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Tax Man Turned Teacher: Interview with Former CEO Tom Bloch

TeachHUB Interview



Tom Bloch spoke with to discuss his transition from CEO of family company H&R Block to inner-city teacher, charter school founder and author of Stand for the Best


In the last five years, all but two students graduated from the charter school you founded, University Academy. What is the secret of the University Academy’s success?

To tell you the truth, our program is very traditional. Some people say, “gosh, you guys are not terribly innovative.” And we’re not and we don’t pretend to be. What we try to do is create an expectation of our students. They don’t always start in kindergarten; many come midway through their education. 


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The real challenge is taking someone in 7th grade who is already behind academically and sometimes behaviorally and to convince them that they’re on track to not only go to college, but to graduate from college and to have a successful life, both for themselves and for their families and the communities in which they will live. We tell them, you’ll never get rid of us because we’re going to follow you and watch you and see what you do. 


The kids at our school are primarily inner city kids, 98% African American, 80% qualified for the free and reduced lunch program. For many of the kids, they’re the first in their family to go to college. For some, it’s a pretty big leap to go from where they are when they come to us to where they really believe and embrace the idea that they can be successful and have a bright future.


Parental involvement is a major component of your charter school. How can teachers get parents involved?

Contacting parents on a regular basis is really valuable. It’s time-consuming and it’s sometimes very difficult to connect with parents, but in this age of email and cell phones, it’s so much easier than it was a dozen years ago. 


I think that by reaching out to parents as partners in this education process and making them feel that they are a partner with you, the teacher, you can really get them involved and supportive. I mention “as a partner” because sometimes teacher only call with bad news like “You’re child acted up today” or “You’re child didn’t turn in her paper today.” That seems almost like a confrontational thing. That doesn’t really serve a lot of good, so reaching out to parents as partners is the best approach.


What are some of your weaknesses as a teacher?

Early on, my biggest weakness was trying to teach respect. Teaching math wasn’t so difficult for me in terms of having the content knowledge. To really be able to connect with kids and to motivate them to want to learn was my biggest challenge. 


It all comes down to respect, respect for others and self-respect. What I’ve finally learned, and it took quite awhile to figure out, is that the only way to teach respect is to show it. I think I’m a better teacher now because I understand that.


I almost feel like half of my job is to teach math. The other half is to develop good people. In our society, it is so critical that every teacher in every classroom is involved in developing kids’ character in addition to teaching history and language arts and math. That, to me, is how I look at the job of teaching.


Your book describes your pro-merit pay stance. What is your response to the argument that the best teachers will move to high performing schools?

I think it all depends on how you structure the performance pay. I think that’s the key. If you’re a seventh-grade teacher who inherits a class of students at the second grade level, it wouldn’t be fair to only track grade level achievement. If you structure the pay plan so that you are rewarded as a teacher who takes that child performing at the second grade level up and brings him or her up to third or fourth grade level – that would be a great accomplishments.


It would be unfair to say that you’re kids didn’t perform at grade level. But you have to think about who they were and where they were at the time they started. That has to factored in.


Would assessment go beyond testing?

In a perfect world, it would go well beyond standardized test. The pendulum has swung too far in that direction. Ideally, performance pay would include more than just results on tests.


Part of the reason I think we need performance pay is because we need to attract more really qualified people over the next 20, 30, 40 years, so we need to increase pay for teachers.


You often refer to teaching as a calling or vocation. What is your response to the argument that calling teaching a vocation devalues teaching as a profession?

I understand that point of view, but I also believe that education is a business. I think a lot of people don’t like to think of it that way, but it is a business, a service business. Schools are competing with other kinds of businesses for the best and brightest young people to work at their “companies” or schools. We have to be realistic and understand that to attract good people, we have to pay them well.


There are so many people who come up to me and say: “I’d love to be a teacher. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.” When I ask why they don’t, they almost always say the money. I just think it’s a shame that people are not considering the profession because of the money. 


It is wrong and unrealistic to believe that you can attract enough “missionaries” into the profession. There are some wonderful people who are teaching despite poor pay who are great teachers and that’s fantastic. But going into the rest of the century, I don’t think we can count on attracting enough missionaries to fill the vacancies that are going to come up in our nation’s schools. So that’s why I really believe much more attention needs to be placed on compensation.


Which was more stressful – being a CEO or a teacher?

For me, being a CEO was more stressful. I think part of it was that I was in a family business, a company with a great history, and put a lot of self-imposed pressure on myself to achieve.


A teacher’s responsibility is tremendous. A teacher is responsible for the next generation who will lead our communities and our country. It’s an awesome responsibility but I find it so satisfying and fulfilling.


Sum up your teaching philosophy in one sentence:

I would borrow from a quote I read that said that “Good teaching is ¼ preparation, ¾ theater.”


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