Outside the Walls


Thoughts from Outside the Walls, August - December 2006

Copyright Dick Bernard dick_bernard@msn.com

Idea for August 2006

The "Little Things" [do] "Mean a Lot"

After six years outside the walls of public schools, I have come to a single conclusion: developing and maintaining a positive relationship with we outsiders is ALL that matters. If schools could figure out some way to make their employees understand and do this, as a classical song lyric says "what a wonderful world" this would be.

"Relationship" has, of course, many components. But as the lyric goes, simple, common sense, "little things," do "mean a lot." They mean a lot more than Big Plans rolled out at conferences, in speeches, in board policies...then left to gather dust.

Three recent examples of relationship building:

Near the end of the school year, we were invited to school lunch by a first grade grandson in a nearby school district. It was 'just' a school lunch, nothing fancy. But something happened that made it very special. We were entering the lunchroom, and I heard a voice behind me say "aren't you Dick Bernard?" Indeed I was. I looked around and saw somebody whose face was vaguely familiar. He turned out to be someone who'd been a custodian where I worked years earlier; here he was a custodian as well.

For all the rest of the lunch, and till we left after recess, I watched the man as he interacted with the kids in his charge. It was pretty obvious that he had a great relationship with the tykes. He made the school district image for me, that day. (You can just make him out in the photo above, but isn't that how it is with unsung heroes?)

A few weeks later, I drew the duty of waiting at a bus stop with another grandson who was attending summer school. It was the first week of school. We waited, and waited, and waited some more. No bus. I drove my youngster to school, and after dropping him off, went into the office to register a complaint.

I'd hardly gotten the complaint out of my mouth, when the secretary told me "this is the person you need to talk to" - her colleague at the next desk.

It all could have ended there, but the school secretary did something that surprised me: "I'd like you to talk directly with the bus supervisor about this", she said, taking me to talk to another lady who was supervising bus unloading. The lady was very courteous with me, and noted that the bus in question had had mechanical problems, and couldn't complete the route that morning. The simple personal transaction, really not necessary, changed my anger into a positive experience that still sticks in my mind.

In between the two experiences, I got a surprise e-mail from someone in yet another district who'd found out about me from some random internet search, and came across something I'd written years ago. My correspondent was a citizen, working on a referendum campaign.

We met, and I volunteered to take a look at their fledgling website, and just comment on it as I saw it. No big deal.

It could have ended there, but subsequently a couple of people on the committee wrote back to thank me for taking a look at their site, and said my feedback was helpful.

So, three events in three separate school systems: involving a custodian, school secretaries, a bus supervisor and a citizen, all enhanced my feelings about their public schools. None of their very positive PR cost the district a cent.

"Little things" do "mean a lot." Try it, you'll like it.

Have a great year.

Lyrics quoted:
Little Things, sung by Kitty Kallen, words and music by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz

What a Wonderful World, lyrics by Sarah Brightman

Idea for September
(and a surprise note regarding the August 2006 idea)

More on the "Little Things": Passing a referendum:

I was standing on a little slope watching our community parade at the end of August 2006. Out of nowhere, a man came up, gave me a pencil (photo above) and said "I'd like your "yes" vote on the school referendum September 12", and on he went.

Later, I learned that a citizens committee had distributed several thousand such pencils in support of the three referendum questions on the ballot, thus "Yes. Yes. Yes."

Nice touch.

I'm an easy "yes" vote, but a little personal touch like the pencil and the handwritten card make it a lot more likely that I will read the literature about the referendum that came to my mailbox, and more important, that I will make a little extra effort to get out a positive vote for the issue by contacting people I know here, especially younger residents, and reminding them of the need to do the same.

A few days after the parade, I received a first-class mailing from the local teachers union urging a "yes" vote on the three issues. The printed contents of the envelope were far less important than the genuine handwritten words at the end of the form letter: "Thanks for your support", signed by a real person who I knew.

