Customer Service Matters – Even in Education

Over the past few days we have been in the market for a new car – always a joy in the middle of the summer!

We actually enjoyed the first part of the experience. We met a great salesperson who talked to us, found out who we were, listened to our concerns and then took us for a really fun test drive.

Everything was going beautifully and for a moment I thought this might not be a terrible experience. We agreed on a price, I had my card out ready to pay the deposit then things went south. Our salesperson called over his manager to confirm the deal. He took one look at the paperwork and quickly bumped up the price by an additional $10.00 a month.

We were stunned – not so much by the added price, but by the way the manager totally disregarded his salesman and decided on his own that he could squeeze another $10.00 a month out of us.

Of course, we left. But the money was not the issue. It was the total disregard the manager showed to his potential customers and his staff. They tried to get us back in later in the day, but the total lack of customer service and common decency was enough for us.

On to the next dealer. In this case, I had been in correspondence with the saleswomen for two days. We had texted about price, model all of that sort of stuff. We went in to meet with her to start coming up with a final price. She then excused herself and the manager returned. He took her seat – she wasn’t even allowed to sit down – and quoted us a price that was way beyond what we had discussed with our salesperson.

Again we left, the woman looked apologetic about the total brush off we had received from her boss.

So, dealerships 2, family 0.

But was that really the case? We had spent the better part of the day talking in good faith with dealerships and had encountered people who didn’t have a clue how to treat employees or customers.

It made me think that actually, maybe things are not so bad in education. I have seen so many teachers become administrators and turn into multi-headed monsters, showing little regard for their staff and the parents they serve. I assumed in the business world things would be better, but I don’t think that is the case.

It seems to me that our modern society has lost a certain amount of civility. How you treat the people you work with and your clientele doesn’t seem to count for much these days. I know of instances where the principal had no problem disregarding the interests of their parents because they were certain they knew the best way to get things done. Such leaders pass this arrogance on to their staff creating a toxic atmosphere in the school.

This should never happen and these leaders need to be called to account if they don’t know how to manage people.

In the case of the dealerships, I had calls apologizing for the poor behaviour of their managers. In each case, they wished us well and there were no hard feelings. What would happen in education if we treated our parents with this level of care and respect when a manager missteps?

Customer service is everything. I have written about this before, and there are excellent examples of organizations with great customer service out there and they need to be celebrated. For years, I have worked and volunteered for Discovery Education mainly because they never miss an opportunity to thank those who work with them. It almost seems a little countercultural, but they always act with grace and do their utmost to make sure their clients are receiving the service they deserve. We need more Discovery Education these days.

By the way, we did find a car – excellent customer service!

What Does an Innovating Leader Look Like?

I was really curious to read Paul McGuire’s thoughts on this.  In his retirement, he’s known for making some brutally frank observations via his blog.

I would suspect that, if you ask any leader in education, that they would self-identify themselves as innovative.

It’s got to be a challenge; all of the administrative details could conceivably keep you nailed to a desk doing paperwork all day long.

Doug Peterson – This Week in Ontario Edublogs

It is always great to get writing prompts and Doug Peterson has just provided this one for me.

This is a good question – last week I wrote a post in response to  George Couros – Is Leadership an Innovative Endeavor?  In the post, I wrote the following:

My concern is that the urge to innovate seems to dissipate the higher people reach up the leadership ladder. There is certainly more pressure to follow the company line and as this pressure increases, the ability to innovate declines.

Yes, I agree with Doug, brutally frank. However, this is not good enough. I am trying to define what innovation in leadership is by writing about what is missing in contemporary education leadership. It is easier to write about what is lacking rather than taking on the challenge to define what innovation in leadership really is.

So, what does innovative leadership look like? First, I think innovative leaders need to be willing to rewrite the book on how to manage groups of people. They need to look at every situation and reflect on how could things be done differently and hopefully, more effectively.

This means a bunch of things. It means that education leaders need to hand power back to the teachers they work with. Allow staff members to set the agenda when it comes to professional development, meetings, scheduling and in general, the running of the school. The idea behind this is that principals need to empower their staff members. These are exceptionally creative people and they need to know that they have control over areas that have an impact on the daily running of the school.

Teachers should be in control of their own learning, just as students need to be in control. Educators need to know that their voice matters and that the running of the school is a collective endeavour.

