Getting With It

Readers of a certain age might remember the Sweathogs.

This band of misfits, malcontents and underperforming students made up the remedial class in the 1970s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter,” best known for launching the career of John Travolta, who played the leader of the Brooklyn high school’s group of underachievers.

But what the Sweathogs most remind me of is my first job. In another life, I was a high school English teacher. One of my first classes was a group of students much like the Sweathogs. Dumped from other classes and, in some cases, actively pushed out by veteran teachers, they found themselves in the late-afternoon classroom of a first-year teacher.

There was the basketball star whose poor grades and lack of consistent effort put him in constant danger of academic ineligibility, keeping me under pressure to keep his grades up. He was joined by the football quarterback, whose charismatic personality put him in leadership roles but whose chaotic home life made him prone to outbursts.

In the back of the room, there was the burnout, whose laconic manner and obsession with weed belied a razor-sharp intelligence and curiosity. He was joined by a 19-year-old dropout returning to school for his one last shot, and a teen mother trying to balance the incessant demands of an infant at home with high school.

Rounding out my group of Sweathogs was “Chunk,” the jovial starting center for the football team, and his sharp-witted, sarcastic cousin, Tina.

I was too new to realize that the task of teaching this unruly group to appreciate the beauty of Shakespeare or recognize the satire in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was nearly impossible for a rookie teacher. Even the most experienced teacher would struggle, especially since it was the last class of the day.

As I struggled to maintain discipline and prepare the group for life after high school, I often found solace in building up my stock in the single factor that defines a good teacher more than anything else — a quality that also has talent management applications.

The best teachers you had as a student were probably widely different in their approach. Some were by the book, others wildly creative, some warm and engaging, while others kept an emotional distance. What united them is something very unscientific: They were “with it.”

One of my professors introduced me to the idea. The premise is that students can assess a teacher’s competence often within seconds of the first time they step into the classroom; as a result, they are almost instantly able make a surprisingly accurate judgment of how effective that teacher will be.

With-it teachers possess an almost preternatural sixth sense. Even writing on a board with their back turned, these teachers are aware of what’s going on behind them. Silence can be as rich a source of information as noise. They know their students so well and are so adept at interpreting body language that they can appear to be able to read minds.

In an era of scientific management, when we’re consistently assessed on a variety of measures using hard data, one of the hallmarks of high performance remains persistently hard to pin down. You have a hard time describing it, but you know it when you see it. As it is for good teachers, so it is for talent managers.

The parallel in talent management is HR people who “get it.” I’ve heard that expression from a number of successful executives, both inside and outside HR. They agree that good talent managers possess all the skills required for the job, just as good teachers are subject matter experts.

But what sets them apart is something different. In the case of talent management, it’s the ability to see problems from a business point of view first and HR second. It’s the ability to find the root cause of a business challenge, whether it’s an HR problem or not, diagnose it and offer solutions.

While business partners and executives might be hard-pressed to describe what makes that talent manager so effective, they know it when they see it.

Even a Sweathog knows that.