The Day the CEO came to Work with Me

Otto Katt is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at the Irving Middle School in Roslindale, MA

Eric Schwarz, CEO and Co-Founder of Citizen Schools.

It’s not every day that the CEO of an organization of 500+ employees takes times out of his day to muck it up in the trenches. But on a recent occasion, amidst staff shortages, our fearless leader, Eric Schwarz, took time from his managing, directing, and executive decision making to substitute teach in a classroom. Mr. Schwarz founded Citizen Schools in 1995 and taught the very first apprenticeship. Over a period of several weeks Eric taught students about the ins and outs of journalism. From those humble beginnings, Citizen Schools has expanded to 7 states, serving 4,000+ students a year, and has become a lead innovator in the field of Expanded Learning Time.

My day starts with a trek into downtown Boston where I work in our Marketing and Communications department. While I was sitting at my desk that overlooks the beautiful Boston Channel, I hear a voice call my name. Now, Eric is not an overtly intimidating figure, but he is 6’3 and he is the big cheese.

“Otto, what time you do usually catch the “T” for campus?”

“Umm {thinking to myself wait, you know my name} we, uh, usually leave, at like 11:15”

“Ok, stop by my desk before you head out and I’ll come along.”

The CEO helping a student work through a problem on the board.

The commute to school usually consists of lesson planning, some griping, and mental preparation for facing a horde of, at times, very trying adolescent middle-schoolers. Today’s trip was different, Eric was quizzical about what it’s like working at HQ and then having to transition to campus. He asked my one coworker about a blog post she had written on the challenges of living on a stipend. He wanted to know what it was like implementing a new program at a school facing significant challenges. And we got to ask him questions. What’s the long term plan for the organization, how has Citizen Schools changed since its inception, what are the Knicks chances this year (aside from his taste in baseball teams, I approve of Eric’s NYC sports loyalties).

And when it came time to get down to business, Eric got his hands dirty. He sat through our pre-program meeting, learned our behavior management expectations, bathroom procedures, and what to do when a student said they had no homework. In the classroom he saw firsthand what it’s like to be a teacher when some of your students don’t speak English and when others have difficulty staying focused. He saw the joy that comes when a student makes something they are proud of, and the million little things you can’t account for when managing a classroom. When we reflected on the day, Eric shared his highlights and areas for improvement and thanked us for the opportunity to join our team for the day.

Eric Schwarz working one on one with a student.

At a recent staff meeting, Eric talked about his experience. He showed the attendance list he had held onto, a memento of his first classroom experience in almost 3 years. In a day and age where there is a sense that corporate America has lost touch with Main Street; where CEOs are decried as fatcats who care only for their bottom line; where presidential candidates write off entire segments of the population for a lack of “work ethic;” it was heartening to see my bosses’ bosses’ bosses’  bosses’ boss, lend a hand rather than just paying lip service to challenges and needs of his employees. He did it without the glam and glitziness of “Undercover Bosses”, there were no cameras documenting the occasion, no photo-ops here. Just the genuine passion for a cause he earnestly believes in and cares about. I don’t know too many organizations, even in the non-profit world, where the CEO takes it upon himself to stop and pitch in. I know it’s been a lesson for me, if and when, I’m a manager, that I can do all the saying, exhorting, commending, and cajoling I want, but sometimes the most powerful thing, is just doing.

Want to come work for an organization where the CEO just doesn’t talk about the mission, he actually helps put it in action? Then check out our teaching fellow position and other opportunities.    

Kat says:

“…there were no cameras documenting the occasion, no photo-ops here.” Except the camera that took the photo of Eric working with a student? The photo embedded directly above that sentence? :)

Nice piece, Otto, and thanks, Eric, for spending some time on campus! It’s great to feel as if the Big Cheeses are in touch with the campus team’s experience.

Allison Colonna says:

This is certainly an article worth reading. I am both filled with hope and reverece that this kind of management actually exsits out in Corporate America. All too often you are accustumed to seeing your higher ups comgin in, berating you; your team and the work you’re doing and then leaving with smug smiles and devilish grins plastered to thier overpaid and under worked faces. Otto, this is a great piece about the importance of doing good works and getting great results both spiritually, and physically. Thanks for sharing and I wish you the best of luck as you prepare to teach and serve our youth!