That is only one element of what I think it means to be an innovative leader. Being innovative means being open to new opportunities. One very innovative leader, Derek Rhodenizer took the opportunity to be innovative last week – for his last staff meeting of the year, he took his teachers fishing! He related later that this was a great way to encourage creative conversations amongst staff members.

To be really innovative, you have to take risks. When you think out of the box, you are trying to do things in a way that has not been tried before. What you try will not necessarily be popular with your supervisors, but you have to be willing to take this risk. This will come with a personal cost – you have to be ready to accept this.

Being an innovative leader has to become the way you think about everything you do. George Couros writes about this really well in the Innovator’s Mindset.

You can’t be stuck in the way things have been done, you, as a leader, are called upon to do better than they way things have been done.

There is one important caveat to all of this. As education leaders, we are part of a bigger system. In Ontario, we are responsible for fulfilling the curriculum as outlined by the province. Being innovative means looking for opportunities for change without calling into question the curriculum we were hired to implement.

Donna Miller Fry, someone I consider a real innovative leader in Ontario and now Newfoundland makes this point very clearly.

If there has been no learning, there has been no teaching.

As educators, we work in service of student learning.

We ask where a learner is now (assessment), where a learner is going (curriculum learning expectations), how a learner will get there (strategies to ensure students construct that learning) and how we will know (monitoring through assessment).

Donna Miller Fry – If There Has Been No Learning

This is an important cautionary note – yes, we need to be innovative, but we also must respect the fact that we are responsible for the learning that goes on in our building. Our innovative practices cannot be mindless. We need to keep aware that we have a great responsibility to the learners in our school. George Couros makes this point in the Innovator’s Mindset – we need to be able to innovate within the system we are a part of.

Innovative leadership has to be a fine balance. It has a great deal to do with the vision we have as leaders in our schools and it has to support the learning that goes on in your building every day. In my opinion, we can’t do a good job at leadership unless we challenge ourselves to question our practices every day that we are on the job. As George Couros writes,

But when you see the challenges that are facing schools and organizations, if “leaders” are not also “innovators”, there is a danger of irrelevance.  As budgets are cut in many places, how leaders rethink how they spend money, rethink timetables and learning spaces, allocate resources, is part of the  “new and better” thinking that is needed.

George Couros – Is Leadership an Innovative Endeavour?

Have I defined what innovative leadership needs to be? I doubt it, but maybe this is at least a first attempt. Thanks Doug for the prompt. I hope this generates further discussion.

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Response to George Couros – Empowering or Stifling Voice?

As a blogger who tries to find something to post every week, I find lots of inspiration from the people I follow and read every day. I try to read something and comment when I can. George Couros is one of the best and I find I get lots of inspiration from his writing. Today’s post by George, Empowering or Stifling Voice? inspired me to make the comment below. If you read this post, please consider reading and commenting on what he has written – I think he really gets to the heart of the risks bloggers take when they go public with their ideas.

Thanks for this post George. I am sure I am one of those bloggers who makes errors each time I write. I find it a bit weird that people would make comments on a post that pick up on small errors – what is the point? Why try to bring someone down?
I remember meeting you at one of the BIT conferences in Niagara Falls. The encounter was so positive and friendly, you encouraged me as an educator and as a blogger. I really appreciated the positive nature of that encounter.
I think we always learn more from the positive encounters. The negative ones can be instructive, but criticism needs to be delivered with kindness for it to be effective.
I am now a retired educator which has allowed me to be more critical of established educational institutions than I could have been as a principal. I have received great support from people like Doug Peterson and Stephen Hurley, and this encouragement has propelled me to write more. I sometimes feel like I am writing for an audience of two or three, but at least there is some audience out there that reads and comments on my posts.
What I do find bizarre and rather hurtful are the people who disagree with what I write but who respond by actually blocking me on Twitter.
To my knowledge, this has only happened once, but I truly don’t understand this behaviour.
If something you read upsets you, how does it help to block out that voice? How can you continue a conversation when you turn off the speaker?
Blogging is a risk. Everytime you hit the publish button you really don’t know what will happen next. People may like your writing, some will ‘unfollow’ you and I guess in rare cases you might be blocked.
As a blogger, what I would rather see would be a response. If you disagree with what is written, write back. It may take more time, but it shows more respect for the writer.
All that being said, positive comments are appreciated too!
Thank-you for being the inspiration for this piece of writing!
I hope your day goes better.

