How Observing K12 Teachers Made Me a Better Manager
I managed teachers for years before realizing that, unlike them, I had no idea how to teach.
I managed teachers for years before I realized I had no idea how to actually teach: 12 min read
The way to achieve your own success is to be willing to help somebody else get it first.
— Iyanla Vanzantt
For many years after I became a manager, anytime I needed to impart some new knowledge to my team members, from orienting them to a new tool to onboarding someone new, I’d do exactly what I did whenever I needed to acquire knowledge or a skill.
Which is to say, after telling people exactly what they needed to know (sometimes that was as simple as pointing them to a website or instruction manual) I’d put the learning in their hands and let them know they should feel free to reach out any time if there were any questions.
This method of “teaching” worked quite well for me: I patted myself on the back for trusting and empowering my team, for being available and supportive when they needed me, and best of all, I didn’t waste any time thinking about what my team members already knew, what their learning goals were, or creative ways to engage them. I learned best when left to my own devices, I assumed my team members would too.
But when issues that were a result of poor onboarding, training, and feedback started to surface on my team, I realized my “teaching” skills weren’t exactly effective.
I was embarrassed to admit that I had no idea how to actually teach, considering most of my team members were former classroom teachers and I worked at an education company.
I’d spent all this time reading about pricing and marketing strategies, and learning about things like OKRs and CACs and ROIs in my MBA. Meanwhile, my direct reports who were former teachers would throw around words like “scaffold,” “differentiate,” “flipped classroom,” “blended learning,” and acronyms like “PBL,” “TBL,” “SEL,” all the time, yet it never occurred to me as a manager that maybe these concepts could apply to my profession.
Thankfully, my team members, and the educators we worked, with were great teachers. From them, I learned seven key things that transformed how I thought about my job as a manager and as a result, the performance of my teams.
I personally believe everyone needs to think more like teachers, but it’s especially important for managers. Learning how to teach can make you part of the solution to the burgeoning skills gap, help you feel better equipped to address a lack of diversity on your team, and of course, improve your team’s performance. When you can effectively teach new skills and knowledge to members of your team, you facilitate their growth and success. And when your team succeeds, you succeed.
The dozens of teachers I have worked with over the years have taught me far more than what is covered here, but I want to highlight the seven most practical ways that leaders can start to think more like teachers to improve their presentations, meetings, workshops, trainings, and performance reviews.
Seven Ways for Managers to Become Better Teachers
1. Believe in the Potential of Everyone
The best teachers help students believe they can change. They foster what’s known as a “growth mindset” in their students, helping them see that struggle is good for them. I’ve written more about how teachers set the stage for learning here.
When people are placed in positions slightly above what they expect, they are apt to excel
— Margaret Wheatley
By learning more about the implications of this concept in classrooms, I realized that as leaders, we might be subtly reinforcing a fixed mindset when we talk to our teams, if we praise traits like intelligence or confidence, or by only delegating tasks that we know are within the current ability of the assignee. If our team members sense this, they stop trying. On the other hand, if we focus on praising their effort or specific things they did — elements team members can control — and more importantly, challenging them with “stretch” goals or tasks , we are more likely to be reinforcing a growth mindset.
Suggestions for Leaders:
- Ask if your team members are familiar with the concept of the growth mindset. If not, refer them to this handy breakdown to help set the stage for learning
- Help your team members see the effort behind any finished work/product/project/accomplishment that they admire
- Provide feedback whenever you notice someone improving or learning something new, to point out the progress they’re making
- Give team members tasks they aren’t yet ready for and goals that will make them uncomfortable. If the team needs extra support to meet your expectations, I’ve included some more tips in this post
2. Put the Learner First
Successful teachers adopt a student centered approach, personalizing their instruction to meet every learner’s needs by differentiating and scaffolding their lessons. They also prioritize the “social and emotional learning” of every student (more about these concepts here).
I’m a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.
— Abraham Lincoln
Have you ever sat through a meeting or training you didn’t need to be in? Or tried to listen to someone go on and on about something you have no interest in? We all have! It doesn’t feel great right? I would venture to say it even feels disrespectful. As leaders, we can everything we do, not just our trainings, more employee-centric by paying attention to what they need and want. The better we understand our team members, the more we can make sure whatever we teach is appropriately challenging and highly relevant to their individual situation.
Suggestions for Leaders
- Clearly explain the relevance and importance of any new tool, system, process, feedback etc that someone on your team is expected to internalize
- Vary your teaching methods, especially if you’re presenting to a group, to ensure your approach works for a variety of learning styles
- Get to know your team members personally, so you can gain insight into their perspectives, their frustrations, their obstacles, their background knowledge, their preferred way of learning, their expectations and their needs.
