Sunday, February 14, 2010

21st Century School Focus: On the Students

Obviously, one of my own personal gripes about “Race to the Top” and “No Child Left Behind” is the relentless focus these policies place on testing, in some cases even at the expense of the student. But instead of once again digressing into one of my personal polemics about testing in general and legislation in particular, I want to focus on what really should be the focus of schools: the students. Ken Blanchard’s legendary book Leading at a Higher Level has an entire chapter devoted to “Serving Customers at a Higher Level” and I think his words have some relevance to us as school leaders and principals. While it is entirely possible to argue that the “customer” metaphor for our students does not entirely work, I think Blanchard’s principles and ideas regarding a “relentless focus on customers” is relevant. One aspect of No Child Left Behind that everyone will acknowledge to be true is that the legislation did force schools and school systems to focus more on those students who traditionally have trouble learning. In that sense, NCLB did force more conversation about the “customer.” Now that we find ourselves in the role of 21st Century principal, we can rest assured that the same conversation will continue, regardless of what other legislation attempts to shape education, and rightly so, for students should be at the center of our concerns, and they are for me.

Blanchard talks about in his book providing customers “legendary service.” As I read his book, I try to imagine what this legendary service would look like in the educational arena,  I begin to see some of the same principles applying to “legendary learning” which should be the focus of 21st Century Schools. Let me borrow some of Blanchard’s Five Basic Elements of Legendary Service and see if they apply to educational organizations.

First of all, Blanchard speaks of what he calls “ideal service.” In a business sense, this means “consistently meeting or exceeding the customer’s needs on a day-to-day basis on the belief that service is important.” When I examine this principle, I try to think in terms of the following: Are we meeting/exceeding the needs of our students daily, or are there students who are slipping through the cracks in the system? Does the school for which I am principal believe that student learning is the most important reason for existing? As a teacher and as an administrator, I have worked in schools that are far from answering those questions in favor of students. In one particular school, decisions were most often made to the benefit of the adults. The lunch tables were arranged, not for the benefit of the students, but for what was best for the teachers. The lunch schedule was designed to maximize teacher satisfaction. Even the overall school schedule was designed to the satisfaction of the teachers and any suggestion of doing anything different was blasphemy. It is those schools that fail to provide “ideal service” to students, and it is those same schools that will fail in the 21st Century. Schools of the new century must relentlessly focus on students. After all, they do not exist to provide adults employment. They exist for the students. We must commit to providing consistent service to all our students.

Secondly, Blanchard speaks of what he calls a “Culture of Service.” When it comes to schools, this element is even more true in schools than in businesses. Education is a service field. Our focus should always be making schools the kinds of places where providing students quality education is the most important task. There can be no denying that we are in the service of our students. Providing them with classrooms that maximize learning is important. Providing them with teachers that make learning relevant and rigorous is important. Providing students with schools that will make it possible for them to thrive in the global world of the 21st Century is important. We as educators are in the service of all our students, and we need to remind ourselves of that fact moment-by-moment.

Blanchard’s third element of legendary service is what he calls “attentiveness.” This element has to do with listening, and a lot of schools still do not do enough of this. Schools of the previous century prescribed learning for its students. The principals and the teachers knew what students needed to learn, and they taught it to them, even when the students resisted. Today, we can no longer afford to ignore students, parents, and even the business world. We need to be more attentive to our students and their needs more than ever. Recently, our school’s students completed a satisfaction survey and you can bet our staff will look closely at that data. It is important that we be attentive and listen to what our students and parents are saying to us. Schools of the 21st Century cannot prescribe education any longer because our prescription’s expiration date will often be too short-termed to help students navigate their future world.

A fourth element of Blanchard’s legendary service is “responsiveness.” I like to think schools have done this pretty well, but in some ways they haven’t. Sometimes we as principals, seem to forget that policies should exist for the sake of students, but yet how many times do we see policy enforced for its own sake? If we are going to be responsive and act on the needs of our students, we need to be ever conscious of how sometimes systems with its policies, laws and legislation can sometimes work against the welfare of our students. For example, take the zero tolerance policies toward weapons many systems around the country adopted in the wake of school shootings. There are stories in the news every day of students being suspended for bringing plastic knives, pocket knives, and even water guns to school. While I would not minimize the dangers of weapons in school, I do think that these are clear instances where the need to enforce policy ignored the needs of the individual student. In other words, decisions were made that were not responsive to the needs of the students in these situations. A 21st Century administrator has no choice  but always serve her students and act on their needs. While I am not advocating violating law or policy, I am just pointing out that we must, in every situation, be responsive and act on the needs of the young people we serve.

Blanchard’s final element of legendary service is what he calls “empowerment.” He talks about providing information and tools to help people meet the needs of customers or exceed customer expectations. Our role as a 21st Century principal demands that we empower our teachers by providing them with relevant and useful knowledge and research about teaching. We also are mandated to provide them with the tools necessary to carry effective day-to-day instruction. There are countless ways for administrators to do this. A 21st Century principal must be knowledgeable, more than ever, about learning, about technology, about students, about teachers, about parents, about community, and the list goes on. Only by being knowledgeable ourselves can we provide useful information about teaching and learning to our teachers. For example, if we want our teachers to integrate technology into their classrooms, we also must have this expertise. A respected principal in the 21st Century is an administrator who is also a teacher and student himself.

Now that I have rambled on for a few paragraphs about Blanchard and his ideas, I have to admit as an educator, I can’t always say I have focused on providing legendary service (teaching and learning) for my students. We might be educators, but we are also human, and that means sometimes we do things selfishly. Still, I am challenged anew by Blanchard. I do want to relentlessly focus on providing the students at my school with best education possible. And, you know, while it is sometimes easy to be distracted and distraught by the noise made by politicians about Race to the Top and the reauthorization of NCLB, I will still go into my school Monday morning, and students will be at the center of my concern.

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