The End of my Kilimanjaro Journey

Last week, I finally reached the end of my 2016-2017 Mt. Kilimanjaro Journey. I had the chance (finally!) to go back to my former school – St. Anthony – to present on our great trip to Mount Kilimanjaro this past April.

I had the great honour to present to all the students from kindergarten to grade 6. Each presentation was different, aided by a Google Slides presentation and lots of equipment from the climb.

The kids asked great questions and we had a really great time talking about high altitude and how to walk on a mountain.

I had the chance to use the new Google Earth to show a 3-D model of the mountain which was a great teaching tool when overlaid with the track we followed up the mountain.

a 3-D display of our route up to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro using Google Earth and Inreach to track our group to the summit

Now I can finally say that my trip is over. The Kilimanjaro journey really started at St. Anthony when I decided to retire from the school so I could really train for the climb. We were able to raise almost $10,000 for Rec Link, a great organization that works with our families to provide recreation opportunities for our kids.

This was much more than a retirement adventure, it was a way to give back to these kids and this community.

Now that I have talked to the school community, I can move on to new challenges. Dream Mountains is getting ready for its next big venture – a trek to Mt. Everest Base Camp. I can’t sign up for this next climb until August, but I really hope I will be able to sign on. I love the idea of raising money for the community and I really want to challenge my body and mind again to take on a trek that is truly challenging.

Thanks to all the teachers and students of St. Anthony! Thanks to all those who supported me and helped raise an incredible amount of money for Rec Link and especially thanks to my family for being my great organizing committee.

We will soon see what comes up next.

Here’s hoping!!

Is leadership an innovative endeavour? – Response to George Couros

In January, George Couros asked this question and answered it with a definite “yes”.

I totally agree with his answer and his caveat that it should be an innovative endeavor.

My concern is that the urge to innovate seems to dissipate the higher people reach up the leadership ladder. There is certainly more pressure to follow the company line and as this pressure increases, the ability to innovate declines.

But when you see the challenges that are facing schools and organizations, if “leaders” are not also “innovators”, there is a danger of irrelevance.

George Couros

As George Couros writes, the inability to think outside the conventional ‘box’ can lead torganizations like school boards to become irrelevant.

Almost as a response to this challenge, Larry Ferlazzo has written a good series on leadership –  Response: Support Curriculum Innovations by ‘Failing Forward’

This three-part series offers a whole variety of ideas and suggestions from some of the top education leaders in the United Staes on how to support innovation in schools. One suggestion from Mark Estrada, principal of Lockhart Junior High School in Lockhart, Texas is very interesting.

School leaders and teachers must develop a growth mindset as Keith Heggart describes in a recent article.

  • Teachers and administrators must model a growth mindset

  • Create space and time for new idea development

  • Build time for self-reflection

  • Administrators must provide positive formative feedback

We are all familiar with the concept of ‘growth mindset’, and we want our students and teachers to embrace this idea. We don’t, however, insist that a growth mindset be adopted by school and district leadership. In my opinion, after working for years as an administrator in a large Ontario school board, a growth mindset amongst our leadership is sorely lacking.

I would argue that what we experience in many schools and certainly at the district level is a preservation mindset. Keep everything moving, nudge forward a little, pick up the newest fad in education, but basically keep things the way they are and celebrate compliance as the gold standard.

Those who do not accept this as the standard operating procedure are not welcome at the table.

So, while I applaud writers like George Couros, Larry Ferlazzo, and Mark Estrada who work hard to extend the reach of new ideas on leadership, I have to ask – who is reading these articles, and who is simply paying mouth service to ideas about innovation, change, and bold leadership?

If our education leaders are not overly concerned with real innovation, do they risk becoming irrelevant?

What you missed when you weren’t listening

One of the important attributes of a good leader is the ability to listen. I would add to that the ability to take constructive criticism without seeing this as an attack is equally important.

What I have found in my years as an educator, especially as an administrator has been the almost universal inability for senior school leaders to ask for, accept and work with constructive criticism. Generally, any sort of criticism is seen as an attack, and as a display of disloyalty.

There’s a problem with this. If you only listen to the voices who praise you and who tell you that you are on the right track, how do you expect to learn anything?

