Jonathan Small

Life Lessons from a First Grade Teacher

Posted March 18, 2014 by Jonathan Small, MBA

I will never forget the first time we met Mr. Weinstein, the first grade teacher for three of my four children.

It was open school night, September 1998. He was still a young man, but he was already quite celebrated in our school district. Even then his reputation was so large that I half expected Superman to walk into the class.

My wife and I and all the other parents were awkwardly seated in the little kiddie chairs, our knees in our chests, in a semi-circle at the front of the room. After introducing himself, the teacher opened with these memorable words: “Let me begin by telling you about my big goals for this year.”

Big goals for first grade? Seriously? I immediately began searching my assumptions about what I expected my child to achieve in first grade. My mind went to the usual suspects, the three R’s: some reading, some writing, some ‘rithmetic. But the teacher had a different agenda.

“My first big goal,” he said, “is that they become good citizens of this community. Because that’s what we have here in this classroom – a little community – and I want them to learn how to get along with one another, appreciate each other, and be productive members of the community.”

Wow, I thought. Hard to argue with that. What else has he got?

“My second big goal,” he said, “is that they develop a love for learning – because once they have that, the reading, writing and ‘rithmetic will all follow.”

So true, I thought as the chills started crawling up my back. What could possibly top this? What’s left?

“My third big goal,” he continued, “is that I want your children to fail.” Huh? He went on: “I want them to develop resilience for failure. Because that’s how they learn – by trying and failing.”

I was dumbfounded. His words were so simple, so true, so right on.

But more important than his words were his actions. We had the daily pleasure of seeing his big goals play out in every assignment, every decision, every moment in that classroom. His strong leadership vision was clearly articulated and he followed-through. Without question, the experiences in that classroom changed our children’s lives.

My eldest son is now 22 years old (hard to believe!) and yet I remember that day a decade and a half ago like it was yesterday. So inspired was I by the simple wisdom and clear vision of this special teacher.

These many years later, the life lessons I learned from this teacher are still profoundly influential, especially when viewed through the lens of quality improvement, a framework I would learn later in life:

  1. Think big and set bold aims.
  2. See the big picture and don’t get stuck in the small stuff.
  3. Share your vision with others so we can journey together.
  4. Make the complex simple so everyone can be inspired.
  5. Ensure your daily actions support your long-term vision.
  6. Don’t be afraid to fail because that’s how we learn and grow.
  7. The journey is as important as the destination.
  8. Take care of the people with whom you share your journey. In the end, it’s all about them.

And I will add one more: don’t be surprised to learn lessons from unexpected sources. After all, who would have thought I could learn so much from my kids’ first grade teacher? 

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