The 80/20 Rule of Teaching for Impact

What does it mean to Lead by Serving?

The definition of our fundamental of success of Leading by Serving we use in the Teach for Impact system is…

The most significant leaders put the needs of others before their own and endeavor to make sacrifices to help improve the lives of others. It is impossible to realize our full potential without committing to a cause beyond our own desires. Leaders do not gain significance from their position or their power, but from how they use their platform to enrich the human experience for others.

Reflect for a minute on people you know who are great models of this fundamental. Sure, we can point out people like Mother Teresa and Clara Barton. But we all know great leaders who served in small schools or churches, or in positions which lacked worldly significance. Yet, their ability to touch our hearts and their impact will never leave us.

As author Jon Gordon said, “You don’t have to be great to serve, but you must serve in order to be great.”

Play the Sunset

As we continue our series on leadership lessons from Mr. Holland’s Opus, we are going to look at a sacrifice of time Glenn Holland made for one of his students. During his first year teaching, one of Mr. Holland’s students was a girl named Gertrude. She was a shy girl who played the clarinet…but she didn’t play it very well for a senior in high school. Glenn offered to work extra with Gertrude before school. She was thrilled because everyone in her family had something they were fantastic at and she desperately wanted to be a tremendous clarinet player.

But despite Glenn’s efforts and extra time, Gertrude did not show the vast improvement she wanted to see. In fact, she gave up and decided to quit.

However, before she could walk out the door, Mr. Holland had a little bit of energy left to give her. He asked her if playing the clarinet was any fun. She responded that she wanted it to be. Mr. Holland told Gertrude the problem was she was trying to play the notes on the page. She was confused. So he showed her what he meant when he played her the song Louie Louie by the Kingsmen.

Mr. Holland laid out the cold hard facts. The group couldn’t sing, had no harmonics, and played the same three chords repeatedly…but he loved it. And so did Gertrude.

“Why?” Mr. Holland asked. Because, she said, it’s fun.

Glenn told Gertrude music is about more than the notes on the page. It’s about heart and moving people and being alive. He told her he could teach her the notes on the page…but he couldn’t teach her the other stuff.

He asked her to sit down and play the clarinet while he accompanied her on the piano. Also, he didn’t allow her to look at the notes on the sheets of music because he wanted to show her that she simply needed to trust herself. After a couple tries and the same old mistakes which frustrated her, Mr. Holland asked Gertrude what she liked best about herself. She said she liked her hair best because her dad told her it reminded him of the sunset.

Mr. Holland told Gertrude to play the sunset.

Awareness...Inside and Outside

Because Glenn pointed Gertrude to look inside herself, tap into her heart, and connect what she did to who she was, he was able to serve her emotional needs. Once these needs were met, she connected them to her mind and ultimately to her mouth and fingers as she played the clarinet.

Awareness is one of the key skills of Leading by Serving. There are two areas we must be aware of on a bigger level. One is looking inside ourselves to see what we have to give to the world. The other is looking at the world and finding a need which exists.

Sometimes we see a need in the world first and then we look at ourselves and realize we have something to provide. Or sometimes we discover a gift we have and then search for opportunities to help solve a need in the world.

For Glenn Holland, he knew the gift inside he had to share was creating music. Initially, he believed composing an opus, which would be played in great concert halls, was his avenue to serve the world. Yet, through experiences like the one with Gertrude he would eventually discover there was a greater need in the world he could serve.

One of the principles of the Teach for Impact system is teaching our subject matter and curriculum is important and can help our students, but it’s not our most important job. The scene with Gertrude in Mr. Holland’s Opus is a great example of this. Glenn’s effort to Lead by Serving helped Gertrude improve her clarinet skills. In fact, the next scene in the movie showed Gertrude playing a solo during the graduation ceremony at the end of the year. However, at the conclusion of the movie we find out she did not become a professional clarinet player. Instead, Gertrude became the governor of Oregon.

Was it the physical skills of playing the clarinet which had the greatest impact on Gertrude and truly made a difference in her life? Or was it the ability to help her look inside herself and understand she could write her own story which left the biggest mark?

80% of What We Do Only Leads to 20% of Our Impact

Now, some of us might be thinking, “Are we really expected to do this for every one of our students?” The answer is no. But this brings up a great point we need to discuss about our distribution between management and leadership.

“I have to teach the curriculum.”

“I have to hand out discipline and keep an orderly classroom.”

“I have to attend all these meetings and complete all these reports which take up valuable time.”

We might say all these things…and yes these are all things we have to do. In fact, a majority of our time is still going to be devoted to tasks like these. This is part of our jobs and there are things we HAVE to do. But just because these are the things which take up the majority of our time does not mean they are the most important.

Cal Newport called it The Law of the Vital Few in his book Deep Work. Some people call it Pareto’s Principle. We might even simply know it as the 80/20 rule. The idea is that 80% of our input (what we do throughout the day) creates only 20% of our output (impact). But the flipside to this principle is 20% of what we do (input) creates 80% of our impact (output).

In other words, we might spend 80% of our day teaching our subject matter, establishing and executing classroom procedures, and managing our lesson plans and gradebooks…but these activities have an inversely proportionate impact on our students.

Think about it…of all the information we were taught in school and all the procedures of the “classroom management” plans we endured, how much do we actually remember? And if we do remember any of it, how much of those things have impacted us to the point it has affected the manner in which we live our lives?

Perhaps we use the multiplication tables we learned in fourth grade every day and they helped us get our current job. It is possible for us to be impacted through the normal routines of teaching…but it’s only 20% of the impact on us.

But maybe we had interaction where our music teacher told us to play the sunset. Or we had a teacher who took the time to listen to us when we had a bad day. Or any other investment of a teacher’s time and energy in our lives which has deeply impacted us and we use the interaction to guide us toward living as a better version of ourselves.

Even though these interactions equate to 20% (or less) of our time, they have had an impact which remained with us over the course of many years.

It Doesn't Take Much

So how can we use the 80/20 rule to increase our impact as a classroom leader?

We can stop trying to do more…to jam more things into the 80% of our day. Instead, we need to focus on becoming more and building our leadership skills so we can take advantage of the 20% of our day to add more value to the lives of our students.

It doesn’t take much. It might just be one conversation and encouraging a student to play their music from their heart.

It takes Leading by Serving.

It takes Teaching for Impact.

And it results in making a difference in the lives of our students.

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