7 Leadership Lessons From My Mom’s Kindergarten Class

Today, Friday, April 16th, 2021, is my mom, Leia Shahar’s birthday.  It’s a special birthday for her, so that’s why I want to make this special tribute to her.

For those that know her, they know that my mom has always been very beautiful, loving, and creative. 

My mom has accomplished a lot in her years.  From being born and raised in Israel, serving at the Israeli embassy in both Ankara, Turkey and Washington, D.C., and getting her bachelor’s and master’s degree from different schools in different parts of the world, raising a family with two kids, and ultimately embracing her true passion, teaching kindergarten.  

For those that remember going to my house as a kid, they will remember my house being filled with lots of crayons, paint, construction paper, and everything in between.  It was awesome being a kid in the house because there was always lots of time for arts & crafts (Raul Tovar, Co-Founder & Creative Director of WindowsWear likes to makes fun of me because even to this day I still love doing arts & crafts).  The walls of our house were painted yellow, not the standard white, because my mom loves the color yellow.  It didn’t matter to her that to everyone else in our neighborhood had walls that were painted white, she liked the walls painted yellow.  My mom also painted the paintings that hung on the walls, the frames of the paintings, the furniture, the cabinets, the tables, the chairs, and painted anything else that she felt was needed to be made a different color.  There were always lots of toys, dolls, tapestries, rugs, and pillows scattered around our house as décor, because my mom loved having it around.  

There is also no one in the world I have ever met who loves little kids more than my mom.  

My mom just loves little kids, and she has taught thousands of them over the course of a several decades.  I still meet people to this day who were students in my mom’s class who tell me how impactful she was to their childhood.  

My mom also cemented my belief that no matter how old we may look on the outside, we are all still children on the inside.  Adults may get angry, upset, and anxious about the world.  They are concerned with money, success, and the world’s uncertainties.  Kids are taught to take accountability for their actions, they are reminded that anything that is not right in the short-term will eventually be better in the long-term, and to work together with others in the classroom.  Adults, like kids, can get upset, and I wish there were kindergarten teachers around to help these adults get through their issues just like kids do in kindergarten.

Here are seven lessons my mom taught me from her experiences working as a kindergarten teacher.  Lifelong lessons we were all taught in kindergarten that play an important role today.

I started learning about my mom’s life lessons after watching the movie Kindergarten Cop.  I was imagining the scene of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the classroom, filled with wild 6-year old children.  The cry, they whine, they yell, they run around.  At the same time, they are little kids, who are sensitive and vulnerable.  I asked my mom, how do you do it, how do you actually get little kids to do what you want?  

My mom said it’s very easy.  

At the very beginning of the school year, my mom writes everyone’s names on a board in the front of the classroom.  Every time a kid does something my mom likes, she acknowledges them to the class and gives them a sticker.

This is where I learned my first lesson.

#1) Competition Creates Compliance and Authority 

I thought wow, this is genius.  

Everyone gets to see everyone else and there’s full transparency.  Everyone can notice the behavior of all the other students as they are all in the same class, and my mom would publicly recognize the child who is behaving in a manner she wants – whether that’s completing an assignment, helping out another student, helping clean the classroom, and more.  Further, every student sees the scoreboard of how they all rank between themselves, it’s also a competition within the class to win more stickers.  Finally, as my mom is the only person who can assign stickers, she cements her authority over everyone.  

#2) Everyone Loves Getting Stickers

Everyone, no matter how young or how old, still loves getting stickers.

You can see how stickers and the concept of stickers like awards, certificates, medals, and titles are used for everything we do.  It’s how we reward and acknowledge employees and workers.  How we rank and share content on social media by the amount of likes, comments, and verified stickers.  It’s how the military gets people to serve long careers and athletes to outperform over competitors.  It’s how we as a society reward people to vote and to take their COVID vaccines. 

Stickers have no value on their own, but they have tremendous value when they are awarded and acknowledged in a ceremonial context.

Being a kindergarten teacher, my mom never had a big budget from her school to purchase arts and crafts supplies.  Instead, she would do things like save all the empty cardboard paper towel rolls we would use in our house and then my mom would make an art class lesson out of it with her students. 

This is where I learned my next lesson.

#3) Make the Most Out of What You Have

We should all take what we have and make the most out of it, and learn new ways of creating something positive and new from something we would think is of no importance, like empty paper towel rolls.

#4) Praise the Positive 

When you are in kindergarten, you’re not really expected to know anything.  Yet, it seems like everything a little kid does is made into a big deal by an adult.  When you are a kid, you can hardly speak, read, or write, and yet everything you do is praised by adults. 

My mom taught me to always give praise, and always highlight the positive even to an adult, just like you would do with a child.

It’s through praise is how we get inspired and want to do better and be better.  

If you tell a kid he or she is smart, they will believe they are smart and aspire to be smarter.  If you tell a kid he or she is stupid, they will believe they are stupid and might lose interest in studying because they don’t believe in themselves.  It’s very important to always speak in positive words.  You ultimately want to inspire others to do more and be the best they can be, and doing this with adults is no different than doing it with kids.

#5) Create Something Out of Nothing 

My mom was always very against coloring books.  She would never been seen allowing any child to use a coloring book.  If everything was defined for the kid, like coloring in a book with defined lines, the child’s mind would be limited in its growth.  

Instead, give children blank sheets of paper, and allow the brain to develop and learn how to shape new ideas and thoughts.   

Instead of defining the rules, go out of the box.  Let ideas and concepts be created.

Sometimes we think we need to give someone something in order for them to have something they have never had before.  Giving someone money, giving them a present.  Instead, maybe give someone something like a blank sheet of paper, give them nothing, and actually work with them to help them develop their thoughts, ideas, to help create something new.

#6) Have Fun

Kindergarten, like life, has to be fun.

As a kindergarten teacher, you can’t be boring.  Kids will instantly have their attentions lost.  Kids love to have fun and be engaged, everything, no matter how boring or mundane the task, it still needs to be put into the context of serving as a fun and exciting new project.

The same is true in the world.  We need to give people the opportunity to be part of something fun and exciting.  Instead of being a vertical, top-down, command-driven organization, a kindergarten classroom is very much a collaborative and shared learning environment.  Many innovative companies like Google also look more like Discovery Zone than a standard corporate office.  The Googleplex was more inspired by kindergarten classroom than a traditional corporate office.

#7) Create Memorable Content

Here’s a birthday card my mom made for my 4th birthday. 

My mom actually hand-wrote and drew every birthday party invitation that was sent out.  She always put her heart into her work, and would never just buy and send out standard cards.  She would rather create them herself.  Not every has all the time in the world to do this, but my mom always thought it was more memorable to make things herself. 

So אמא, instead of the standard happy birthday greeting, I give you this post as my special birthday greeting card to you.