As a principal, I attended monthly meetings at our district office where we were talked to all day long. Administrators universally dreaded these meetings, but nothing ever changed because to criticize was seen as an act of disloyalty. To criticize meant that you were standing out just asking for trouble.

I have to ask, how is this a learning, growing system? If you only listen to those who agree with you, how do you expect to grow and change?

If children, teachers, parents, and schools are really important what happens to them when those at the top do not pay attention to their voices?

If you don’t grow you become irrelevant. Wouldn’t it just be easier to develop a bit of a thicker skin and begin to listen to those who might have something to say?

Just consider what could be learned?

 

From CBC’s The 180 – It’s Time to End Public Funding for Catholic Schools

This morning on CBC’s The 180, there was a great 7-minute feature on public funding of Catholic schools. You can listen to the piece here.

The piece is really interesting. Charles Pascal, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has been making the argument that Ontario should have one secular school system for some time.

The topic is re-emerging in Ontario since OPEN – One Public Education Now launched a court challenge stating that public funding of Catholic schools violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Two points struck me in this piece. First, politicians in Ontario are terribly risk-adverse and are not willing to challenge a political decision that was first taken back in the days of Egerton Ryerson to publicly fund Catholic schools. Pascal raises the question of why legislators are so afraid. Similar moves have been made in Newfoundland and Quebec in the past few years and the sky did not fall.

In Ontario, touching funding of Catholic schools is considered the ‘The Third Rail’ According to Wikipedia, the third rail of a nation’s politics is a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is “charged” and “untouchable” to the extent that any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically.

The second point that was very interesting had to do with public opinion about Catholic schools. According to Pascal, up to 70% of Ontario’s population is in favour of one public system, but the 30% in favour are powerful and as Pascal characterizes it ‘voracious’ in their support of the system.

I can understand this. Everytime I post on this topic, I get all sorts of negative comments and sometimes these attacks come from Catholic educators, some I worked with for years. I will get more negative comments after this post – mostly in the vein of not being ‘loyal’ or being naive about how the world works etc, etc. I will be unfollowed or blocked by more Catholic educators. So it goes.

To be clear, I worked in the Catholic system for 31 years the last six as a principal. Based on my experience, there is no logical reason for keeping this system in place. I was a committed Catholic educator for all these years, but to me fairness and equity are more important that propping up a system that is now an anachronism.

 

The Importance of Being Civil to Others Part II

Last week my post The Importance of Being Civil to Others was featured on Voice.ed Radio.  A great discussion and thanks to Doug Peterson and Steven Hurley for featuring this post. I think, and they agreed, the discussion needs to go further. In the original post, I mentioned specific situations where we are no longer as civil as we should be, especially in the field of education. I wasn’t writing as much about civility in general society where I agree with Steven, society in Canada is very civil and I appreciate my daily dealings with people.

People can be very civil when you do not upset the status quo when you do civility becomes strained.

I have to admit I like to push the envelope and write about controversial topics like Catholic Education in Ontario and the inability of school boards to bring about significant change. These are topics that need to be written about. At no time do I ever focus on individuals or write in any way that can be seen as disrespectful.

These are topics that seem to bring the knives out.

Several times, mainly on Facebook, I have been called naive and simplistic and people have expressed ‘surprise’ about my posts, especially regarding Catholic Education in Ontario. On Twitter, I have actually been blocked by a member of the senior administration from my former Catholic board.

The blocking might not mean that much, but to me, it is a sign of incivility. Usually, I block the Twitter accounts of trolls and those who do not follow the rules set out by Twitter for inappropriate content.

I never block people who I disagree with, I usually try to engage in positive conversation and if this is not possible, I simply unfollow them. Blocking someone you don’t agree with is cowardly behaviour and I would say lacks civility.

On Facebook, when the conversations threaten to get out of control I simply delete the entire conversation. Sadly, this seems to be the only way to stop people who quickly lose the ability to be polite on-line. The worst offenders tend to be Catholic educators, which I find troubling.

I hope this clarifies my position. Again, thank goodness for my very supportive on-line PLN – all are wonderful and always civil!

