I didn’t have a good boss until I was 46, except my supervisor when I taught in Japan, and I’m going to leave that out for now. I had a terrible experience with employment, which is ironic since I’d wanted to work since I was 10. I was ready to set up shop and start making money—be in charge of my own destiny. And maybe that’s what happens when you have to wait too long for something. By the time I was 16 and got a job I didn’t care.
I got fired from maybe a dozen jobs along the way. I had a knack for seeing the futility in the way things were done—sometimes I’d point it out, sometimes I’d just be driven to despair. My bosses often thought I was a flake, and sometimes so did the people around me. And I probably was. There was something about the job situation that would bring this out in me. That’s another thing. I had this uncanny way of mirroring the environment around me. This went on until I was about 40.
I had one boss tell me I needed to be more confident, and this really threw me for loop. I had total faith in my ability to get things done—I was raising my kid by myself for god’s sake, I had a Master’s degree—but this woman set my nerves on edge and made me paranoid. And I eventually realized she wasn’t very confident and it made my act unconfident because I was afraid of offending her. In other words I don’t think she wanted me to be confident at all, I think she wanted me to be afraid of her. So I was being what she really wanted me to be in spite of what she said.
So here are the things my bueno boss did right, when I was finally 46 and I encountered him:
1. He smiled and sent out a good vibe
Yes. I saw him at a hiring fair in the Bronx just as it was being wrapped up. Everyone was putting away their stuff and he was laughing and joking with the other guy he was with. He seemed to be enjoying himself and I handed him my resume as a sort of last-minute departure thing and he said, “Sure, we’ll take your resume,” in the friendliest possible way. Well, I saw him at a later job fair in Manhattan and didn’t I dart right over to his table and get hired.
2. He was a great interviewer, he was sure of himself, and he showed empathy
There was a long line at that job fair, stupendously long, and he spent a good amount of time with each candidate. But then he took minute out and he allowed us to create a list in the order we were waiting so we could go walk around the job fair and come back. He showed us this kind of respect and consideration and it made a big impression on me.
I stayed in the line since I only had a couple of people in front of me and when I was up he conducted a solid and relaxing interview. He asked me questions that allowed me to just speak about myself so I knew he was reading character and potential as much as job specifics. I was inexperienced about job specifics (teaching, it happens), but I’d had a wide variety of employment (ha ha—above) and I was flexible, a quick-study and good with people. Whereas other interviewers had focused on what you would do with a given lesson, and I had just sort of frozen, this administrator had a more open attitude, and I took the job right then and there. You can learn specifics on the job.
3. He was consistent and steady, and he gave good advice
He could help you and he would, he knew how because he knew what he was doing. The first few times I got observed he went over my lessons with me beforehand. He would ask me why I was planning on doing what I was, what I wanted the students to get out of it, and so forth. I had a little trouble answering at first because it all just seemed like this morass, everything did. But I had an idea behind what I wanted and he could see it and articulate it. I eventually learned the language he was using and was able to echo it, and this in turn helped me in making my lesson plans.
He also sailed steadily, wasn’t moody, was almost always cheerful, and he liked what he was doing. When things were getting tense around the place or teachers were getting exhausted near the end of the year, he’d acknowledge it but move on anyway. He walked through the halls with this calm sense of purpose that almost seemed to be physically moving us forward.
4. He was always there, he was fair, he helped you, and was nice-looking to boot
He had this way of seeming omnipresent. Whenever you had a problem in your class or with some students he was somehow there. I’d seen him defuse many a tense situation with students in a way I truly admired. He’d get them to back off from each other, or from him, or from you, while allowing them to save just enough face to make it possible. He was polite and respectful but unwaveringly firm. You didn’t want to incur his wrath but it wasn’t because you were afraid of him—you just didn’t want to lose the respect you knew he had for you.
If someone, a student, deserved harsh words he wouldn’t hold back. In my first year some students hid the books we were reading rather than passing them to the front and then tried to storm out of the room. I had my boss called over and he asked me to wait outside the class. When he came back out his face was red, and he had torn a book in half, which he handed to me. He had lit into them, and apparently told them it wasn’t the books themselves he cared about but the students’ educations and the fact that they were wasting them, and their time. He wasn’t afraid of the occasional grand gesture.
Furthermore, he wore an impeccable suit and he always looked polished and with-it.
5. He had enough confidence to be your friend and your boss, and he had time for you
He had time to help you and he had time to just talk to you. He had a good sense of humor, and could respond to the unexpected comment. Even while taking things with due seriousness he could discuss them lightly. It had to do with confidence—the confidence he had in himself and the faith he had in you to get things done. He saw your strengths and what you were capable of and let things you weren’t so great about slide. If he felt you knew what you were doing he’d give you a lot of room. If he had to crack down on something he’d tell you why and apologize for it. He never, ever held his authority over you or made power plays, but he made you want to do your best for him because you didn’t want to let him down.
This was my assistant principal and he left last April to become a principal of another school. Our school went through a big adjustment when he left and so did I. In fact for the first three months of this school year I was still doing things the way he had allowed me to, being the way I had been able to. I've had to change but I've been capable of doing it. I’ve channeled some of the things he had done as a leader and it’s helping me. A good boss is a true leader. And they don’t come a dime a dozen. Take it from a formerly erratic employee.