I walked the quarter mile from the Metra train to my first school for my first teaching job lugging my wheeled suitcase behind me the whole way. The suitcase was full of my personal collection of children’s books, gleaned from my childhood library and garage sales.
I was one of several thousand twenty-two year old white woman applying for the same few teaching positions in Chicago Public Schools and my job and life experience had little to recommend me. I finally got a job after interviewing with the principal at a job fair, answering her questions while she ate Cheetos out of the snack-sized bag. She promised to call me. She didn’t. So I called her every day for weeks until I finally managed to get an interview at the school. The interview consisted of a tour of the building, bullet holes in the classroom windows and all, after which the principal looked at me and said, “Are you sure you want to work here?” I answered in the affirmative, and a few weeks later I showed up for teacher inservice.
I knew very little about how to be a teacher or how to be a worker. I was still learning how to pretend to be an adult.
In her book Lean In Sheryl Sandberg talks about the need for women to find a mentor in their profession. This insider can help them develop as an employee and help them hurdle the potential pitfalls in their job. I was fortunate enough to run into exactly this person on my first day of work. Enter: Karen.
Karen had previously made partner in her law firm when she decided to change careers to become a Chicago Public School teacher in one of the more challenging schools in the district. Karen walked into the office of the school on my first day, took one look at me, and immediately took me in as her project. Since that day she has grown from being my mentor to being one of my best friends. In honor of her birthday I offer you five lessons I’ve learned from her about how to be a better employee (and maybe how to be a better person.)
1. Sit in the Front
When I’m in new situations I try to squeeze in unnoticed, sitting near the back, slouching in my seat, keeping a book or notebook nearby to detract attention. But this was not Karen’s style. I spent a lot of time watching her, trying to figure out what it was about her that got her so much recognition and praise. And then I realized it. She always sat in the front. For everything. Often directly in front of the speaker. Often she would even go a step further and talk to the speaker afterward, always finding some relevant question or point from what they said.
We all know it’s not cool to sit in the front. Or to be “that person”. But Karen changed my mind of this. She was known by everyone: the boss, the boss’s boss, the other teachers, the parents, and the students. She made herself seen, and once she was seen her ideas were acknowledged and affirmed. Of course this could backfire if you don’t want to be seen. However, Karen wasn’t afraid of being seen making mistakes. Instead, she invited people to come into her classroom, preparing opportunities to be seen at her best (and she was often the best). Her fifth year of teaching she won a DRIVE award for teaching with a $2500 stipend for excellence. It worked.
2. Read the Mass E-mails
Every week our principal would send out an email telling the staff the announcements for the week. I would generally read the weekly memo, but I was in the minority in that regard. I remember Karen telling me to print out the memos and put them in a binder. She has this thing about binders. I looked at her as if she had turned into a seal. Not only did that seem useless, it was a clear waste of paper.
But I did it. And over time I started to see trends in what appeared in the memos. I started to notice what my principal cared about and ways I could stand out from the crowd. Paging through old memos gave me insight into the goals and vision of my administrative team I otherwise might not have had, and gave me immediate conversation points when called upon by my principal.
3. Contribute to the Team
Among other challenges my first year of teaching, I found myself strapped for cash. Especially once my student loans came due and I inherited a car from my sister (which cut down my morning commute by an hour and a half each day, but increased expenses). Therefore, when my colleague walked into my classroom in the middle of chaos, ahem, “a lesson” and told me that she was part of the social committee and was collecting twenty dollars from everyone, I dismissed her.
I asked Karen about it later and she said, “You gotta give to the social committee.” I argued with her, but she stood firm. She said, “There are things you do because it builds investment and buy in, and shows you’re part of the team.” I gave the money, and I gained the friendships of my colleagues, people I desperately needed to help me that year, and people I still keep in contact with today.
4. Take Advantage of the Additional Opportunities
While flailing as a teacher my first year, I was also taking graduate courses to earn my teaching certificate. These classes met three nights a week. Then there was planning lessons and gathering the necessary materials for my classroom. Add to that making copies at Staples everyday since requests for copies to be made at the school had to be submitted a week in advance, which was a week more advanced preparation that I ever had my first year. Free time was at a premium and was mostly spent drinking, crying, or in panic attacks.
There are thousands of opportunities for free trainings and workshops and professional development for teachers. And Karen dragged me to them all, mostly by bribing me with hot chocolate. But these extras were almost always incredible. There were tons of free giveaways, I met important people in the field, I collaborated with other teachers, and I learned a ton about what it meant to be a good teacher, and how I could become one, someday.
Would it have been easier to sleep in on my Saturdays? Yes. Am I a better teacher because I went to the trainings? Absolutely.
5. Give it Something Extra
It’s an ongoing joke that Karen buys the heaviest, glossiest paper that money can buy. I once asked her to print out sub plans for me, and she printed 150 pages of worksheets on 75 pound, high gloss paper. I came back the next day to find the prettiest, color-ink worksheets sitting completed on my desk. Laughing, I told her that I didn’t think the kids needed to be doing multiplication tables on vellum. She just said, “But it’s so nice to write on that paper.”
We may have to agree to disagree on the quality of our paper, but paying attention to the small details and going above and beyond is a point of agreement. When covering bulletin boards, Karen used fabric instead of paper. And not just any fabric, coordinated and brightly colored fabric. And she kept a couch in her room for the students to sit on in the library.
By doing the extra, she became a magnet for people. As you can imagine, her students love her.
I haven’t “arrived” in my field, so the advice here is shared humbly, with the caveat that it is all anecdotal with no formal research backing. That being said, taking these tips from watching and listening to Karen has allowed me to be pretty successful in all my workplaces thus far. Except maybe when I work with her. Then she steals the show. But it’s worth it to get to be on her team.