How Teaching Kindergarten Prepared Me to Be a Better Optical Office Manager

By Tim Slapnicher, ABOC

Release Date: November, 2011

Expiration Date: November 10, 2016

Learning Objectives:

To understand the attributes and benefits of the Trivex lens material including:

  1. Conduct quick check-ins with their team members to strengthen overall communication, set team and individual goals, and get a better pulse on what's going on in the office.
  2. Learn techniques to implement and nurture Continuing Education with your team to encourage ownership of development and growth.
  3. Learn how an optical mentor can support, encourage and push you to become the best possible manager.
  4. Understand the difference between a Solution Seeker and Problem Identifier, and how knowing this will help set a more positive tone for your practice.

Faculty/Editorial Board:

Tim SlapnicherTim Slapnicher, ABOC, CPO is currently the practice coordinator at Rivertown Eye Care in Hastings, Minn., where he lives with his family. He uses his experience of teaching kindergarten to bring a fresh perspective to management in the optical industry.

Credit Statement:

This course is approved for one (1) hour of CE credit by the American Board of Opticianry (ABO). Course SWJMI243-1


I taught early elementary school, including kindergarten, for five years. I often joke with my close friends that I used to have a full head of hair and a six-pack not too long ago. In my profession, I received hugs and high-fives on a daily basis. When a position opened up to work with my dad and brother (the ODs), I jumped at the chance to become the manager of our family-owned optometric practice. image1

On my first day, I was very eager to sit down in the conference room where my desk was located. I remember thinking to myself, now what? My hugs and high-five days were over. I knew a little about the optical world, mostly from conversations at the dinner table growing up. I knew more about teaching 5 and 6-year-olds how to read, write and sing "We're Going on a Bear Hunt" during circle time. If this was my new life opportunity, I was determined to do it well. This is how I started my journey to becoming an ABO Certified Optician, a Certified Para Optometric and the practice coordinator of our private optometric practice, and how I used my experience as a kindergarten teacher to get the most out of our team.


If I was going to tackle this managing opportunity, I needed direction. I wanted to run an awesome practice, but how? Are we already awesome or do we have a long way to go? I needed a baseline. I had to figure out where we lined up with the optical world. I decided to take a road trip.

I consider this the "student teaching" phase. I was going to learn about this industry by observation. I needed to observe others in action and figure out how to raise our practice to the next level. For three days in a row, I put on a pair of jeans, a white T-shirt, a baseball cap and my favorite pair of running shoes. I grabbed a coffee, cranked up some tunes and headed out on the road. My mission: Sneak into optical shops around the metro area to see what they were doing and how we stacked up.


I had a few rules. I would never take more than five minutes of the optician's time—I was not going to make a purchase after all. I would never give eye contact to anyone. I wanted to know how they were getting my attention. Anytime I was asked, "Can I help you?" I responded with the ever famous response: "Nope, just looking."

I was going to observe the same things in every optical shop. I timed how long it took for me to be acknowledged or greeted in each office. This should be under 10 seconds. I wanted to see if they were playing cool music, elevator music or no music at all. I wanted to see what kind of frames were out there. What are opticians wearing? What is the vibe of the store? Would I want to work there? Are they doing something that is so innovative that we have to do it too?



After three days traveling around the metro area and several cups of coffee, I was exhausted but I had a ton of information. My "student teaching" experience was a success. I had checked out 33 optical practices. I jotted down many ideas, thoughts and observations. I had a huge variety of experiences, from amazing to YIKES!

I saw opticians wearing everything from scrubs (no!) to suits. I heard a wide range of music genres. (Think anywhere from Kenny G. to Beastie Boys and everything in between.) I was ignored in several places and treated like a king in one. I was offered water, coffee, soda, chocolate and cappuccino. I was asked, "Can I help you?" 27 times, and responded, "Nope, just looking" all 27 times. I was acknowledged/greeted in a wide span of time frames (anywhere from four seconds to no-one-has-looked-at-me-or-talked-tome-in-12-minutes-so-I-am-going-to-leavenow). At one location, I was so impressed and inspired by their vibe that I almost bought a pair of $425 frames. I had seen it all and had my baseline.


