. Another example of how we are all uniquely crafted by our Creator. A truth worthy of celebration! Thanks, Stephen, for this inspiring article.

    1. Thanks for your comment, George. I love your idea of the “taxi challenge!” Would make a good reality show. I once did a study of bicycles and we had a contest to get from a Boston suburb to the center of Harvard Square between a bicycle, a car and the subway. Bicycle won!

  2. For some good reason, I too have learned from that taxi driver over the years. I have ‘anticipated’ and I have ‘celebrated’ the fruits of my labors, as the Lord instructs me to do. Thanks for the reminders, Tim! … George

  3. I love this lesson from the taxi driver. And I love l learning from others who are more expert in their own fields than I will ever be.

  4. Yes, Gloria. I love the humility born of seeing God’s gifts operating in places I never imagined!

  5. Timeless lessons. Thank you for sharing them with us before recycling (not tossing) your file.

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