For almost 25 years, my husband Tom was a second-generation, 5th-grade schoolteacher in a challenging, low socio-economic area where, for the majority of students, English is a second language. At the beginning of the year, most children came to him reading at or below a 3rd-grade level and came from parents without an education themselves. Adding to the challenge was the fact that half the class of 33 kids was transitioning into young adulthood and the other half still had both feet firmly planted in childhood—half young adults, half babies.
He has recently retired from teaching, but I remember many days throughout the school year he would come home deflated, frustrated, and defeated about how to reach these kids and move them collectively to the requirements necessary for the more challenging expectations they would face in middle school. Countless times he lamented the feeling he wasn’t succeeding or making a difference with them at all. He worried he was too tough on them, should be more patient, should simply lower his expectations. We would kick around ideas about how he could vary his approach with different students, and he would rise again the next day to try something new in the hopes that it would yield results of which he could be proud.
When the school year draws to an end, “leave no child behind” takes on a deeper meaning for teachers as the children begin to separate themselves into divisions of “ready” or “not ready.” If even one does not appear to make the transition, the teacher can feel like he/she has left the student “behind,” and it feels like a comprehensive failure.
In life and in business, we are all trying to motivate someone, or some group of people, to do something: pull together toward a goal, master a skill, buy something or buy into a concept, become self-starters and think for themselves, make better decisions, or make decisions at all.
For owners, managers, trainers, and frontline sales or service teams who are attempting to teach, inspire, and lead others, there are times we feel Tom’s pain—moments when it feels like the odds are stacked against us and we are making no headway at all. I’ve had many clients over the years relate to me a level of ongoing frustration in their inability to “reach and motivate” their teams, often to the point of deciding they should probably just lower their expectations and accept the apparent limitations of their people … and just double their daily dose of “patience pills” in the morning.
But, here’s what I know for sure: While we may not be successful in reaching and motivating everyone, when we keep our bar high and continually strive to find better ways of developing greatness in others, we leave indelible marks on many, usually more than we will ever know. I am positive that some of my most memorable leadership lessons were moments that the “teacher” of those lessons wouldn’t even remember, but, for some reason, the stars and planets aligned, and at that moment, I was reached. I was stretched, bigger, better, greater… never to return to my previous state.
One year, on the last day of school, Tom brought home many sweet gifts and cards from his students but the one below touched me the most:
You were a hard teacher at times and pushed your new students. You made a big difference in me. Thanks for all your support and thanks for giving me the extra help when I needed it. I enjoyed being in your class. I think you are awesome and you rock. I will miss you. I promise I’ll come and visit from middle school.
PS: Thanks for all the advice. I will carry it throughout my life.
Your leadership matters more than you think. You may never know when, what, or how deeply you have impacted another. Keep your bar high, push yourself to develop as a leader, teacher, and motivator of the greatness in your team and family, and rest your head every night in the knowledge and trust that if we’ve even touched one (and you have) … then you have succeeded, and the world will be just a little bit better tomorrow because of you in visible and invisible ways.
“Nine-tenths of education is encouragement.”
~ Anatole France