What I learned about business in middle school

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By Jane DiBridge, founder, Standards in Puzzles

A surprising number of teachers go into education as a second career, usually from the business world. They are a great resource for advice that usually goes something like, “Well, if this school were a business, they would do this or not tolerate that.”

It’s true that schools can learn from businesses, but the opposite is also true, even though it is a rare boardroom conversation that starts with, “If this business were a school…”

Teaching sixth-grade English language arts was the meat in my career sandwich.  I entered the profession after years in marketing and the commercial printing business, taught for seven years, and retired to start another business. My experiences as a teacher gave me some unexpected insights that have changed who I am as an entrepreneur. Here are a few things that businesses learn from the academic world.

Don’t enable the office clique.

Some employees seem to belong to the “in” crowd, while others may feel that they are not really part of things. Often, managers and supervisors are either oblivious to these social hierarchies or unwitting participants.

It’s easy to pay more attention to the employees who go out of their way to be in the boss’s presence – the ones who stop him in the hall to talk about football or just generally suck up. Make an effort to spend time with more introverted employees. They are usually found hard at work and seemingly content, but feeling disenfranchised and unappreciated. Bring them into the fold by seeking their counsel, sitting next to them at lunch, or inviting them to your birthday party.

Sometimes the best reaction is no reaction at all.

In the classroom, there are always a couple of clowns who do their best to unnerve the teacher. Paradoxically, the more she yells, lectures, and threatens, the worse they behave. If you find yourself about to lose your temper with an employee or co-worker, understand that anything you do or say will make the situation exponentially worse.

Instead, adopt a deadpan “I am not amused” attitude, and carry on. After you’ve had a chance to settle down, pull the offender aside and have a rational conversation that clearly defines your expectations.

When nothing is told, much is assumed.

I assumed that any reasonable person would know better than to get up and start using the pencil sharpener when I was speaking. My students assumed otherwise. It taught me to always make your expectations clear, however obvious they may seem, because we all approach situations from different points of view.

Don’t let privacy concerns be a scapegoat for failure to communicate.

I learned from my students that no one wants to feel that they are not important enough to be told what’s going on, especially when they are the ones being impacted. Lack of information can create a gulf of resentment between those in the know and those on the outside.

For example, if a friend is suddenly gone from the class, the students want to know why. Instead of basically saying, “None of your business,” take the time to pin down what you can and cannot say, and then craft a statement that provides appropriate information. If possible, ask the person in the center of the mystery what information they would like you to share with others.

Check for understanding.

After a lesson, it’s important to make sure that the students “got it.” There are a multitude of fun and clever ways of conducting what educators call a formative assessment. One of the most popular is called “ticket out the door,” in which students use a Post-it note or 3-by-5 card to summarize the lesson in a few words or write one thing they learned and then hand it to the teacher on the way out of class. From the cards, the teacher can assess who understands the material and who might benefit from some extra help.

After a meeting or training session, take a few minutes to make sure that everyone has a clear understanding of whatever it is that you want them to know.  It’s not a test or a way to punish employees who might not have been paying full attention, but a way to see who might need some extra help to do their job.

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