- Co-create learning objectives with each member on your team and tailor your instruction to meet these objectives
3. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
Teachers have the herculean task of planning lessons that will engage not just one learning but up to thirty at a time, for hours on end, 180 days in a year. It’s simply too much for a teacher to do well on their own, no matter how skilled or experienced they are. To accomplish this, they rely heavily on platforms such as Nearpod, Find Your Grind, and Teachers Pay Teachers for inspiration when they create their lesson plans and assignments. They collaborate with other teachers in their departments, and across their districts. They also shift responsibility to their students whenever it makes sense to do so. For example, students may have rotating responsibilities to feed a class pet or take attendance.
Managing is a similarly consuming profession. The to do list is never ending — there is always more a manager could do to improve performance, communicate to stakeholders, or catch up on industry news. It’s too much to do on your own. Chances are, there are many resources available for you to leverage, no matter your industry or the tasks your team needs to accomplish. As a manager, you should not build everything from scratch and you should not do your job alone.
Suggestions for Leaders
- Subscribe to one comprehensive industry digests to stay informed
- Form what teachers refer to as Professional Learning Communities — whether that’s by joining a network such as Level, or by creating your own mastermind group
- Before you spend any time creating something from scratch (whether that’s a pricing strategy, a professional development agenda, a project management template, or even a prototype of a new application) look online for best practices and starter kits
- Before there is too much on your plate, reach out to peers for help, or think of what tasks could be delegated. Even if the task feels like something only you can do, consider whether it could be a good learning opportunity for someone on your team to take on
4. “I, We, You” vs. “You, Y’all, We”
There are two broad approaches to teaching.
- The I, We, You paradigm is the more traditional way to teach. First, the instructor does it (I). Then, the class does it (We). Finally, the individual student does it (You). For example: “Today, I’m going to show you how to add fractions with different denominators…Now, let’s try a sample problem together….OK, now that you know how, you can practice more problems in the worksheet!”
- With the You, Y’all, We approach, instructors act more as a guide. Here, the teacher presents a dilemma or situation for students to grapple with individually (the You). This allows them to think first without peer influence. They then work together in pairs or groups to come up with a solution or explanation (Y’all). Finally, the teacher brings the class together to share and discuss their answers and reasoning (We). At this point, the instructor may decide to lecture, if at all.
Adults, like children, learn best when they can first struggle to solve a problem (the “You, Y’all, We” approach). This immediately engages them in the learning process, and primes them to absorb the information that you are ready to teach. “Problem-based learning” helps team members develop critical thinking and communication skills.
Suggestions for Leaders:
- Reflect on how and when you can shift from an “I, We, You” approach to a “You, Y’all, We” approach in meetings, presentations, workshops, and even 1:1 check-ins
- Provide your team with tasks that arouse their curiosity up front, that give them the opportunity to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again. This cycle of learning is critical to knowledge retention and mastery.
5. Always Have a Plan (and a Plan B (and C))
Failing to plan is planning to fail.
— Alan Lakein
Teaching is never standing in front of your class and saying the first thing that comes to your mind. Preparing a lesson is a vital part of being a successful teacher. Before class, at minimum teachers should have:
- a good grasp of the content they need to deliver
- a strong connection between their lesson’s learning objectives and the curriculum
- a plan for activities and questions they will use to help students meet learning objectives
- accommodations designed for students who are advanced, need extra support, or may be absent
But just as important as having a plan is knowing when to swap it for a backup plan. Class time is previous, so if it turns out that an activity is less engaging than anticipated, or too advanced for the majority of students to grasp, teachers need to be able to make quick pivots in their lesson.
This also includes planning for students who don’t understand the content, who are absent, for technology that doesn’t work etc. Before the start of your next class, you should already know what you’re going to talk about, have a list of questions to use on the class, notes on your lecture, have your material ready, activities ready, among many other teaching techniques prepared. And you should’ve practiced any lecture by yourself before you give it in class.
Suggestions for Leaders:
- Clarify, then simplify what you want to teach — find one to three things important about your topic, focusing on the parts you want learners to remember. These become your learning objectives. (e.g. Learning Objective #1: Determining whether a source is credible)
- Make your learning objectives action oriented and relevant to the learners. One easy way to do this is to add “so that” at the end of the objective to describe how the skill or content will benefit the learner. This will ensure (e.g. Learning Objective #1: How can we evaluate the credibility of sources so that we can prevent the spread of misinformation)
- Once you have your learning objectives, build your agenda to make sure everything you plan to do is aligned to one of those learning objectives (otherwise, cut it or save it for another time).
