Thoughts from Outside the Walls, August 2004 - December 2004
Copyright Dick Bernard firstname.lastname@example.org
I walk a regular route through a city park, and make it a practice to pick up the occasional trash I see, including doing a more thorough 'police call' after the snow melts each spring.
On this years 'police call,' in early April, I decided to do an experiment. Near the end of the walk, I spied a discarded soda can. I put it right next to the path, and wondered how long it would take for someone to pick it up (this particular path is frequently used).
Time went on - no one took the bait. Several times the can was mowed over. Each time I'd gather the pieces and put them in a small and obvious pile alongside the path. On July 4, after three months, and no pickup, I gathered the pieces and put them in a clear cello sandwich bag, and left the refuse at the same point. A week and a day later, the bag and its contents disappeared.
Whose responsibility was this mess along a public path? Apparently, no one assumed it was their responsibility. Apparently packaging the trash in the sandwich bag caused someone to finally deal with it.
I thought of the mess as metaphor for school public relations outreach to those of us outside the public school walls. Everybody knows we're there, and in immense numbers - perhaps 75% of the taxpaying population - but (it seems) few if any think we are their responsibility. So, like the soda can, we seem to be largely ignored until our help is needed..
Unfortunately, sometimes a person who perceives a 'mess' in the local schools does not have the interest of school children at heart, and will attractively package the mess and mobilize people to vote "no" on a referendum, or elect candidates unsupportive of public schools. (I admit I began to feel, during those three months watching that can, "why should I care about this mess?" It is a natural feeling.)
Outreach to Outsiders is essential for public schools to practice constantly, not just before an election.
Who has responsibility for cleaning up the mess? Every school employee - that's who. The job is far too big, and too important, to be left to the superintendent or the PR person or the local service club or senior center. Yes, I know the excuse: "It's not my job...." It is everybody's job.
A Dedication...and a Missed Opportunity
The e-mail dated May 20, 2004, was succinct: "I do not know if you heard they named a St. Vincent DePaul Housing Unit (low income) for Mr. Corey in __________."
I hadn't heard, but the news didn't surprise. Les Corey, who had passed away in January, 2003, had been extraordinarily active in the St. Vincent de Paul Society in his Pacific coast community and indeed, the region. He was a leader.
Mr. Corey was my friend, and a retired public school teacher in the community in which he had lived for over 50 years. He and his spouse, also a public school teacher, had raised a large family. Les was also a community activist with a large network of friends. They were, like so many in all communities throughout the world, 'good folks'.
In May, 2000, I had written to Mr. Corey and a number of other people I knew around the U.S., who were 'outside the walls' of public schools, to ask their general impressions of how their own public schools related to them.
Mr. Corey's was one of the first responses. In relevant part, he said this: "Since my retirement 15 years ago, it now seems as if I was never in the classroom and the concerns I once had for the school when I taught those 36 years have vanished for the most part. No one in the school system has ever invited any of us retirees to share how we or our friends see the schools now from the outside and in retrospect. Oh, I do read an occasional article in the press, and vote positively on school issues, but I am not involved actively nor are other retirees. We seem like 'has beens' as far as the school system is concerned. They do solicit our vote via the phone at election time. I guess what I am saying is that retirees are an untapped resource...."
I wish I could say that Mr. Corey's observation about 'death at retirement from public education' is an unusual one. I cannot. Retired staff, and families whose last child has just graduated are, as one retired school public relations official told me, almost incredulously, about her own experience as a parent of a new (and final) graduate, "dropped like a hot potato."
There is a public relations gold mine out there, virtually untapped. One can only wonder, "why?"
Oh, by the way: too often when such talent is actually tapped, the volunteer is treated as simply unpaid labor with little or no recognition or privileges. Along with utilization, school systems have to set up some kind of tangible rewards for those who help do the work.
Ask a simple question, and you get a simple answer.
I sent a query to my school district's public relations person asking, simply, how many of the school districts schools would be polling places for the general election on November 2.
The response was rapid: three-fourths of the schools in my school district will be polling places on November 2. If I were to check this further, the overwhelming majority of people who show up to vote on November 2 will be standing in lines in school corridors not only in my school district, but in all school districts across the country.
What a public relations opportunity!
Of course, every state has laws, and districts policies, against schools getting involved in publicly supporting candidates or issues. But that is likely not an issue, here.
There is likely no law, anywhere, that says that those hallways in which tens of millions of us will be standing November 2 cannot display art and such completed by kids, or see posters celebrating public schools, or other completely non-political actions that say to we voters "hey, you're in a fine public school, and we care a whole lot about your kids, grandkids, nephews, cousins, neighbors...If you've got questions, here's how to get answers. But while you're waiting in line, enjoy some of the things we do with and for this community's children every day."