These were the "Little things" which "mean a lot." It is a modern day paradox that the cacophony of well-spun messages that passes as today's mass communication make it ever more difficult to be noticed, much less heard...or believed The 'sale' often comes from the personal touch which, as the two above examples show, does not have to be dramatic or even highly polished.

Of course, there's always room for improvement:

That pencil gave me no hint of how to get more information. There was no website or phone number. An assumption was apparently made that such information was not needed on the pencil, and it was an unfortunate assumption. The pencil identified the name of the school district, without identifying the towns included within it. Not everyone has a reason to know a school district by its name, so this was an important omission as well.

Suggestion: with public relations, especially with outsiders, it is helpful to ask someone outside of your committee, and even outside of the school community, to simply take a look at the draft or the idea and make suggestions...before the job is actually produced. It's easy. It's easy to overlook.

Have a great year.

Now, more about "Little Things Mean A Lot"

In last months idea (see below) I built the message around an old song I remembered from my own high school days in the 1950s: Kitty Kallens rendition of "Little Things Mean a Lot." I took the time to find out who had composed the piece, and included that information.

As it happened, after the idea was posted, the grandson of the composer of the song was doing a simple internet search, and came across the August idea on the web.

Lance Calisch takes it from there: "I was thrilled to find your website...and its reference to my grandmother's most famous song...What a treat!! Thanks for giving her credit, not many folks do that these days.

"Grandma [Edith Lindeman Calisch] died many years ago at the age of 85 [December, 1984]. She loved to write and that's what she did all of her life making a living as an independent woman in a day and age when this was nearly unheard of. She wrote for many years as a columnist for the Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch and wrote children's stories. But her claim to fame is "Little Things." Willie Nelson picked up her song "The Red Haired Stranger" even making it the name of the album back in the 70s.

"Thanks for picking up my day and putting a smile on my face...."

I asked Lance for permission to reprint his comments, and also for a photo of his grandmother. He directed me to yet another website, which included the below photo of his grandmother, with Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in about 1937. Shirley Temple was then about 10 years old (Edith would have been about 40, and Bojangles about 60 at the time). Ms Lindeman's column, within which the photo appears, and which is about the then-in production and future classic "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" can be accessed at richmondthenandnow.com/Newspaper-Articles/Shirley-Temple.html - scroll down for the article.

In her obituary (click here), Edith was quoted: "My father - and later, my husband - went by the philosophy that it's the little things that mean so much." So true. "Little Things Mean a Lot" hit the top of the charts in 1954, and the rest is history!

Thanks very much, Lance.

Idea for October 2006 American Education Week - November 12-18, 2006
Great Public Schools: A Basic Right and Our Responsibility

October 1, I was enjoying lunch with my uncle and aunt at an assisted living facility in rural North Dakota, and one of our table mates, 87, recalled my Aunt Lucina who was one of her country school teachers, and actually lived with her family one year.

"She was a very pretty lady," she remembered.

(Lucina is pictured to the right, at right, with a teacher friend, about 1930).

There are few institutions so ubiquitous and influential in the American experience as Public School, and it is people who make 'school.' American Education Week was already an annual event when Aunt Lucina began her teaching career about 1926.

What better time to celebrate all the people who ARE Public Education, than during American Education Week?

This past summer I came across a single sheet of paper with some words, which seems appropriate to share this fall.

On August 3, 1999, I was doing a workshop on public relations, and there were about 50 school employees in attendance. As an opening exercise, I asked the attendees to think of one memorable school employee from their memory as a student. The person could be any school employee they remembered: custodian, secretary, bus driver, cook, teacher...made no difference.

That completed, I asked each individual to come up with a brief descriptor of what made that individual memorable to them. (One person could not come up with a single positive memory, and said he went into teaching because of his bitter experiences. But for the rest, it seemed an easy and refreshing task.) At the end of this article is the list of words generated that day. (Many were repeated more than once.)

Maybe this fall is the time to seek out that school employee you remember fondly, and thank him or her, or if they're no longer living, someone who survives them.

