Business Leaders Need This Fourth Grade Teacher

If you face disengaged employees, low productivity, low morale, and trying to get teams to do more with less: listen up! This elementary school teacher is turning the tables on traditional thinking and in the process, modeling steps that can also get results with an adult workforce.

Scenario: She is given an under-resourced fourth grade in one of the lowest performing districts in the state. (We are keeping her anonymous to protect the confidentiality of her class. For the sake of this article, let us call her Ms. Resilient or Ms. R.)

She arrives and is greeted with no books, no lesson plans, not enough desks, no technology, no school-wide systems, not even a schedule for the day. This is nine days before the start of the school year. Her children come from homes where they have experienced significant trauma and anger bubbles below the surface. Many come from homes headed by single mothers  and a number live in homeless shelters.

And you think you have challenges!

Now, in her third year at this school, Ms. R has achieved amazing results. During her first year, her class won the perfect attendance award twice and now she has one of the highest attendance and lowest tardy rates in the school. Children make signs about how they love math. The fourth grade classroom is self-managed and each child has a 30-minute period in which they quietly “work in their office."

She achieves this by concentrating NOT on the best bulletin boards but rather starting the year with a blank room. She asks students what they want their new home to look like and what jobs are needed to make this “team" successful. Ms. R has them fill out job applications and teaches them about the job interview process. This allows the children to identify and voice their contributions from day one. (By extension, consider the self-selection process found in companies like Zappos and Gore.)

This Is How She Does It

Belief precedes behavior

Ms. R practices intelligent optimism. She reframes how she views the children and sees them not as unreachable and violent but rather as youngsters crying out for help. She literally calls them scholars and has them in groups with college names: Bucknell, Harvard, Yale and more. She teaches them college-ready words and shows them pictures of her graduate school classroom so they can see what it looks like to engage in a college-level discussion. Their vocabulary has improved and-so has their posture! (Think of the correlation between posture and confidence.)

She believes in them and tells them that. She shows them that they are better than they think and they respond. The old adage is “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Ms. R. states, “I believe it and now I am seeing it.”

Doesn’t happen overnight but she is tenacious. She and the children celebrate small wins that are adding up to big gains.

How are you seeing your employees? Do you believe they have untapped abilities? Do you point out small wins or only failures?

Love conquers fear

At the end of every school day, she tells her 30 nine-year olds that she loves them. In a trauma-prone home environment created by lack of food, an absent parent, and sometimes domestic violence, LOVE is not a common word.

Given the fast-paced work environment that demands productivity, “love” would not be a word tossed around. And yet, Tim Sanders, when he was Chief Solutions Officer at Yahoo,  advocated that business love meant sharing everything you know, helping people make connections, and being interested in the well-being and growth of others. In short: Knowledge. Network and Compassion can win the day.

Family matters

No one comes into a schoolroom or workplace and leaves the “family” behind. Even some knowledge of “the family” opens the door to compassion and caring. Ms. R. has home-visited every household that will accept her—some 90%. When she visits, it’s not to report on the child but rather to talk to the parent about what their life is like. She asks to see family pictures, to hear family stories. Children show her their bedroom. And—despite the extreme poverty—the family inevitably invites her to a dinner. She accepts.

“When the child sees me with his mom, he knows we are working together. It is a subtle bond that makes a difference,” asserts Ms. R.  Sometimes, she takes the parent to McDonalds where the atmosphere is unconstrained. Other teachers refuse to do this intense work. But Ms. R. is reaping the benefit of a united front to serve the student.

In businesses, I have seen managers inquire about employees’ children, their after-work activities, their parents, their spouses. The intention is to discover the whole person and not just the information on a resume. One manager sends notes of congratulations or gratitude to employees’ homes. Family does matter.

Personal accountability trumps punishment

In traditional school settings, an unruly child is often taken out of the classroom, sent home, or  punished in some other way. Not so in Ms. R’s classroom. Over time, she has taught the children how to think as a community with everyone taking personal responsibility for what they do and how each students choices impact the others.  The “community” creates its own standard of behavior. There’s an imaginary “tool box” for helping students who struggle the most in the classroom. The students and Ms. R. take responsibility for aiding each other.

Imagine a work team determining how they want to interact with each other and what is the best supportive behavior. Imagine a team looking at what creates trust and what breaks it, how to have conflict without blowing the team apart, and how to hold self and each other accountable. This is exactly what Ms. R. does.

Age does not always equate with wisdom

Ms. R has been asked to give presentations at Harvard's School of Education. She hesitated at first because the teachers around her often were horrified by her methods that were getting results over the way-we’ve-always-done-it mentality. But she relented because, as she insisted, “I know we can make this work!”

Surprise: she is only 24 years old with a degree in sociology. Her youth, unbiased perspective, and enthusiasm are creating an amazing result for a school that had little hope. In fact, she is planning a field trip to take her children to the mill that once served the town. Right now, she is working on raising $2,500 for four field trips.

“I want to create a year’round experience for students from poor immigrant families to understand the rich, hard-working immigrant history of their industrial city and to feel proud of their community.”

What millennials do you need to heed?  Do you seek out young employees who have a fresh perspective and a new way of creating a culture that glows with engagement, positivity, and promise?  Perhaps, like Ms. R., you will find an old soul in a young body. This fourth grade class might really hold the answer.

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PS: Small wonder she was the district’s youngest ever “teacher-of-the-year” finalist.