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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Perceptions Versus Reality

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

Reconciling Dissonance Between Perception and Reality

     Then what do you do?

     1) Acknowledge and accept the power of perception in influencing reality. 2) Examine the key components of the school from an outsider’s vantage point by surveying internal and external constituents. 3) Analyze the survey results and discriminate between: a) What you want to control (ask yourself - what’s most important in sustaining the pursuit of our mission?) and b) What you want to influence (those areas that buttress the efforts of the school and often distinguish the school from others). 4) Define the critical areas and seek to embed them into the culture of the school through rituals, ceremonies, and myths that are articulated and reinforced. 5) Determine what you can afford to divest. Do not divorce areas that compromise the integrity of the school. Create opportunities with limited choices for those areas you wish to influence. Establish guidelines and support that facilitates those participating in the assigned areas. Insure that the work of those assuming responsibility is tangible and mission related.

     Rank order the most important components of your school apart from the obvious – the learners. You will undoubtedly identify the common variables of curriculum, assessment, budget, hiring practices, resource allocation, and discipline, among others. These are ordinarily the areas that are most ardently defended by school staff as vital.

     Ask parents in your school to rank order their interests concerning the school and they’ll likely begin and end with teachers. That’s generally the central issue. Not hiring them, but picking from among those who are there already. Many parents of elementary school children worry most about the relationship between their child and the adults who work with their child. If that interaction is successful then most other concerns are abated. If the combination is not productive then you can expect irate and frustrated parents and teachers and a year full of nightmares.

     If that’s the case, that school staff want control over curriculum, and assessment; and parents want influence regarding the assignment of children to teachers, then both parties can follow their interests and coexist. The operative phrase here is, “choose your battles.”

Choosing Battles and Averting Wars

     Here’s an example. Our school has elected to permit parents the opportunity to choose their child’s teacher. The placement of learners is perhaps one of the most important decisions made in schools each year. This may raise your anxiety and prompt fears of impotency. Have faith.

     Harry Beckwith explains in Selling the Invisible, how and why people select from service providers: “When many prospects choose a service firm, they are not buying the firm’s credentials. These prospects buy the firm’s personality. Most people describe their experience of interaction with a service firm on the basis of feelings. Service businesses are about feelings. In service marketing and selling, the logical reasons you should win the business – your competence, your excellence, your talent, - just pay the entry fees. Winning is a matter of feelings, and feelings are about personalities.” (p. 53)

     Malcolm Gladwell, best selling author of Blink, refers to a study (p. 40) conducted within the insurance industry that sought to identify the profile of doctors most likely to be subjected to malpractice claims. After an exhausting examination of measureable data revealed no correlates, a further review, this time studying the interaction between doctor and patient, exposed the discerning vantage point. The research found that doctors who were condescending and indifferent to the patient’s emotional and psychological needs and interests were more likely to be litigated than doctors who were actively listened and were attentive and responsive to the patient.

     The process of parents expressing a preference for particular teachers reinforces what Beckwith had suggested, people emphasize feelings and personality when choosing among the available teachers. They tend to look for a fit between the classroom environment created by the teacher and their own perceptions on the needs, interests, likes and dislikes of their child. No one has ever inquired about where the teacher received their degree, what their grade point average was in college, or how many graduate credits the teacher has. It’s predominately about how they perceive the teacher’s personality and demeanor.

     We maintain a resolute expectation of teachers covering a common curriculum with high quality performance in the six classrooms at each grade level. That’s our line in the sand. However, we embrace diversity with regards to instructional delivery systems and the structure of classroom environments so parents can discriminate, whether on whim or astute information gathering, among the teachers and classrooms. This requires a concerted effort in the school’s selection process to hire teachers of varied techniques and philosophies that ensure distinctions among instructional practices so parents have a choice to exercise. We try very hard to offer points of differentiation among teachers to appeal to and accommodate the spectrum of parent perceptions and truly extend them a choice.

     Here’s an example of why choice matters, and benefits both the consumer and the provider. Stew Leonard’s supermarket regularly conducts consumer focus groups designed to elicit feedback helpful in allowing the store to maintain and cultivate the interests and needs of the customers. One such meeting prompted a customer to suggest that people have the opportunity to hand pick individual strawberries of their choice rather than be confined to merely picking up containers already packaged with strawberries. The produce manager objected and implied that customers would only select the best and ripest strawberries, leaving the rest to go bad and represent a loss to the store. The store relented and offered customers the opportunity to pick their own strawberries from the counter. While the customers did in fact pass over certain berries they viewed as inferior, which were subsequently treated as a loss by the store, the profits from strawberry sales at the store doubled because the average customer purchased three times as many strawberries than they did when the berries were only available in pint containers. (Haas and Tamarkin, p. 163)

     As a result of extending preference of teachers to our parents they are empowered partners rather than antagonists. We do not suffer a loss of energy by parrying with parents about participation in school decisions because they are content with the ability to wield their opinion in what many consider to be the most vital area. Parents are far less likely to complain about a teacher which they had picked for their child, since they had exercised the selection.    

     We have employed this process for sixteen years. During this time we have not encountered a situation where significantly more parents have requested one teaching style over another. Each year we advance over nine hundred learners to the succeeding grade. Once assignments are made we experience parent initiated changes in placement in less than 1% of the cases, far fewer than we had experienced prior to including parents in the decision. The net result is satisfied parents and teachers. Interestingly, only one quarter of all parents actually submit a preference request!

     We can draw upon a study that Tom Peters and Robert Waterman referred to in their book In Search of Excellence to support this point. (p. xi)

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