Of course, American Education Week begins, as it always does, just days after the election. This year AEW is November 14-20; it's theme "Celebrating the American Dream." An excellent website to get information about the history, etc., of American Education Week is www.nea.org/aew/. NEA, along with the American Legion, originated the idea of American Education Week in 1919, first celebrating it December 4-10, 1921, and numerous organizations are now co-sponsors.
Make election day a day to celebrate our public schools, too.
Blocked at the Top
Recently, a non-education organization of which I am part prepared a video on a topic which included substantial portions of an interview with a prominent education leader. The leader's comments about the needs of public education were presented in a most favorable way.
When the video was released, the producer sent a copy to the leader. A handwritten personal letter indicating the videos potential value to the leader's organization was also sent. There was no acknowledgment.
A month later, I was visiting with someone in the structure of the organization who told me that no one in the organization seemed aware that the video even existed. The leader had not even looked at the video - "too busy". "They should have given it to __________", I was told. But by then, it was too late.
Of course, a viewer in the organization might not have seen the video as having as much value as we felt it had. But that is beside the point. It was a totally missed communication opportunity because, effectively, no one even saw it or gave us feedback about it. It had been blocked at the top.
I wish I could say that the scenario described above is an unusual one within public education. Unfortunately, I think it is very common.
People outside the walls of public education - people like myself - simply do not know to WHOM within the organization we should direct our suggestion, idea, complaint... Usually we direct our query to the amorphous "school district" or to the only person whose name we may have heard: the superintendent, the local school principal.
At minimum, there should be three absolute hard and fast rules for dealing with constituent communications: first, the receipt of every personal communication should be acknowledged, at least briefly and within 24 hours, by someone in the organization; second, the communication should be directed to someone in the organization who is in a better position to assess its value (or lack of same); finally, there should be some follow up to the person who took the time to communicate.
Every school district website should have as a very easily identified part of its home page, a listing including district mailing address, phone number, and e-mail...and the person charged with receiving initial contacts should have a responsibility of at least acknowledging receipt of the communication within 24 hours.
Two-way communication is not an option to be ignored. It's a simple matter, too often overlooked.
"Little Things Mean a Lot"
My good friend, Elmer L. Andersen, passed away November 15, 2004, the second day of American Education Week. He was 95.
His was an extraordinary life of public service and business success and commitment to, among numerous other public-oriented causes, public education. His commitment showed brightly during his time as a state legislator, as governor of the state, and, truly, for the rest of his life. He never forgot the critical role of public education to his success. His was a remarkable life story, which one can read in his autobiography, A Man's Reach, which was published in 2001.
In 1994, I wrote him asking "how teachers can relate better to their communities in furthering the cause of public education." He answered in a letter dated June 15, 1994, and his comments then remain pertinent today. While I asked specifically about 'teachers', the words 'public schools', 'administrators', 'school employees' could be used interchangeably then, and now.
Mr. Andersen responded to my question as follows: "There is nothing we hear quite so much as the suggestion that teachers ought to spend their money where they earn it. There is a feeling, and I have made no research to determine how true it is, that teachers tend to spend their money outside of the communities where they teach and are paid their salaries. Of course, they are free to spend their money wherever they wish, but nothing would please local merchants so much as to see teachers coming in, making purchases locally, and identifying themselves as teachers in the local school system. That would be a big help to community understanding and appreciation.
"Another would be to try to restore the old parent-teacher association relationship where teachers went to evening meetings of the PTA as interested volunteers just as the parents, not always those with children in the school, would come to the meetings with the mutual aim of helping the school system. Actually, the PTA used to be a powerful force in favor of conservation matters, issues relating to mental health, and other social issues, as well as those directly relating to education.
"I think the problem is a feeling that giving of [teachers] time freely is unprofessional and that all time spent in the education work should be compensated.
"I was shocked once when I was invited to an education association meeting in the late afternoon and observed that they had to get the meeting done by a specific time because it would be unprofessional to run beyond the school time and get into their own time. Maybe I state it too bluntly and unfairly, but at least there is the idea that having a restored parent-teacher organization, with parents giving of their time and teachers giving of their time, would generate a better community relationship spirit...."
One can agree or disagree with Mr. Andersen's suggestions, but one can hardly help but notice that they were simply things he observed from his vantage point outside the walls. His examples had only incidental relationship to what was happening inside the classroom and school buildings.
Little things do mean a lot. Perceptions are, indeed, reality.
Have a very happy holiday season. A complete archive of all ideas from "outside the walls" can be accessed at www.chez-nous.net/outside.html. Scroll to the end of the section. New ideas appear in this space mid-month of each month during the school year.
Elmer L. Andersen, October 12, 1995, photo by Dick Bernard