What I Learned From Working as a Bank Teller

It's the summer of 2020, and I'm a rising sophomore in Isenberg, our business school here at UMass Amherst. Like many of my fellow business students, I had frantically applied to stacks of internships in the months prior. Between the pandemic-induced disastrous job market and my young class year, I was not surprisingly unsuccessful in landing a finance internship. So, I decided to pivot to a "Plan B".

The Beginning

When I first applied to be a bank teller at a local bank, I assumed it would be like a life-guarding job with a whole lot of doing nothing. Boring. Easy. Yawn. On my first day, I realized that I was so very wrong. I remember wanting to quit quite literally after my first day, after feeling ashamed by how little I knew and overwhelmed by how much I had to learn.

payroll clerk counting money while sitting at table Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Working as a bank teller ended up teaching me more than I could have ever predicted. Sure, I learned how to read a check (yes, I'll admit that I did not know how to read a check before) but more importantly, I learned lessons I've always been taught, but never actually took to heart, like why you should never judge a person by how much money they have, or by how they dress.

But first, I’ll go ahead and list some startling learning experiences from my first week on the job. These are most likely common sense for most, but they were new to me:

  1. Fifty-dollar bills exist (and that’s important to know because many customers will ask for them). 

  2. Fifty-cent coins also exist.

  3. There are different types of checks, and as a bank teller, you process each one differently.

  4. On a check, the person’s name on the line after “Pay to the Order of” is who the check is being made payable to. Shocker.

I could go on about the embarrassment I endured during my first few weeks from not knowing the most basic ideas of finance, but I’ll save both of us the time and humiliation. The much more important learning experiences in my role as a bank teller were learned internally, things no one had to teach me. These learning experiences had nothing to do with the minutiae of finance, but everything to do with humans and how we treat each other.

Unexpected Life Lessons

I once read somewhere that being a bank teller is like being a bartender: Customers will tell you everything. I don’t know why it’s true, but it is. They’ll talk about the good, the great, the bad, and the ugly. They’ll talk about their week, what they’re doing for the holidays, their family, their new job, their home improvement plans, or the fact that they’re buying a new house. 

I enjoy hearing about their life because seeing someone glow after telling me something exciting about their week reminds me to appreciate the good things about my own life that I often don’t pay attention to. They also remind me to treat everyone with kindness, because if someone seems grumpy, it could be because they are going through the hardest time at home. Through these customer conversations, I feel like I’m friends with them, even if they’re a stranger that I might not ever see again.

Even though we are consistently taught to never judge a book by its cover, the concept could not be displayed more clearly than at a bank. Someone could walk in with the most polished, expensive designer clothes, and own less money than someone wearing a tattered T-shirt and flip flops. Likewise, someone could own millions and be completely rude and offensive, while someone who owns hardly anything could make your day with their kindness.

I’ve learned to admire the everyday citizen: The hardworking boy who might not have a college education but is working diligently at his construction job. The kind woman who works at the small business across the street. The nurse who always comes in during her break, still wearing scrubs. The teacher who recognizes her own student after running into her at the bank, having not seen her in over a decade. 

Couple talking on park bench Photo by Kelly Sikkema from Unsplash

I’m ashamed to say that previous to working as a bank teller, I had a very privileged, one-dimensional tunnel vision on life. I might have prematurely judged someone by something as superficial as how they dressed, the fact that they didn’t go to college, or the fact that they owned little to no money. By interacting with all different customers, I’ve realized that these qualities carry hardly any meaning. What matters is their kindness, their work ethic, and their love and care for their community and the world around them.

Ultimately, I’m grateful that I didn’t work a cushy internship this past summer, trying to make money for some corporation, because I think I needed this experience. To my bank teller job, I am grateful, and to the customers who come in, I say thank you, and keep on making the world go round.