How Teaching Taught Me to Lead

Photo Credit: Generation Teach

On a warm July day in southwest Denver, eight 12-year-olds line up outside of Room 123 at Henry World Middle School with smiles on their faces. It’s an unusual sight to see. While most kids their age are spending this time playing soccer or video games, these kids are preparing to enter their first period math class.

Their teacher comes into the hall to greet them. He’s a bit lanky, wears a plaid button-up shirt with a small notebook in the front pocket, and barely looks old enough to be considered an adult.

“Good morning, mathematicians!” he says in a cheery tone.

“Good morning, Mr. Jordan,” they respond in unison. And the fun begins.

This past summer, I was Mr. Jordan, a seventh grade math teacher at a program called Generation Teach. The goal of Generation Teach is to attract top undergraduates to the teaching profession while simultaneously fighting against summer learning loss in educationally underserved communities.

As I struggled through challenges and celebrated victories in the program, I not only learned what it means to be a great teacher, but also what it means to be a great leader. Great teachers don’t just fill their students’ heads with facts and figures. They are the fearless and respected leaders of their classrooms.

After teaching this summer, my three main takeaways for leading a successful class were to: 1) build community, 2) be consistent, and 3) give feedback. Although teaching middle school requires an understanding of cognitive development and course material, these three takeaways are true for a leader in any organization, from university student groups to large corporations. Below, I outline how these lessons manifested in my classroom and explain why they are important for leaders of any organization.

1) Build community. In my classroom, building community began with creating a sense of belonging. For most students, middle school is an awkward time in their lives. They are figuring out who they are and desperately want to be accepted. As a teacher, fostering acceptance was often times as simple as consistently calling them by their names, but it also involved deep listening and continual affirmation of their ideas, life stories, and identities.

Feeling a sense of belonging was essential for my students to move to the next step: being invested. Not only did my students have to feel comfortable to be themselves in my classroom, but they also had to be motivated to learn math. I had to cultivate this investment by explaining the real-life significance of mathematical concepts (“Understanding equivalent fractions is important if you have to make twice as many cookies as the recipe says”) and also by explaining the value of education (“Education gives you tools to understand the world around you and work towards a more just society”).

It is the responsibility of leaders to ensure that belonging and investment exist. When this occurs, group members feel like they are part of a community where they are working both for themselves and for something bigger than themselves. They are empowered to dedicate themselves towards individual and shared goals that move the organization forward.

2) Be consistent. I only had five weeks with my students, and every second was a precious opportunity to learn something new. My students could not waste time being confused about logistical aspects of the class. Thus, it was critical for me to establish routines and procedures. They knew that every class started with a short warm-up math activity. They knew my expectations for working on whiteboards with their classmates. They knew that when I said, “Hey, scholars!” they were to respond with “Hey, what?” and give me their attention. As a result, my students focused their energy on making sense of math instead of making sense of class time.

Similarly, when leaders in organizations are consistent, time is spent more effectively. It isn’t necessary to plan meeting times if they happen at the same time and place every week. It isn’t necessary to meticulously create a new agenda for every meeting if there is already a structure in place. When leaders create consistent environments, people can spend more time on what matters.

3) Give feedback. Middle school students are used to being told that they are either right or wrong. This is why, especially in math, many of them only find validation in getting correct answers. I attempted to fight that mindset. Any time I looked over my students’ work, I gave them a plus and a delta. Pluses were positive feedback on aspects of their work that I wanted them to replicate in the future. Deltas, or constructive criticisms, were procedural changes to be made. I presented deltas as learning opportunities, because it was important for my students to know that it was okay to make mistakes as long as they learned from them.

It is often times difficult for leaders in an organization to give feedback. Leaders sometimes take positive work for granted and are fearful of damaging relationships with criticism. This can be avoided if giving and receiving feedback becomes a standard and frequent investment in group members’ growth. As a result, individuals will become more reflective and productive, and the organization will continue to improve.

Classroom teaching requires incredible patience, intense physical and intellectual energy, and an unwavering dedication to young people. Not coincidentally, being a CEO, surgeon, or politician also requires incredible patience, intense physical and intellectual energy, and an unwavering dedication to employees, patients, or fellow citizens.

The best teachers are strong leaders; the most effective leaders are excellent teachers. Both roles are responsible for creating and sustaining something that all social change starts with: a community. By establishing a community whose communication is governed by consistency and constant feedback, teachers and leaders can be catalysts for social change.

Whether it is easier to envision yourself teaching seventh graders how to identify equivalent fractions or leading negotiations for the Iran Nuclear Deal, developing your skills as both a teacher and a leader will help you bring about the most positive change in the world around you.

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  • Dan G

    Wonderful article – I’m sure that the students were appreciative of such a thoughtful teacher.