About the time that the first .com bubble burst, I found I had become a bit frustrated with the Bay Area startup scene: Too many rich white dudes wasting other rich white dudes’ money. My chosen antidote? Go back to school and become an elementary school teacher in the places where teachers were needed the most.
I taught for five years total, either 4th or 5th grade, and always in schools that were characterized by low academic performance in neighborhoods characterized by high violence and extreme poverty. For an overview of the conditions, you can read this post where I am quoted.
Though it was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, my time in the classroom was also the most rewarding. I couldn’t have predicted this when I left, but it turns out there are some things I learned while standing up in front of those kids that have become invaluable in the work I have done since then.
How to be an amazing manager to a diverse group.
Oh, the management. One year, I had the most diverse class imaginable: 32 kids spanning such a variety of ethnicities, linguistic backgrounds, previous education, natural abilities and special needs, income levels and parental and familial support. One kid needed me to tell him to take a bath. Another had parents who regularly provided us with school supplies, party food, and field trip chaperones.
Although technically my job was to teach them to read and be proficient at long division, I could not accomplish these things without first making sure that these young people felt motivated, connected, safe, accountable, and successful. The fact that I eventually became good at this will always be one of my life’s proudest achievements.
I mean no disrespect to 4th graders or web developers when I say that managing one requires the same abilities as managing the other. I hope this makes it clear why that’s true. No matter your age and what you’re trying to accomplish, if you don’t feel motivated, connected, safe, accountable and successful, you just won’t make it.
In that diverse group of students, I refined my skills for giving each student what they needed, and for building a community where everyone’s differences were respected. In my experience, the same skills that apply in the classroom apply in the cubicles and coffee shops where today’s startups are finding their way.
What to read next: A bit more about what I learned from teaching, where I answer the question, “What do lean startups and fourth graders have in common?”