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Teachers do more than teach; they coach, mentor, and go above and beyond to make a difference in the lives of the students who pass through their classrooms each year. Teachers set an example as leaders, and all of us can name at least one teacher in our lifetime who had such a great impact on us they contributed to the person we are today.
I’m honored to have had several educators like this throughout my academic career. In commemoration of World Teachers’ Day today, I’m highlighting some of the ways in which teachers epitomize what it means to be a leader worth following.
1. Teachers communicate in a way others will understand.
Teachers know each student in their classroom has different needs and learning styles. I distinctly remember a lesson taught to me by my ninth grade language arts teacher. I was struggling to understand the relationship between verbs and direct objects, especially in complex sentences. My teacher, Ms. Giles (now Mrs. Brown), knew I loved soccer and explained it to me in a way she knew I’d understand: She used a soccer metaphor to explain direct objects and indirect objects. Not only was she patient with me, she knew my learning style and communicated with me in a way that would resonate.
Not all leaders have a classroom of 30 students to advise, but they do have to guide people with different learning styles. Individuals on your team may need a new concept or idea explained in a way they will better understand. Communicating with others on their terms enables team members to grasp the information better and be more effective in their work.
2. They set attainable goals.
Thinking back to my time as a young athlete, my preferred coaches—and the ones from whom I learned the most—were the ones who had clearly defined goals in practices and games. When I was a senior in high school, I was able to take a class taught by my swim coach, Coach Myers. I could tell he prepared his lessons in the same way he did for swim practices: He set clear goals that could be accomplished in the time we had available.
To be frank, our swim team was not very good. But each practice, Coach Myers had a specific plan to progress each swimmer on the team—whether it was simple techniques or more advanced moves to improve our time goals. As a teacher, his lessons had clear objectives; our current events class knew very clearly what we would learn during the period, be it about tax code, voting registration laws or the military actions in the Middle East.
Coach Myers taught me the importance establishing clear, attainable objectives that worked their way toward a larger goal. This approach has made me more productive in my work. Each day, I set clear goals to ensure I’m on schedule and completing my tasks.
3. They take time to coach.
As an athlete, I’ve spent a lot of time with coaches both on and off the field. When I was in college, I had the honor of serving as student body president of my university. The role was overwhelming at times, and I was fortunate to have our dean of students there who always made time to give me guidance.
Dean Katie, as we lovingly called her, understood the value of coaching and mentoring a young leader. She advised and mentored me when I was struggling, especially in moments when I encountered an issue outside of my control. She was very willing to listen and advise.
As leaders, it’s important for us to be there for those who are younger and less experienced than we are. Young leaders need coaching and mentorship. This means giving directed feedback and specific plans of action, as well as simply giving guidance. Taking time to evaluate, instruct and advise is key to mentoring a young leader.
4. They have fun with those they lead.
A lot of people remember their quirky teachers—the ones who do funny things, but who also laugh and joke in class. One of the most effective teachers from whom I had the pleasure of learning was Ms. Lenski, my high school U.S. history and government teacher. She used quirk and humor to create an atmosphere that made her students want to learn, but also, maybe more importantly, want to be present.
One day, her phone rang during the middle of a lesson. Phone usage was banned in my high school, but her ringtone was the (then) hit song, This Is Why I’m Hot by Mims. For a room of high schoolers, this was both shocking and hilarious. She picked up on the humor of the situation and let the phone ring, dancing along to the song, giving us all a laugh.
Ms. Lenski demonstrated the need to be authentic. As leaders, we need to remember not to keep up facades or walls, and that being our true selves is important to leading others. Ms. Lenski did so through humor and by being true to herself.
Teachers are, almost by default, leaders of their students. Because of this, they have a great opportunity to instill good leadership lessons and values to the future leaders in their classrooms. I’m not sure teachers will ever understand the extent of the nonacademic lessons they impart on their students, but I do know teachers everywhere try to help their students be better people.
No matter what industry we serve, leaders have the same duty as teachers: to help their followers grow and be the best versions of themselves. Who are the teachers in your life who helped shape who you are as a leader? What did you learn from them and how do you use this as a tool to help you guide others?