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Undercover Exec

Too lazy to change the channel, I watched the first few minutes of “Undercover Boss,” the new reality show that followed the Super Bowl.  I ended up watching the whole thing.

Like reality shows in general, this isn’t exactly high concept.  The president of a large company changes out of his expensive suit, dons a worker’s uniform, and applies for various entry-level jobs in his own company, unrecognized by the rank and file.  The idea is for him to get out of the office and the upper echelons to see how things are going in the field and to find out if anything can be improved.

The opening show featured Larry O’Donnell, president of Waste Management, a multi-billion dollar national company with headquarters in Texas.  Over the course of the program we see O’Donnell suctioning out Undercover-boss_300  port-o-potties, riding on the back of a garbage truck, sorting garbage, and picking up debris at a landfill.  He learns a lot from his hard working employees, and by the end of the show he neatly corrects the problems they encounter daily.  The feel-good ending works in large measure because of O’Donnell’s good guy image (he tears up when a handicapped woman reads a thank-you to the garbage truck workers).

Reuters’ Barry Gannon calls it “A valentine to workers, management.”  Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker is a lot more cynical, wondering if this is some lame attempt to rehabilitate CEOs.  I was just sort of fascinated by the labor-management relationship.

The whole thing reminded me of a forgotten article I had read quite a while ago about a middle school principal who went through an entire day with an eighth grade class.  Of course, he didn’t go undercover, but after a while the kids forgot he was there (kind of like they do when you’re driving a group of them somewhere.)  The teachers duly noted his presence, of course.  Even still, the word he chose for the whole day’s experience was “mind numbing.” Six or seven discrete classes, none of them related; homework; reading out loud or silently; few problem solving activities; little participation or involvement; no group work; general boredom.  I tried following the eighth grade schedule myself after reading the article and couldn’t get beyond lunchtime. It wasn’t nearly as bad as my forgotten colleague’s experience, but it certainly made me think about how we could better organize and synthesize some of the responsibilities these kids had.

Frankly, I think it’s a great idea for school administrators, often long removed from the classroom, to leave their offices and try to experience first-hand what kids and teachers (and maybe classified staff) do every day.  Some administrators try to teach a class a few times a year; others agree to substitute on occasion (the day I subbed in a first grade classroom gave me a new appreciation for primary teachers).  If you’re brave, you could try riding the school bus or serving in the cafeteria line.

Of course, unlike the COO of a large business, school administrators can’t always just order changes in procedures or promote or fire employees based on what they just saw.  Too bad for us.  Still, the idea of leaving the office to experience the day from the students’ or employees’ point of view gives us a place to start.






What Goes Around

For most of my teaching career I taught middle school and high school English.  But I’m also certified as a Spanish teacher, and in fact taught Spanish and English both for several years.

So I was fascinated by reports that language labs are making a comeback.  I haven’t seen a lab for many years, and it appears that these are new and improved.  In the old labs, you basically put on the headsets and talked to the recorder.  There was nothing live or interactive.  The new labs appear to be vastly improved with all kinds of bells and whistles allowing the teacher to talk to students individually or in groups.  The student’s responses can also be recorded and critiqued so the student can detect (and presumably correct) his or her pronunciation.  Rube goldberg  All of these upgrades do not come cheap:  software companies are claiming labs will cost $500 – 1800 a seat, and one Maryland school is hoping to raise $150,000 for the effort according to an article in Education Week’s “DigitalDirections.” 

I took years of Spanish in college, complete with the old time clunky language labs, but I actually learned to speak Spanish through the immersion method (8 hours a day for 3 weeks followed by 4 hours a day for 8 weeks) in my training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in South America.  We certainly wouldn’t have been mistaken for natives when we finished training, but every one of us could survive nicely in Paraguay (that is, language-wise, not necessarily health-wise).

So I’m not saying, don’t get the language labs.  And it seems unlikely that anyone is going to try the immersion method.  So if you want to raise $150,000 for a lab, fine.  But nothing – nothing – takes the place of actually speaking the language every day with a live speaker.  That $150,000 plus annual upgrades might also buy you another language teacher and a half so you could actually start instruction in the elementary school where kids aren’t “embarrassed” to use the language.  Or we can just continue to ignore the research the way we usually do.



Tools, Time and Trust

Tool box  Randi Weingarten’s appearance on Morning Joe last week provided some interesting viewing as Joe Scarborough and Carl Bernstein asked the question that many parents would like to put to the head of the American Federation of Teachers:  Why is it so hard to get rid of bad teachers?  Bernstein went further in asking why teachers’ unions are held in such disregard, and then answered his own question:  Because the union puts job security before kids’ welfare.

