A tale of two English classes: What teaching taught me about school leadership

A few years ago, our NWEA executive team retreat was held at a resort near Oregon’s Mt. Hood. One morning I was walking through the parking lot to the conference building nestled in the mountain slopes when a large dump truck lumbered up and stopped alongside me. I didn’t take much notice—that is, until a man jumped out of it and started shouting in my direction.

“Mr. Mendenhall, remember me?” he said, mentioning his name. “I was in your writing class.” And suddenly I was transported back to 1998, my second year teaching at a small rural high school in Sandy, Oregon. It was there in the two English classes I taught, back to back, that I learned one of the most important lessons of my professional career: teach your kids, not your course.

The classes I was entrusted with

The first of the two courses I taught that year in Sandy was English for college credit, and it was full of college-bound kids motivated by future professional careers. The second course was professional technical writing, developed in collaboration between me, the automotive teacher, and the shop teacher. Many of the kids in this course had yet to get a single high school English credit and were headed toward blue collar jobs; one of the students, to my surprise, could not yet read.

My class could not be a purpose in and of itself. I had to make my lessons about the kids’ goals.

My assumptions about these kids changed quickly. Even though they were seniors in high school, this group did not all have the expected foundational English language arts skills. A wild diversity of approaches was required to reach them. Whether I liked it or not, I would have to teach the kids, not the course. That did not mean lowering expectations, but it did require meeting the students where they were and figuring out what they needed. What were their aspirations?

Understanding who my students were

Each of the kids in my classroom would be doing something different when they graduated. For the professional technical writing course, that reality led to my fellow teachers and I designing lessons that students could take with them down the hall to their next class. We worked on reading automotive repair manuals for auto class. We would help them read instructions for a construction project in shop class, then ask them to go teach their fellow students from those instructions. In some cases, we asked them to write new how-to guides to share.

“Why do I need to write it down? I know it in my head,” one student asked me.

“Because others will need to know it, too,” I replied.

The reading, writing, and teaching process made the work very tangible for them. All their teachers were united in showing the students that high-quality writing skills matter for careers like plumbing, building houses, or truck repair. Many of the kids seemed motivated by the relevance of what they learned, leading to them passing the class and getting that credit they needed to secure a diploma. They achieved their goals in class just as the students in my college English class did.

Each student had something out there that would motivate them. My class could not be a purpose in and of itself. I had to make my lessons about the kids’ goals. Whether it was Harvard or a technical career, staying in Oregon or a career abroad, success looked different for each of them, and we succeeded together when I recognized that truth.

[F]ind out what brings each person to work each day, ready to succeed.

Classroom lessons learned and leadership

Now, as a leader at NWEA, I use this lesson to help my teams succeed. Everyone I work with is energized by something different. Responsibility, compensation, title: some of these matter more and some less, depending on the person. For instance, I once publicly celebrated an employee for their great work on a project, but later found out they were embarrassed by the excessive attention. Recognition had not been the goal of their efforts. It was a reminder to find out what brings each person to work each day, ready to succeed.

Putting people first at work—whether you work at an education non-profit like me or lead a school or district—means understanding that achieving a common organizational objective, like our mission at NWEA of transforming schools and partnering to help all kids learn, will involve many individuals working toward their own goals. Even though my professional career has taken me far from those classrooms in Sandy, what I learned teaching those students remains close at hand.

My student that I met on the mountain that day was not just the dump truck driver. He owned that truck and several more, too. As we talked, he let me know that he had remembered many lessons from his professional technical writing class. I was glad that I still remembered the lessons I learned there, too.

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