I did have one more place to observe… our own. For two days, I spent time hiding out in our store. I observed how we dressed, the music we played, what we were saying to patients, the frames we had, what we offered them to drink, etc. After two days of jotting down observations, ideas and thoughts, I realized where we were. We were average. We were doing the same things that 90 percent of every optical shop did.


In my school district, we were required to work with a mentor for the first year of our teaching journey. We met with our mentor one to two times per month to share our experiences as beginning teachers. We get to share ideas of what's working well and what we're struggling with. Mentors push you and encourage you. They inspire you and support you. They help you grow. I needed an optical mentor.

I thought back to my road trip. Who was doing it right? What was their secret? Of the 33 locations I observed, only a handful stood out. I decided to introduce myself to them. I contacted the managers of the shops where I felt inspired and where I had a unique experience. I asked those managers if I could take them out to eat and pick their optical brains. After all, everyone likes to talk about what they are doing, right? None of the managers I contacted were in direct competition with me. We could all help one another.

I called six managers and all of them were willing to individually go out to lunch with me. I learned a wealth of information from all of them. We talked about the whole scope of management (Human Resources, working with reps, websites, instruments, etc.). In our conversations, I learned each of the managers found themselves in their management positions for very different reasons. Some of them were "all-star" opticians that were promoted to the position. Some of them grew into the management job because they had the longest tenure, and some of them were like me—they had a family connection to the owner. We all had landed there for different reasons. We were in this together.

We decided we could benefit from meeting as a group. I currently meet with four other noncompeting managers as a group, three to four times per year. Our managerial support group is focused on being the best. How can we offer the best possible experience for our patients? How do we offer the best culture for our team members to grow? How can we be our best? We mentor one another. And guess what, our practices are growing in enthusiastic ways.

The more I got to know other managers, the more I discovered that I needed to know my own team better. I needed to get a better feel for our culture. I needed the right people on the bus to give the best experience possible.


A colleague once told me, "There are two types of people in this world: Problem Identifiers and Solution Seekers. One tells you everything wrong with this world; the other acknowledges it but tries to fix it." Who is on your "optical bus"?

Problem Identifiers: These are the people in your office who are always ready to share what's going wrong with the practice. They continually look for every negative thing happening around them and let you know about it loud and clear. It's hard to please (and work with) a Problem Identifier.

Solution Seekers: These are people who acknowledge problems in the practice, but want to seek out a solution. They know problems and issues will happen, but approach them with the attitude that a solution must be attainable. They have a positive outlook and want to find a workable solution.

I shared the concept of Problem Identifiers versus Solution Seekers with our team. I understood we had issues we had to work on and there would continue to be more problems to tackle as we grew our business. It's how we tackle these problems that matters most to me.

We still have "issues." We still have copy machines that need to be fixed, procedures that need to be fine-tuned and team members that don't always get along with one another. But the team is now focused on the positive. They are not looking for what's wrong and who is at fault. They are not looking for the negatives around them. They are looking for opportunities. Opportunities to better our office, better their colleagues, better themselves. They are turning into Solution Seekers.

We know problems will happen, but it's how we respond to issues that ultimately builds our character. Students with a positive outlook (and who also feel safe in their learning environment) typically show a tremendous amount of growth. Students who solve their own problems are more independent and take initiative. They find creative ways to think outside of the box. This same way of thinking is happening with our team.


As an elementary school teacher, I was used to communicating with students on a regular basis. I often touched base with them in regards to their academic performance and also with their social skills. This helped me be proactive with their education. I also made sure to contact their caretakers as often as necessary. I always shared positive things with them no matter what.

Every once in a while, I would do a "3-2-1" with my students to see how they were grasping a concept. After a series of lessons, they were required to share: 3 new things they learned, 2 things they still had questions about and 1 thing they were still confused about. This formula helped me gage how well they were "getting it" and what I needed to focus on next to encourage their growth. It helped me get a pulse on what I was doing that engaged them in their learning, what they were excited about and what I had to target because their level of knowledge was not deep enough. It gave me an idea of where the class was.