A contact with a new high school graduate this summer, reminded me of a young college teacher I had in 1958 who taught me a simple punctuation lesson I have never forgotten. I decided to seek out that teacher, and found his address in a western state. Apparently he was still alive! A google-search revealed that he'd gone on to become a distinguished professor, an award-winning teacher.

I handwrote a letter to him, including my single memorable moment in his class, and a couple of period photographs from the college yearbook, not knowing whether or if the communication would be received.

A month or so later came a two page handwritten reply, which began "What a delightful surprise! To make matters even better, your good letter arrived on the weekend of our Golden Wedding anniversary with the house full of friends and relatives..." And on it went to update on his many subsequent years as a teacher.

Who is a memorable school employee you had who comes to mind, and why? If you can locate that person, or his or her family, now is a great time to acknowledge the gift given.

"School" is a memorable place with many Faces and Personalities. Perhaps out of this list, you can come up with some ideas for celebrating Public Education not only in AEW, but every week.

Here are the words. Do they remind you of any school employee who helped make you who you are?

Self-Esteem; Fun - Self-Confidence; Custodians
Affirming - Interest; Pride
I can be successful - caring/encouraging
Support; Acceptance; Enthusiasm
Confidence; Impact; Reality
Inspiring; Personable; Sharing of Self
Warmth; Friendly; Passion; Alive
Professional; Accessible; Caring; Fun-Loving
Vision; Humor; Dedication; Approachable
Making Students Feel Special; Perspective
Well-Traveled; Involvement; Guiding
Human Aspect; Reassurance; Personable
Exciting; Personal Contact; High Expectations
Insight; Outgoing; Feeling Important
Expressed Thanks; Creativity; Valuing
Empowering; Valued as a Person; Made Learning Real
Spontaneous; Encouraging; Advocate; Challenge.

Idea for November 2006

American Education Week is November 12-18, 2006
Great Public Schools: A Basic Right and Our Responsibility
More information at www.nea.org/aew/history.html

"Is This a Welcome?"
Some Lessons from a Hotel and its Staff

A personal "Aha" moment came some years ago when I was introduced to an activity called "Is This a Welcome?" at a Family-School-Community Partnership training of the National Education Association (NEA).

We identified traits of a 'welcoming' (or not) school as experienced by visitors or passers-by. Did the school make an attractive first impression? Was visitor parking well marked, and close to the front door? Was it simple or difficult for a first-time visitor to find the school office? Was the required security message written in a hostile or friendly way? Did the school environment look neat, or was it messy? Were school personnel friendly?

First impressions do stick. We learned it is useful to invest energy and a little money to make the school a truly welcoming place for even the occasional visitor.

Back home, I decided to test "Is this a welcome?" against all the nearby public schools in my town. The results were not particularly positive. Were I to have graded the cumulative impression, I would have given perhaps a C-. At one school, I remember an employee who, on seeing me, turned abruptly and walked the other way. Perhaps his abrupt about face had nothing to do with me, but it was a first impression, and one which stuck, like the required "Visitors please sign in at the office" notice which reads or appears hostile or welcoming by its choice of words and/or its appearance.

After my drive-around (which took little time), I wrote the individual Principals as well as the school superintendent to share my observations about their schools. I recall receiving one brief note - a thank you - from one of the five administrators.

I had occasion to remember "Is this a welcome?" at a recent work week at a nice resort hotel in a small community in a western state.

I was there for work, not play, but in every way it was apparent from moment of arrival that this hotel was heavily invested in making a great first impression, and doing its best to assure that any visitor would leave with a good impression of the facility and the people who work there, and would not only want to come back, but recommend the resort to others. You didn't need an "I'm a paying guest here" badge to be treated well. The fact that you were there made you a guest.

It is not necessary to enumerate the many small ways a hotel like this will go out of its way to make guests feel welcome...each reader likely can identify easily his or her own peak - or pit -experiences with the hospitality industry.

Two particular events, among many, stood out in my mind about the Resort Hotel.