- Visualize how your time will go and consider: What supplies do we need? What possible interruptions could derail my agenda? What should I do if the technology I want to use isn’t working? What should I do if our time is cut short or we need more time? What is a back-up activity I could use if this one doesn’t work? What else can go wrong? How can I make sure we don’t waste our time if anything unexpected happens?
- Once you’ve reflected on the above questions, create a rough sketch of your Plan B and C!
6. Bring Your Material to Life
Teachers have the most impact on learning when they truly engage their students and help students “construct” their own knowledge, rather than just “receive” it. To make learning more active, teachers use class time to help students connect pieces of information, not to rehash readings or deliver one-way lectures.
As a leader, we should be thinking about how we can create meaningful experiences that will help develop skills and knowledge, not just how we can convey crude information. As with marketing and sales, it often takes multiple “touches” to convince someone to “buy” (learn/understand) what you are “selling” (teaching). The best kinds of “touches” are the most personal and interactive.
Suggestions for Leaders
- Stimulate curiosity by finding what will make a topic interesting to the learner and being explicit about its relevance
- To keep learners engaged, leverage group discussions, field trips, demonstrations, guest speakers, or any of the other tools described here. One rule of thumb is to spend double the amount of time on activities as on lecturing, leaving aside some time at the end to share, reflect, assess, and reinforce the lesson objective.
- Ask yourself what is interesting, important, or meaningful about the topic, then make sure the content you are delivering is connected to those “hooks” to keep the learner engaged
- A useful rule of thumb to plan a presentation is the 10–20–30 Rule, popularized by presentation expert Guy Kawasaki: Use no more than ten slides in total, have presentations no more than twenty minutes long, and use type size no less than 30-point.
7. Your Job Isn’t Just to Give Feedback, It’s to Get It
We all know that teachers are constantly giving feedback to students. But they also get feedback: principals and/or department heads will conduct informal observations (often called learning walks) as well as the occasional formal observations to evaluate how teachers are doing and provide feedback to improve their practice. They use tools such as “exit tickets” and live polls to gauge how well students have grasped a lesson.
Managers often hear the advice that they need to give feedback to team members, but in the spirit of not reinventing the wheel with more advice on how to give feedback to team members, I’ll focus instead on how managers should request feedback. As Bill Gates once said “We all need people who will gives us feedback. That’s how we improve.” But managers rarely have the opportunity to get feedback on how they’re doing, beyond the performance metrics of their team. By treating getting feedback as something as integral to their job as giving feedback, managers can also reinforce the growth mindset that is so important to cultivate on their team.
Suggestions for Leaders:
- Create an environment that is safe for others to give you feedback by thanking people when they give it to you and demonstrating that you value it by taking action to incorporate it
- Invite other managers to your team meetings, presentations, and even 1:1s to observe and provide you with feedback (give your team a heads-up that this is for you to get feedback)
- Conduct your own “learning walks” and observations of other team meetings, 1:1s, and presentations with the explicit purpose of improving your skills (of course, with permission ahead of time from whoever you are observing)
- If your company doesn’t already have 360 feedback, you can create your own anonymous surveys to request feedback from peers and direct reports. You could use the “Start, Stop, Continue” framework that teachers use, asking: what you’re doing well (continue), what else you could do to improve your performance (start), and what you could work on or stop altogether (stop)
The trend in business is for companies to outsource the learning and development of their own teams, which I’m not against, but it shifts the burden off of managers (who often have the best insight into a team member’s on-the-job performance), to outsourced trainers (who don’t have any visibility into their students’ blind spots, strengths, and weaknesses). The problem is that most managers don’t know how to teach. We tend to “teach” to our learning style, leaving other types of learners out, especially when teaching to a group.
Learning how to effectively teach adults has implications beyond improving team performance and onboarding new team members efficiently. It can also improve diversity on your team. Recruiters and hiring managers aren’t exactly the biggest risk takers — they tend to hire or put forward people with traditional backgrounds and experience that match the primary responsibilities of an open position. If you vocalize that you are confident you can teach anyone the skills and knowledge it takes to succeed in the roles you are hiring for, recruiters can start to expand the scope of what they’re looking for in a candidate.
The good news is that with a little effort, leaders can pick up the best practices teachers use to better engage team members and help them grow.
Brooklyn based Start-Up Advisor, Impact Investor, Filmmaker, Writer, and Leadership Coach. I focus my time on the future of learning and the future of work.