Leadership Lessons from a Grade School Teacher
Would you like to be a better leader? A more effective mentor?
If so, you can probably benefit from reflecting on past mentors of yours who have influenced you. For me, it was a favorite teacher of mine back in 6th-grade when I was 11 years old. Mr. Fernholz was a young and engaging teacher. He was to me the embodiment of what a good teacher should be.
Mr. Fernholz stands out to me not so much for any specific things he did. Rather it is because of how he approached his job and how he made his students feel. Well, I’m not sure about how others felt, but I hold him in high regard to this day.
1. Genuine Encouragement
For one thing, he did not talk down to us or demean us like some of the previous teachers I had (oh the stories I could tell). He genuinely respected his students and wanted to bring out the best in us. There was nothing obvious about it as much as his attitude. It took me years of reflection to realize how much he respected us.
One personal example was his encouragement of me. I wasn’t the best student at that time and did not work as hard as I should have. My 6th-grade friends were not the best students either and there were strong social pressures to slack off. My grades were OK but not great. Mr. Fernholz frequently remarked that I was not working up to my potential.
Mr. Fernholz could have just accepted my under-achievement as my other teachers had. Instead, on many occasions, I remember him saying, “if you don’t go to college, I will hound you until you do.” HIs quiet encouragement was a constant motivation and not only through college but during stressful times throughout my career. Thanks, Mr. F!
People on our teams and those we lead or mentor need encouragement like my 6th-grade self did. It needs to be genuine, though, and not patronizing. People sense the difference and your interactions will be less effective.
A good leader/mentor is also fair, so when praise is warranted, they will give it. But when guidance is needed, (s)he will provide that too in a fair way. An incident in my 6th-grade class illustrates this point.
Towards the end of my 6th-grade term, the class took a major test. It was difficult, but I had studied for it (likely after some encouragement from Mr. Fernholz). Sometime during the exam, I accidentally kicked some books out of the shelf below my seat. This was not surprising since I was a fidgety kid. I ignored the books so as not to appear like I was looking up answers in them.
When we got our exam results back the next day, I scored well, higher than any other exams I completed that year. It was astonishing, then, when Mr. F wanted to talk to me after class. He told me another student said she saw me cheating on the exam by looking up answers from the book that had fallen. My better-than-ever results probably added to the credibility of the accusation. Still, I was dumbfounded and hurt that someone would accuse me of something so untrue.
To this day, I believe that my teacher had somehow perceived I was telling the truth. Maybe he was able to read my body language and other non-verbals to make his determination. He may have also factored in my past behavior, which if not exemplary, was at least free of any issues. He probably also took the context into account—such as some previous awkward interactions between “my accuser” and me. Maybe Mr. Fernholz understood it, but I’ll never know.
3. Set Boundaries
A final significant memory of 6th-grade has to do with discipline. Our class had a disruptive kid who I recall was named Mike (it was a lot of years ago). Mike was a classic problem child, and today might be given special counseling or medication. Mike frequently acted out his feelings and disrupted the class on many occasions.
Partway through the school year, Mr. Fernholz set aside a corner of the classroom with masking tape that would be “Mike’s Area.” When class was in session, Mike was not supposed to leave his area, which reduced his disruption a great deal. It really did improve classroom dynamics. In today’s world, I fear that kind of treatment would likely get a teacher reprimanded if not suspended.
What I can now reflect on is that Mr. Fernholz’s treatment of Mike was pretty fair. The kid wasn’t ostracized since he stayed in the classroom. He could participate in discussions and was expected to do all his normal work. What “Mike’s Area” did for him was to set boundaries that he seemed to need. (Some kids today are said to have “boundary issues” when they overly pester others.) That certainly described Mike, and my teacher’s handling of it was appropriate and effective.
We need to be able to set boundaries with people on our team and with whom we mentor. The boundaries might be the amount of time they take up. They might be the kind of advice a mentee seeks. Over the years, people who I have mentored will easily stray from career advice to asking for consulting help for solving work problems. Every mentor’s boundary line is different, and my advice is to be aware of yours and set expectations upfront.
To summarize, I have come to realize Mr. Fernholz was my first mentor. He was also an early example for me of a good leader. He may or may not have viewed these things as his role, but he was effective in them. We can improve our own leadership by thinking about and modeling the way effective mentors have helped us. You probably have good role models in your life that you can reflect on how they helped you and how they made you feel. Please share your tips for how your mentors have helped you.
Richard Larson, PMP, CBAP, PMI-PBA, was the founder of and is now a consultant for Watermark Learning. He is a successful entrepreneur with over 35 years of experience in product development, business analysis, project management, training, and consulting. As an internal entrepreneur, Rich led the development of several Watermark Learning online products as a business analyst and product owner.
Rich is a frequent speaker at Business Analysis and Project Management national conferences and IIBA® and PMI® chapters around the world. He has contributed as a lead author to the BA Body of Knowledge version 2.0 and 3.0 and was a lead author on PMI’s Business Analysis Practice Guide. He and his wife Elizabeth Larson have co-authored five books on business analysis.