Near the end of our work week, during a day working on presentation skills, the person in charge of the training asked an employee of the hotel if she would make an impromptu presentation to us on a topic of her choice. She accepted the spur of the moment assignment, apparently not knowing why she had been asked to do it. She appeared before the room of strangers, and just talked a bit about who she was and what she did. She was professional and confident and made a great impression. She sold without appearing to be selling, just being herself. She fielded a few questions, and then went back to her normal work.

I didn't clearly remember her name or position, but on return home wanted to at least write a thank you note to her. I needed to verify who she was, so I called the hotel employee whose name was listed on the bill as contact "if your visit cannot be rated as excellent." It was very early morning so no one was in the office, and I left a message. The same day I received a phone message back with all the information requested. The employees I've mentioned here will get a copy of this idea, as will the hotel manager. They deserve the compliment.

Can public schools match the welcome I felt at this hotel? Do they need to? I think the answer to both questions is, and has to be, "yes."

And, reader: consider asking a community member - or a few - from outside your walls, to do an "Is this a welcome?" tour of your schools. Ask them to give a candid report on what they observed, and follow through on what they say.

December 2006
Winning by Polls?
During the November election I played a tiny bit part in the campaign of a candidate for a statewide office.

Election night came and when the results were announced, the candidate I supported won the position.

Since I was a bit player, I didn't know if the win was an expected or unexpected outcome. So, I was much surprised when, less than a week after the election, I learned that their last poll had predicted bad news on November 7. Polls are a daily part of today's electoral process: they are believed to be accurate, and they are heavily relied on to ascertain and even mold opinion. Why wasn't my candidates poll correct?

I can speak only from my own personal experience.

This candidate took personal relationships very seriously, including seeming unimportant people like me. I was impressed early on in the campaign that not only did the candidate acknowledge a concern I had raised, but acknowledged it personally and almost immediately. (The key word: "acknowledge.") Along the way I gathered that the candidate had also nurtured a network of grassroots supporters, and I learned the network thrived in all parts of the state.

"On the road again" fit this candidate. There was no coffee shop too small, no community member too insignificant, no issue so petty, as to escape notice. Constantly, over a two year period, the candidate built a support base that came through at the end of the campaign in the unexpected win. By the end of the campaign I felt I knew this person, who I had not known at all at the beginning...and this had 'cost' the candidate only a tiny investment of personal time with my concerns. This candidate cared, and it showed. The opposing candidate, the incumbent, on the other hand, apparently had also done the same polling, and got positive results, and may have been so certain of winning hands down that too little effort was expended in shoring up an apparently much weaker base.

* * * * *

During the same election, there were approximately 100 school referendums of one sort or another on ballots around my state.

While the trend of voting for elective office seemed to signal favorable attitudes supporting public education, the results in the school referendums were poor: "the lowest passage rate since 1980 when we began tracking results" one school board association official wrote. Less than 40% of the school issues passed; a third passed or failed by less than a common statistical margin of polling error (+ or - 3%). Almost half of the successful referenda got 53% or less of the vote.

Why did so many school issues fail in a year when more success might have been a reasonable expectation?

Doubtless polling is being done to attempt to answer that question, and the results will be analyzed and cross-analyzed and discussed and debated in preparation for the next and much larger round in 2007.

For me, future success will result not from analyses of data in meetings, but through the hard work of local relationship building, one relationship at a time, beginning now. Building community relationships takes work. Are school personnel, more than just the Superintendent and Public Relations office, enrolled in the process of success in 2007? Time will tell.

How about considering some person-to-person neighborhood polling in your community? Not only can you gather data, but more important, it is an opportunity to get to know people and what they think and feel. They'll remember, favorably, that you took the time to just visit, and maybe become quiet ambassadors for your district, which they now are more likely to consider their district...

Happy Holidays.

For my Holiday message to family and friends, click here.

NOTE: In the November idea (below) I favorably mentioned a hotels great customer service. The hotel was the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe at Incline Village NV. Do visit their website www.LakeTahoe.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/index.jsp.