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Eyes on me
How being a teacher taught me valuable workplace leadership skills
The year was 2008. I had just started my senior year in college. I had interned at Lehman Brothers for two consecutive summers. Despite the preceding summer's financial instability, I had envisioned a full-time role at the company post-graduation and anticipated a relaxed senior year. A few days after my return to campus, I awoke to a startling New York Times headline: “Lehman Files for Bankruptcy; Merrill is Sold”. Suddenly, the ground seemed to give way beneath me. The following weeks were fraught with anxiety as I grappled with my post-graduation plans. Unlike the typical scenario at my school where seniors had multiple job offers to consider, in that year, one offer was considered fortunate. Despite the unnerving process of networking and numerous handshakes, I secured a position as a teacher through Teach for America. Being an immigrant child, I attribute a lot of my success to my education, and I decided to utilize the time after graduation to give back.
I ended up in San Francisco teaching a third grade bilingual class (in Spanish and English). Teaching was the most challenging, yet rewarding comedy of errors that I have ever been a part of. I worked my butt off and became the CEO of my own little company with 20 mostly-disgruntled employees who happened to be 8 years old. While I knew by the end of my second year that I was not meant to be a teacher (DM for stories), I learned through trail and error the foundational skills to be an effective leader. Let’s dive into the skills I learned and and how they apply to a business setting.
As any parent would attest, teaching children necessitates abundant patience. I’m not proud of it, but I admit that I struggled to be patient when I first started teaching. There were moments when I would turn toward the board to whisper a few curses before turning back to my class to ask “Anyone have the answer?” Teaching taught me that you won’t get anywhere by brute force. Everyone learns and grows at their own pace and you need to give people the space and scaffolding to help them get there. While educating eight-year-olds demanded a distinct type of patience, it helped me exercise my patience, enhancing my calmness, tolerance, and composure at work when confronted with issues. I have found these skills invaluable in volatile environments like start-ups where panicking doesn't expedite problem-solving.
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Focus on your locus
During the teacher training at Teach for America's summer bootcamp, a frequently reiterated phrase was "Focus on your locus", signifying the importance of concentrating on elements within one's control. As a teacher, I understood that students' classroom behavior was influenced by various factors. To optimize my impact, I needed to concentrate on aspects within my control; focusing on uncontrollable factors was futile and non-beneficial, especially for the students. This learning has helped me anchor myself in the workplace by focusing on manageable issues. It has also guided me in prioritizing and addressing specific critical issues instead of getting overwhelmed by all the minor difficulties at a particular moment.
The big goal
Being a Teach for America teacher, I was required to establish achievable goals for my students for the academic year. Typically, these goals focused on reading and writing skills and were visually displayed in the classroom to serve as a daily reminder. My responsibility was to deconstruct these big goals into smaller lessons to guide students in their journey. Regular progress assessment and pivots were integral parts of this process. The ability to set a vision or a big goal, work towards its achievement, and assess it daily is an indispensable skill in a business setting. Teaching also familiarized me with tackling complex goals and navigating chaos on the path to success. Every day, a teacher perseveres through numerous challenges like underfunded classrooms and socioeconomic issues affecting their students, demonstrating resilience and determination in guiding students towards their (big) goals.
I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to have been a teacher. I am thankful for the skills I acquired, which have made me a more effective leader in the workplace, and the chance to influence the lives of numerous children. Despite the challenges, the rewards were unmatched.
Please, please, do not take teachers for granted. They are some of the most resilient and under-appreciated individuals out there. If you are fortunate enough to have a former teacher want to work for you, prioritize their application as they are often full of grit and will do whatever it takes to be successful in their role.