Leading by teaching: Leaving the boardroom for the classroom


by Joe Nathan, 8/21/08 • What happens when you have everything, and it doesn’t make you happy? Tom Bloch had a wonderful family, wealth, and health. He was CEO of his family’s tax preparation business, the nationally known H&R Block Company. But as he explains in a new book, Stand for the Best, he “ decided to follow a higher calling: teaching math to inner city kids.””

Bloch is frank: “The decision was the most painful one I have ever made…as CEO I had directed tens of thousands of employees from a quiet and spacious corporate office. Suddenly I was teaching mostly poor, mainly African American students in a make shift classroom in an inner city school.”

His career shift attracted plenty of attention, including articles in People Magazine and the New York Times, along with appearances on Oprah, as well as the Today Show.

Bloch constantly directs attention away from himself, and toward inner city youngsters and teachers who succeed with them. Teaching math in a tough Kansas City neighborhood brought him into direct contact with drugs, turmoil, assault, hunger and homelessness. Bloch does not downplay the challenges.

But he describes some of the outstanding teachers he encountered, and hopes that his book will raise respect for teachers. “I consider dedicated and gifted teachers to be genuine heroes.”

Inspired by some fine teachers he encountered and intrigued by the possibilities, Bloch helped start a charter public school in Kansas City. He’s teaching math there now. He offers plenty of stories about how the school has encountered both “accomplishments and disappointments.”

There’s plenty of frank discussion of the charter public school movement. “Charter schools don’t have all the answers.. Nobody does.” Bloch thinks that giving people a chance to create new schools based on solid research is a very good idea, but readily acknowledges that not every charter has been well run.

There’s plenty of humor in the book. Having given my wife a few dumb (though well intended) gifts, I loved Bloch’s story about giving his wife halogen lights for Christmas “We needed better lights in the basement.” But since then, his wife Mary “has been exceedingly specific about her Christmas list.”

On being told that his father is becoming a teacher, one of Bloch’s sons asked, “Are you going to be my teacher?” After being told “no,” the six-year-old “looked greatly relieved.”

While education and charter public schools are part of the story, Bloch’s central message is much wider. Quoting the English novelist E.M Forster, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

Bloch decided that the most important things in life are “happiness and usefulness…I can think of no more fitting goals in this short life.”

Having talked with Bloch many times in the last decade, I’d call him like humble, hardy, humorous, and (though he would deny it) heroic. He has a lot to teach inner city students, and anyone wondering how to be happy.