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

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 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.

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.