picture of starbucks employees

Lessons in Classroom Leadership from the Corporate World

I was a junior in Rob Myslik’s English class when I first realized a classroom didn’t have to have desks in rows and students quietly attending to an academic lecture. This class had couches, and the topic of discussion always led back to the meaning of life. Mr. Myslik was a “first among equals,” rather than an authority figure. As a result of his classroom leadership, we worked harder in his class than in any other.

Deadlines and grades faded into the background, while collaboration and excitement about ideas reigned. Once we read Walden, I gave up my plans of becoming a lawyer: I knew I was destined to share with others the type of education with which I had been blessed.

As a new teacher, though, I often got so wrapped-up in grading, class management, and content coverage, that it was easy to lose sight of abstract principles like student ownership and engagement. It wasn’t until I left education for a management position at Starbucks corporation that I realized what servant leadership really meant, and how it could be applied in a school setting.

Learning Classroom Leadership by Trial and Error

I landed my first teaching position right out of college – it wasn’t in high school, like I’d hoped, but I was confident the same principles would apply to middle school. My class had just finished our first short story, and I had been trying (with little success) to get a discussion started. After ten minutes of teeth-pulling, a student finally called out “Can’t we just do a worksheet!” I was in shock. The comment challenged everything I thought I knew about what students wanted. I soon realized that while Mr. Myslik’s class seemed to flow effortlessly, he had to be doing something to create such an effortless environment. As a student, I had been blissfully unaware of whatever magic was being performed behind the curtain.

I soon became frustrated with the challenges of working in a low income, struggling school district. Supplies were short, buildings were poorly maintained, and administrative support was non-existent. I still remember my first professional development workshop — we were asked to look at a penny and write down everything we noticed about it. Then, we took turns reading the lists we had made until the hour was up. I wasn’t sure what was missing from my teacher’s toolkit, but I knew this wasn’t it.

Real World Learning

After just four years, the realities of the school system slowly eroded my passion for teaching. I wanted to make a difference, but felt like I simply didn’t have the power to do so. I moved to Los Angeles to work as an Accounts Manager for Ethos Water. We were a five-person startup/non-profit hybrid that used proceeds from bottled water sales to fund clean water projects. I had two objectives – increase sales volume to our current customers, and reduce the time and costs of delivery.

I took a straight-forward approach: create delivery routes and automatically replenish orders when customers ran out of stock. In a short time, our sales climbed and delivery costs plunged. In spite of myself, I was enthralled by my office job: the excitement of finding novel solutions to problems and achieving measurable results left an impression that would later inform my instructional philosophy.

The fundamental skills I had learned in schools — reading, writing, and math — played a key role in my ability to understand and address the company’s needs. At the same time, there was an element of creativity and trailblazing I hadn’t experienced in the classroom. The general assumption in schools was that students needed to start with fundamentals before they could do the more “advanced” work involving application of knowledge. But was it possible to teach students foundational skills through problem-solving?

Servant Leadership at Starbucks

When Starbucks Corporation purchased Ethos Water, I was given a choice: move to Seattle for a job in their Consumer Products Group, take 3 months severance, or become a store manager. Seattle was too rainy, and while I had dipped my toes into office work, the CPG position just seemed a bit too dry. But Starbucks’ philosophy and its people had really impressed me — I also thought that running a store could be exciting. In my mid-20s, I was willing to try anything that meant a new adventure.

Managing a Starbucks was a blast! Starbucks’ management training consisted of two months of classes and on-the-job training. I learned about Situational Leadership, Servant Leadership, and other well-established techniques for inspiring and motivating teams. I was actually surprised at the extent of collaborative culture at Starbucks. As a leader, it wasn’t enough to give out orders — we had to be the most flexible and understanding person on the team. We were expected to get results by setting a vision and inspiring employees to buy-in.

Not surprisingly, this worked. When I took charge of my first store, I focused on store cleanliness and reduction of wait times. The techniques I had learned for delegation and motivation allowed us to improve quickly. Soon, we had increased sales so much that I needed to hire new employees, and I couldn’t train supervisors fast enough to keep up with our needs. I was assigned a larger store, and again sales rose. If it weren’t for the 4 am wake up routine, and the fact that my educational mission kept whispering in my ear, I would likely still be at Starbucks today.


Bringing Servant Leadership to the Classroom

As exciting as it was to manage a team and problem-solve all the details of a retail store, I knew it wasn’t my true calling. I returned to the classroom in 2007 and began to use the leadership techniques I’d learned with my students. I still had a long way to go, but Ethos had taught me about creating systems from scratch; Starbucks had taught me how to bring about change from within a system. Running a classroom, while being part of a school, required a bit of both. During this phase of my career, I began to appreciate the limitations of teacher-centered instruction

illustration of students making posters

Over the next nine years, with the guidance of master teachers and inspirational school leaders, I learned how to combine the inspirational culture I’d learned from Mr. Myslik with the lens of measurable results I’d learned in the business world. I realized that my classroom was not an island, and I began taking on school leadership roles, such as curriculum development and the coaching of newer teachers.

As a veteran teacher, I came to better understand how to turn over ownership of learning to my students. I saw myself more as a facilitator than a teacher. The systems I’d created in my classroom and helped to implement throughout the school allowed students to learn by exploration and to have a voice in what they learned and how they learned it.

Creating Room to Discover

These experiences led me to found Room to Discover. As teachers and parents, we don’t facilitate learning by providing information, we do it by helping students understand what they are truly capable of and giving them opportunities to explore and create. As school leaders and education influencers, we don’t support teachers with scripted curricula and harsh evaluations, we meet teachers where they are and support them in achieving their own goals. 

Have you created Room to Discover in your class, home, or school? Do you have questions about empowering students to take ownership of their learning? Post your comments and questions below, or e-mail us: [email protected].

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