Five Career Lessons I Learned from Teaching

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Yesterday, Labor Day, provided closure on the summer for many people across the country, bookending the season of leisurely days at the beach or pool, barbecues, and family road trips. Being a creature of habit, I must admit enjoying the return of routines that the new school year brings. Even so, I found myself fondly looking back this weekend on my family’s summer travels, including a special side trip down memory lane.

On a drive from the Washington DC area south through North Carolina, we stopped at Northern Vance High School in Henderson, NC, where more than 20 years ago I was a high school biology and chemistry teacher via Teach For America. Memories of students, colleagues, and classrooms flooded my brain as I stood near the entrance of the school that served as a home-away-from-home for my two years of teaching. Reminiscing about the naïve young woman who stood before her first class of students—many of whom were just a handful of years my junior—I realized that several of the lessons I learned as a teacher have stayed with me across my career. Most, in fact, have served me particularly well as a consultant. To wit, five career lessons I learned from my time in the classroom:

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Relationships eat management strategies for lunch. On the surface, “classroom management” was teacher parlance for “keeping your students under control.” I recall experienced teachers warning me of the importance of classroom management, and I collected a bevy of strategies to keep students engaged, maintain order, and enforce consequences. What I found over time, however, is that classroom management was much less about discipline strategies than it was about the culture I developed in my classroom, and the relationships I established with my students. Creating a culture of trust and mutual respect often allowed classroom management to occur organically. Similarly, I’ve found in my work as a consultant, relationship-building has been foundational in “client management.” Developing trusting, respectful relationships that engender clear communication has often paved the way for smooth interactions with my clients.

Supportive colleagues are invaluable. Teaching, simply put, is hard work. In my first year, I struggled to find my balance as a teacher, carrying the weight of teaching responsibilities while also supporting my students’ navigation of the often-challenging circumstances they faced. Having a tight-knit network of teacher friends got me through that first year. Knowing they understood my frustrations and could also genuinely celebrate my successes was comforting and fortifying. Likewise, I have developed friendships with colleagues and mentors who have helped me find my way as a consultant. There is something deeply reassuring about finding your “tribe,” and knowing that they not only speak your language, but also intuitively understand your motivations for why you do what you do.

If you’re going to critique, be ready with alternatives. Working in the rural south, I was very accustomed to meals, sporting events, and various other activities beginning with a prayer. However, I once attended a diversity training sponsored by the county school system that began—I thought somewhat incongruously—with a call for a prayer.  Just as we prepared to bow our heads, I mustered up the nerve to ask the facilitator if, maybe in the spirit of the training’s purpose and recognizing perhaps not everyone in attendance shared the same faith, we might consider instead taking a minute of silence for people to pray or reflect as they felt moved to. After a few flustered moments, the facilitator did indeed invite us to take part in reflective silence, and the meeting moved on without issue (thankfully). My vice principal, an older Southern gentleman who was also at the training, later remarked, “Joyce, the reason why your comment worked in that context is because you didn’t just critique—you had another possibility available.” I hear his voice as a reminder to this day that constructive criticism can always be made more palatable by being paired with possibilities and viable alternatives. I remind myself, too, that my role as a consultant is not to critique, but rather to help clients learn and improve, and to work with a sense of possibility in finding pathways to make that happen.

Take job titles with a grain of salt. Several veteran teachers told me before I began teaching that the most important people at any school are the secretary and the janitor, and rightfully so. I found through experience that the secretary and janitor were each in their own way essential to the day-to-day machinery of the school day. The secretary served as administrative gatekeeper and manager of the back of the house, while the janitor ensured that the hallways and classrooms were clean, orderly spaces in which both students and faculty could take pride. Their modest job titles didn’t make the presence of the secretary and janitor any less essential. I have carried with me in my current role the recognition that board presidents, CEOs, and executive directors are undoubtedly integral to any organization’s functioning. But program staff, administrative assistants, and operations managers are every bit as essential—and sometimes even more so—to the daily, mission-driven work of an organization as their colleagues with loftier titles, and are due the respect that that fact warrants.

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Be your authentic self. One of the most memorable pieces of advice I encountered as I prepared to enter the classroom was this gem: Don’t smile until Christmas. The advice wasn’t meant literally (at least I hoped it wasn’t), but the message was clear: be stern from the get-go, lay down the law, and let your students know you mean business. The problem with this advice was, I just didn’t have it in me to follow it! I could certainly assert myself with my students, but I couldn’t imagine taking on the role of drill sergeant. And so, I decided to forgo this bit of established wisdom, and chose to be myself instead—which meant I was periodically nerdy, silly, and irreverent, sometimes all at once. Being authentically myself allowed me to connect more personally with my students, and helped me realize that my version of being a teacher could be just as valuable as the stern, strict disciplinarian version that others advocated. Similarly, giving myself permission to be authentic has enabled me to find what I can uniquely contribute as a consultant, which in turn has helped me maintain a sense of satisfaction, purpose, and joy in my work.

 

What past advice did you chose to follow—or actively *not* follow—in previous positions you've held? What insights from your first job have you carried with you throughout your career?