I have carried a tweaked 3-2-1 formula over to our office. This concept can still give me my desired outcome of getting a pulse from my team. Do they understand their role? What are their frustrations? Do they have all the tools they need to do their job effectively? Are our policies and procedures clear for all? Do they enjoy our culture?

I meet with each team member for seven to 10 minutes about once a month for their personal "3-2-1 Contacts." We start and end our meeting focusing on the positive and provide a safe place to brag about accomplishments, and also to vent frustrations. Here is the formula we follow:

3 (Positives): Share things you enjoy about working here; new skills you've learned that you're excited about; share an exciting patient experience that impacted you; brag to me about how you're flourishing here, etc.

2 (Frustrations/Questions/Needs): A change we need to make; an employee who drives you bonkers; an unfair policy; concerns; a necessary tool that is missing; a question about a procedure; vent to me, etc.

1 (Compliment/Recognition of an "Office Star"): Who is one person that stands out to you? Who is displaying a great attitude? Who shines with their patients? Who is fun to work with? Who is a very hard worker? Who exemplifies our mission statement?

We often put the names of our "Office Stars" in a drawing to win one of our fabulous prizes from our infamous rep box. All the treasures and trinkets (shirts, towels, mugs, candy, pens, etc.) we receive from reps are placed in a box used for quarterly drawings for our team members.

Contacts (nonwork related): Is there anything going on outside of work that you want to share? Is there a trip coming up, family event, stressor about health, going to a game, worried about something? This shows that we care about them at work and beyond.

I also use this formula for continuing education classes (3 things you learned, 2 things you want to know more about, 1 thing to implement on Monday morning). We keep a continuing education binder at work where we place our 3-2-1 forms and the course syllabi. With this model, all team members can learn from a class even if they are not able to attend.

Sample321I follow this formula with my managerial support group as well: 3 things going well with your team, 2 frustrations or things you need help with, 1 upcoming project you'd like to run by us or brainstorm with us.

The possibilities of the 3-2-1 formula are endless. You can change it up however it works for your team. The main idea is you're getting a constant pulse of your team and practice. Once you have an idea where everyone's goals and aspirations are, you're ready to help them grow through continuing education.


As a teacher, I never gave homework. Parents loved me for that and so did my students. I believed if a concept was vital to a child's education, we would do it at school. I would gladly give worksheets and activities to do at home if they asked for it. In five years, it happened once. Family time is extremely important and I honor that. That philosophy carries over to work. If you want to get certified and cross-trained, we will invest our time and resources with you at work.

Education should never stop. I will not tolerate employee robots; everyone should continue to grow. In my years of teaching, I found the key to student education is ownership. If a student cares about what they are learning, it will be more meaningful and produce better results. With a team of professionals, ownership of continuing education is just as crucial. If they have ownership of their learning and voice their goals, the outcome will be more meaningful and will produce better results.

How much money do you want to make? What are your goals this month or year? What are your long-term goals? I will teach you how to take my job away from me if you'd like. In our office, we are striving to create a collaborative environment where we celebrate others' success and help them find ways to clear their own hurdles. You are always branding yourself. We will help you grow your brand.

We provide the time here. We train our team at work and encourage them to attend conferences and seminars. We benefit greatly when our team is excited about learning a new skill, a new product or best practices. The benefits to our practice far outweigh the costs to train our team. This model has produced 10 Certified Para Optometrics and five ABO Certified Opticians.


One of my greatest joys of teaching kindergarten was when that "ah-ha" moment happened. I saw it when a student learned how to read a new word or solved a math problem. One of the greatest joys of managing is when I assist a team member in learning a new skill (lensometry, refracting, etc.) or celebrating with them when they receive their CPO/ABO results in the mail. I enjoy giving high-fives to my new group of students.

I often miss teaching kindergarten. I miss playing my guitar, creating art projects and the joy of sharing a new story with students. Those five years of experience were extremely valuable for so many reasons. But I also love what I am doing now. I get to help create a wonderful experience for both patients and team members. Utilizing the skills I learned from teaching 5 and 6-year-olds carries over to creating a fun atmosphere where I get to challenge and support my team to grow every day.