Schools and the Lost Art of Customer Service
The first day of school can be a little hectic. Chaotic, even. There are so many moving parts, so many routines to be broken and so many to replace them with. But at its core, the first day of school is a day full of promise, a day to feel good about things. If nothing else, it may be the last day left on the school calendar that isn't devoted to test prep, although someone somewhere is bound to be giving a pop quiz today or reviewing vocabulary words just because.
With that said, planning, preparation, and organization are the keys to success in this business—teachers know it, students know it, and a lot of administrators know it too. At least the best of them do. Parents should expect it. How often do schools deliver?
Let me explain what I mean. Today was the first day of school for my kids. The two that are in elementary school were ready to go this morning: backpacks on, breakfast done, set to head outside and catch the bus so they could begin new adventures in a new school. Our kindergartener was blunt when I asked her if she was looking forward to school. "No," she said at first, "because they have homework." I didn't have the heart to tell her about the tests. But later she admitted to being really excited about riding the bus.
Too bad it never came. Actually, to be fair, the bus did show up—but the kids never got on. The driver arrived at the appointed time and paused briefly at the end of our driveway, where the kids are supposed to be picked up and right where we were standing; then, to our surprise, she just kept on driving. Maybe she thought we were having an early morning picnic (in our driveway), or maybe she thought these school-aged kids standing around with their parents were going to be picked up by one of the other school buses going by. There were definitely enough of them. We counted at least seven while we were standing there, not including the buses that went by when middle and high school students were picked up an hour earlier, and not including at least three vans labeled "school students" that also passed us. It was almost like the drivers were just driving around to see if any kids would come out looking for a ride. Almost. We stood there bewildered.
Unfortunately, bus hijinks are becoming the norm for us. Once last year a bus driver forgot that he had our son, who was in first grade at the time, on board. When he figured it out, the driver didn't turn around to come back—he stopped the bus and told our son (did I mention he was in first grade?) to get out and start walking. Our son arrived home in tears. We comforted him by reminding him that he'd have a story to tell his own kids one day about how he used to have to walk home from the bus alone in the snow at sunset in the middle of winter while carrying his brother and two sisters on his back and pulling the groceries in a sled behind him, uphill both ways, like one of the four Yorkshiremen. He wasn't buying it.
But to the point: obviously planning, preparation, and organization are not all it takes for a school or district to be a good one. It takes more than that, a lot more. I also know enough to know that individual teachers and building administrators can be exceptionally well organized and well prepared for their work and still have that planning and preparation overshadowed and undone by the incompetence of others; maybe this was the bus driver's fault, but probably not. And of course I know that we're always expecting schools to do more with less. In many places, that means contracting things like transportation to private companies, hiring a revolving cast of new support staff (including bus drivers), and then adding three or four extra stops to drivers' routes even if it means putting them in the position of having to speed through neighborhoods to get to them all in time. (That, by the way, seems to be a problem here, too.)
But wouldn't it be nice if schools paid a little bit more attention to customer service? That's not actually the phrase I'd use for it, because it implies that parents and students are just consumers and schools are just providing a service. Education is obviously more complicated than that. I'd prefer a different phrase: common courtesy. Careful planning and preparation are signs of respect—respect for the work you're doing, respect for the people you're doing it for—and they manifest themselves in courtesy toward others. Sure, everyone makes mistakes. But mistakes can be minimized through preparation, which includes accepting criticism and reflecting on it in order to get better.
And, see, here's the message I get when my kids' bus driver drives right by us as we're waiting at the bus stop, without even stopping to ask what we're doing there: somebody didn't care enough to plan this effectively, let alone practice it to make sure things would go smoothly. Getting the kids to school and back should be the easy part. If even that doesn't come off without a hitch, it has to make you wonder how the tougher work—the actual education of students—is being done. If you don't care about doing this right, why should I trust you to do that right?
So, wherever you are today, whether you've had your first day of school or not, if you're in education try to remember this: parents are paying attention to what you do, and they're paying attention at curriculum night or "meet the teacher" night or back to school night or whatever it's called where you are. This may be their only real contact with the school all year. If they're anything like me, they want to see evidence of your preparation for the work you plan to do, evidence of your professionalism, evidence of your ability to organize and manage the whole experience their children will have at your school. At their school.
This isn't a lecture; it's a piece of friendly advice. Take the time to double check every procedure, every scenario, every expectation—and then take some more time to do it again. Think like a parent. How would you feel if you showed up to an open house and no one was there to greet you? If you walked into a classroom and couldn't tell who the teacher was? If you couldn't even find the classroom to begin with? How would you feel if you told your boss you were sorry but you'd have to be late to work today because the bus driver showed up but never let the kids get on?
In short, it's understood that educating kids is hard; showing that you take it seriously is not. Just showing parents and their kids this much courtesy could go a long way. When you care about doing a job well for others, you set yourself up to actually do it well. Take it from me. Better yet, take it from my son the Yorkshireman.