Five Leadership Lessons I Learned in a Middle School
Leadership inspiration from an unexpected source.
“Drowning in a sea of hormones.”
That was my response to an area principal during my interview with the teacher certification committee. I had just completed my student teaching at a local middle school and they were interested in my impression of this age group. It got a laugh.
I’m not sure if I meant I was drowning or they were drowning. I think it was both. Ultimately, my answers, if not my humor, were sufficient to garner their blessing and I was off to begin my career in teaching.
Whatever your profession, no amount of education fully prepares you for the reality of actually doing the work in the real world. That’s how it was for me. In the beginning, I tried to follow the textbook on teaching. By October, I realized that I was just going through the motions and so were my students. I knew I wanted more so I threw out the textbook and decided to experiment. That was my first lesson.
Lesson 1 — Be adaptable.
One of the first things they told me when I started teaching is that “you never smile before November”. This was accompanied by other inspiring admonitions about being too funny or friendly or otherwise likable. I hear similar comments in leadership circles about developing friendships, being silly or getting too personal.
I decided that it was possible to maintain my boundaries, connect on a personal level and have some fun without sacrificing the core objective. In fact, I believed these two things would be complimentary. I looked for opportunities to learn about their lives and sometimes their goals and dreams. We made space for occasional silliness and going off the lesson plan. I didn’t try to create the impression we were on the same level just that we weren’t so far apart.
At least some students began to appreciate these efforts and it changed the dynamic of my classroom. Because I took an interest in them, they were more willing to take an interest in what I had to say or teach. There’s an old saying, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. I learned that from teaching and it carried over into my career in business leadership.
Lesson 2 — Be relatable.
I taught science at a time when it was probably the least popular subject on the schedule. There were few computers around and STEM was associated with nerdy PhDs and people who wore pocket protectors. The kids in my classroom routinely asked how any of the information I was presenting had any relevance to their lives. We had no lab. And a minimal amount of audio-visual equipment.
I didn’t try to convince them that knowing the parts of a plant would be important to the advancement of the human race. I knew that no matter how much I tried to sell the value of this subject they weren’t going to get it at this point in their lives. Instead, I focused on engaging them in creating the learning process.
Yes, I empowered 7th and 8th graders to help decide the way we would tackle a particular subject. No, it didn’t always work out. Yes, sometimes we still had to grind through the material. But when it worked, it led to real aha moments and unexpected adventures that were far more educational than memorization and testing. And it was a lot more fun for me as well.
Lesson 3 — Be creative.
There was only one problem. My principle was convinced that I was doing something wrong because, in general, the students enjoyed my classes and liked me as a teacher. He was of the old school variety of educators that connected learning with classroom discipline. His idea of effective teaching involved quiet well-mannered students sitting upright and at attention while the teacher lectures at the front of the room. Growth and learning were kind of beside the point.
He spent two weeks in the back of my classroom, all day, every day. Holding a clipboard, taking notes and frowning. I decided I wasn’t going to change my approach. Whatever happened, I believed in what I was doing. In the end, he never really found a meaningful criticism. He just didn’t like it. And while I continued to teach there for another year, he went out of his way to make my life difficult. Ultimately, I left. Not just the school but teaching as a profession.
I’ve often wondered how my life would have turned out had he not been so critical. On the other hand, I was more committed than ever to challenge the status quo and make an impact wherever my career would take me. In every leadership role, I’ve held over the years, my favorite part is still teaching.
Lesson 4 — Be courageous.
I jumped from teaching straight into business leadership. I had no idea what I was doing. No business education. No textbook to follow. I just applied what I learned as a teacher and then built on it through experience. And, for the most part, it worked. I’ve encountered a few more “grumpy principals” and had some experiments go awry but I’m still applying the lessons I learned in the classroom every day. Still figuring out how I can make it better.
I learned a lot from those amazing kids. And I still believe we’re not that far apart. The things we need from the people who lead us don’t change very much, even when we’re all grown up.
Lesson 5 — Keep Learning
Originally published at soul2work.com on July 12, 2017.