Outside the Walls


Thoughts from Outside the Walls, August-December 2002

Copyright Dick Bernard dick_bernard@msn.com

August 2002
Person-to-person contact will never be replaced as the most effective way humans relate.
In today's busy world, personal contact seems to have fallen out of fashion, except in the most limited ways; but personal contact will never fall out of favor. You don't need research about the most - and least - effective communications methods. Look at yourself: what kinds of communications do you most prefer; which do you most likely ignore? Which contacts towards you, anger you?

A common estimate is that 75% of the adults in any community are people "outside the walls" of public schools who no longer have any direct contact with your schools...except through taxes they have to pay, not always happily. They are a constituency whose support is critical to you. You need them. They need positive contact with you.

Why not set a huge goal for your classroom, school or school district: that each person "outside the walls" will receive at least one personal contact sometime during the school year. Perhaps this might be nothing more than a "kid art" postcard, with a real stamp, and a genuine hand-written address: a contact without any quid pro quo, including a message, the name and the signature of a real live person in your school district.

Impossible? Of course, it's not. Difficult, and a change in paradigm? Probably. But well worth the change.

Positive personal contact does make a big difference, as you know from your own personal experience...as a person.

"Go for it," and have a more successful year than ever.

September 2002
"I know you're there. Answer the phone!"
We live in an era where there are more ways than ever to communicate less. Caller ID, endless phone messages routing you here or there: "...touch 3, now...."

The very sophistication of communication technology has become a way to avoid communicating...and public education is as afflicted by this malady as anyone.

Every potential contact with a citizen is either a grand opportunity or a potential serious problem for your school.

With those citizens outside your walls, you may have only a single opportunity to begin a positive relationship...and "you" means every single employee in the system - positive public relations cannot be delegated or restricted to a few.

So...make certain that someone with a question or a comment or a concern can easily access a real person in the system...and get an honest and complete and timely answer to an inquiry within 24 hours or less - even if nothing more than "I don't know, but we'll get back to you on that question as soon as possible". And make "as soon as possible" mean exactly that: soon. Ignored phone calls and other inquiries are deadly to positive public relations.

And phone calls and letters are not all: love or hate it, e-communication is a reality, here to stay. Make certain that the district e-mail address stays the same from year to year, and that every e-mail to that address is promptly read and answered by someone. ("Spam" and similar are definitely and legitimately irritating interferences. But think long and hard about filtering mechanisms that might inadvertently filter out legitimate communications. The delete button works quickly and works wonders to get rid of advertising.

Be sure that your district website has a very clear and easily understood process, on the home page, about how a citizen can make contact - including the mailing address, phone and fax numbers, and e-mail address of the main office. Unlike ongoing internal relationships with students and their parents, an outside visitor may drop by your website only once, and have only one question or comment for you. You don't want to have him or her become irritated because there was no easy way to communicate with you. The school may have only a single opportunity to make a good - or bad - impression that will endure. Like it or not, negative messages tend to stick much longer and spread more widely than positive ones.

Do everything possible to make sure that your districts first impression is a good one.

Common courtesy counts.

October 2002
The Navaho Way.
We had read a reflection at the beginning of our meeting, each person reading one of the several typewritten paragraphs. After completing the reading, someone noticed two words handwritten in the lower right hand corner of the paper: "Navaho Way". The reading had nothing to do with Navaho's, so someone asked "what's this?"

The leader called our attention to some errors - typos - in the text we had just read. "In the Navaho culture, it is common to purposely include an error in a craft work as a reminder that, as human beings, we are not perfect."

The remark caused me to think of contenporary communication technology. It is possible to achieve technical perfection in all aspects of a communication - spelling, grammar, typos, general appearance.... Even mass mailings are personalized, with "real" signatures (we know they aren't personal, and not individually signed, but in such a manner they are presented, doubtless to improve a first impression).

Consider the possibility that in today's imperfect world, imperfect people - all of us - might not only tolerate an imperfection, but may even appreciate the existence of a real human being on the other end of the communication. Perhaps the discovery and reporting of an error can even be an opportunity for a conversation.

Sure, there are limits to imperfection...but consider the benefits of the Navaho Way in your own communication.

(Yes, there is at least one deliberate error in the preceding sentences (and, likely, plenty of un-deliberate ones). I hope you find the deliberate one.)

November 2002
A Special Evening for Some Special People.
The note came by e-mail on October 24, 2002.

"Last week Community Education hosted a local variety/talent show in the high school auditorium. Performers were from the region and donated their time. It was great. The best part was that our Community Education department arranged for school buses to transport elderly individuals from the senior housing centers. An adult was available to help the individuals on and off the bus. Then they were each chaperoned into the elevator and the auditorium by a high school student. They absolutely loved it! One comment was that they were treated like royalty."
Robert Belluzzo, Superintendent, Hibbing MN Public Schools. (Reprinted with permission.)

While Supt. Belluzzo's words are the only description available of the event, the mind can easily visualize the happiness of the occasion, and the connectedness of the public schools and an important segment of the "outside the walls" population in this northern Minnesota Iron Range community.

Senior citizens, adults, students...all together for a social evening in a school setting: A connection that will live on long after the event, for everyone.

While public schools now directly impact only a minority of any school districts adult population - perhaps one-fourth - they still represent a major employer and consumer of tax dollars in every community everywhere. Personal connections without a quid pro quo expectation from school to citizen are critical. People notice if the schools only meaningful contact with them is a periodic request for something, usually "we need your vote to raise taxes." It just doesn't work.

School people are caring and creative, and it would take only a little "outside the box" thinking, in cooperation with non-school citizens, to come up with, and implement, many inexpensive ideas for improving connections with community.

Of course, you can't stop with just one event or contact. But you already know that.

There is a final piece to any fine work: in granting permission for use of his paragraph, Mr. Belluzzo said that "any credit for this success goes to Linda Arnebeck, our community education director. It was her idea and she made all the arrangements." The final piece, always: acknowledge those who made it possible.

Than you Linda; thank you Bob. Keep on, keeping on!

December 2002
"Happy Holidays to you"
Starting about Thanksgiving time, "tis the season" of gatherings, festivities, celebrations in America...and equally times of loneliness, depression and anxiety.

December can be an emotional peak. Unfortunately, and perhaps even more likely, it can also be a deep emotional pit for many persons in our society. Even in this age of rapid communications by multiple methods, far too many people will feel truly untouched by anyone during the holidays.

Think about some simple ideas which your system can implement very easily for almost no cost, and which will positively touch someone this month, or later on in the year.

Two ideas: While the vast majority of your population is outside the walls of the public schools, most of these persons are someone's grandparent, uncle, aunt, cousin, neighbor.... Potentials for positive connection are almost endless, if one just takes the time.

How about, just for a single example, making a simple blank postcard from card stock, with some very simple non-intrusive message printed on the address side - such as the name of your school district, its web site, etc., and maybe a brief inspirational message celebrating young people? Make these blank cards available to students, who can then write a brief note, draw something, or otherwise communicate with someone they know somewhere. All you need do is to provide the postcard to make the opportunity available.

Or how about modifying your website home page to include a brief positive message specifically for your non-public school community?

Who knows? Someone may be touched profoundly by these small ideas..... It's just a thought.

Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year to you.