The Principal as Activist

A few days ago, I was part of a presentation in front of the Ottawa Community Housing Foundation. We were talking about the work that we had done to raise money for a community organization called Rec Link by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. We talked about the importance of developing community assets to assist schools in high poverty areas. Rec-LINK was one of these important community assets that continue to be a great help at my last school.

One board member asked if it was normal for principals to develop strong links with community agencies that make the lives of families in the community richer. I had to say that, no this is not common. I do know some great principals who have linked their school to community agencies, but unfortunately, in my opinion, this is rare.

We are not trained to develop our community assets and this made me reflect on why I had taken this approach at my last school.

I think a great deal has to do with what I have learned from a visionary principal, Nelson Rutilio Cartagena Orellana who administers an elementary school in San Jose las Flores in El Salvador.

Nelson has been principal and a prominent member of the community of San Jose las Flores for many years. Nelson is everywhere in the community. He sits on local and regional anti-mining committees, he is always looking for ways enrich his school community through the development of projects that include an extensive garden and livestock growing project, a breakfast program for all students and a new computer lab for the school. He does much of this through the partnerships he has encouraged with schools and communities in Canada, Spain and I am sure many other countries.

Nelson was actually voted principal by the teachers of his school – can you imagine if we did the same thing here?

Nelson grew up in and around San Jose las Flores and was a young victim of the Sumpul River Massacre.  His brother died trying to cross the river and Nelson still wonders what he would be like if he was alive today.

A depiction of the Sumpul River Massacre. It is estimated that over 600 people, mainly women, and children were killed trying to cross the river from El Salvador to Honduras.

Nelson’s commitment to his school and community is very special. He knows that the children at the school have the potential to prosper in the future – one no longer clouded by war and oppression.

To be an educator in San Jose las Flores means that you are committed to bringing about social change for the children of the community and that you must use every asset you can find to make sure they have a bright future.

Children getting a mid-morning meal at the school – this program is funded by one of the many school partners.

While our challenges in Canada are nothing like those in El Salvador, there is an important message to be learned here. It is simply not enough to administer your own school and shut the community out. The problems that exist in disadvantaged communities in Canadian cities are too great to be managed by the school alone. Schools must develop stronger ties to local community agencies like Rec-LINK in order to provide the well-rounded education our children need to prosper.

This may be done at some schools, but if it does it is because of one or two inspired leaders like Nelson – it certainly is not common. The need for better integration between school and community seems to be poorly understood here and this needs to change.

A principal needs to be an activist. If they are not comfortable with that role, probably best to move on to a less challenging school.

The elementary school in San Jose las Flores

 

The Importance of Being Civil to Others

I read a great post by Andrew Campbell this morning, Why Teaching Digital Citizenship Doesn’t Work.

He writes:

We need to stop teaching Digital Citizenship with long lists of rules and instead reinforce basic Citizenship. Provide students with a set of positively framed principles to apply to all situations, digital and analog. Students don’t need more rules; they just need to apply the ones they’ve already got. The same ones they learned in kindergarten.

While this post was written in 2013, it is just as relevant today. I would go even further, adults also need to learn to follow the rules of civility. Andrew reposted this blog as part of a larger conversation on civility and respect using digital media. Another participant,

Another participant, Rolland Chidiac made this important comment:

Rolland’s tweet makes a great point, but a sad one. People routinely treat people badly and feel that they can get away with it because they are distanced by the phone or digital media.

As educators, we should strive never to do this. We should be holding ourselves to a higher standard and we should be acting as an example to our students.

I am writing this to comment on a really good twitter discussion and because I witnessed an incredible lack of civility displayed by a fellow administrator today.

Following the rules of civility, I will not get into the details, apart from saying this administrator has done an excellent job at making sure I could not return to my former school to do a presentation on a fundraising climb I took part in to Mount Kilimanjaro earlier this year.

Some people just don’t understand what it means to be gracious and civil and I really believe people like this need reconsider why they are in education. In a world dominated by Donald Trump Tweets and bickering, we need to show more grace and compassion when we are dealing with others. Students, parents, and colleagues.

Following the guidelines set out in this morning’s tweets, I would be happy to confront this educator and explain this to them. Unfortunately, nothing would change and that is too bad.

In a world that is growing crueler and less civil, we really need to reflect on this. Our actions have consequences, our actions can really hurt other people – this is something we should never do.

Thanks to my wonderful twitter friends for a great discussion, very timely based on my experiences today.