For her part, Weingarten did a good job of defending her union’s position.  Agreeing that “no one wants bad teachers,” she noted that “the real issue” is giving teachers “the tools to become great.”  What teachers need, she said, is “tools, time, and trust.”  

Without being specific, Weingarten appeared to suggest that the “tools” were something that should be provided to teachers so that they could do their jobs.  But I began to wonder exactly what “tools” teachers would need to be great.  And I thought about some of the great teachers I've known, and frankly, there were quite a few.  Here are the “tools” that they brought to their classrooms:

            •Commitment to the profession

            •Appreciation for children and what they could become

            •Belief that they could make a difference in kids’ lives

•Belief that their responsibility was to work with all children whatever their background or ability

•Desire to continually improve their own skills



•Sense of humor



These essential “tools” are nothing the best teachers could be given by their administration or the school system; they brought these tools with them when they came to school every day.

Good teachers thrived in both the poorest and the wealthiest schools I’ve worked in.  They were good teachers whether we had lots of equipment and supplies or no money to spend on anything.  They were good teachers whether they worked in schools where 100% of the kids received free or reduced lunches or where 100% went on to 4-year colleges.  And if we could afford staff development, good teachers became even better.

Without these essential tools, no amount of time and trust is going to make a teacher great or even good.  Sorry, Ms. Weingarten – it’s up to the teacher to bring these tools with her when she enters the classroom.  The school can’t provide them even if it wanted to.



The Interview

In a few weeks I’ll hold a seminar on job searches for my administrative interns.  We’ll review their resumes, make sure they have placement folders established at their respective colleges, and talk about appropriate professional attire.  We’ll talk about preparation for the interview, thinking about what questions will be asked and how to answer them. Groupiinterviews  We’ll have a panel of local principals talk about their own job search experiences and interviews, and students will be able to ask specific questions about how to negotiate contracts and salaries.

We will then “fishbowl” a couple of practice interviews.  In this region, just about every interview for a principal position is a group interview.  Some candidates have to face as many as 15 “stakeholders” around the table, each with his or her prepared question.  Typically represented are teachers, secretaries, parents, other administrators, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, custodians, community members, and sometimes board of education members.

As a superintendent I have never been fond of including board members in the interview process, preferring to introduce the finalist at the board meeting at which he or she may be interviewed and hopefully appointed.  Selecting the finalist is, I believe, the superintendent’s prerogative subject to the board’s final approval, and including board members in interviews muddies the waters.  Everything’s fine if you choose their favorite candidate; it can be not so fine if you don’t.  In addition, you place board members in the vulnerable position of having candidates or their relatives call them to try to influence the outcome.  This type of contact can happen anyway, of course, but good board practice requires board members to not insert themselves personally in administrative searches.

Some superintendents I have known take more than one candidate to the board and let the board choose.  In my opinion this is not good practice because again, recommending a candidate is the superintendent’s prerogative.  In addition, the superintendent or her designee has already thoroughly researched the candidate’s references, received input from the interview committee, and interviewed the candidate herself.  In contrast, the board will have numerous items on the agenda that evening and basing their appointment on a short interview is probably not in the district’s best interests.

Having lots of input regarding administrative candidates is fine, and rarely have I found that the group’s finalists were different from the ones I arrived at independently.  Of course, if the appointment doesn’t work out, you’ll be the only one at the table delivering the bad news to the employee.

The Mascot

I grew up in Cleveland and have been a long suffering Indians fan all my life.  My friends and I used to skip school with parental consent to go to Opening Day in old Lakefront Stadium, where  the frigid April wind blasted in off the lake, rumbled around the near-empty stadium, and whipped the flag straight out.

On Saturdays my sister and I would take the bus into the city (about 20 miles), get off at the Terminal Tower, and then walk down to the stadium.  I was maybe 12 and she was 9.  My dad picked us up downtown a few blocks from the stadium after the game if it was dark.  I cannot imagine allowing a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old to do that today.

Anyway, atop Lakefront Stadium was the huge, ugly, grinning head of Chief Wahoo.  I thought it was scary.  Whether it was offensive to Native Americans never entered my mind as a kid.

A few years ago the then New York State Education Commissioner thought it would be a great idea of all public schools that used Native American mascots would abandon them for something less offensive.  Now I didn’t agree with much of what the last Commissioner thought, but I really had to agree with this now that I was no longer a 12-year-old, but a responsible grown-up. Chief wahoo  As it turned out, the team mascot of my school district was an Indian, and on occasion a kid would dress up in buckskin with a bow and arrow and run around the gym whooping and hollering in what were supposed to be war cries, I think, during time outs.  After watching this performance one night, it began to dawn on me why Native Americans might be offended.

I was definitely in the minority with this change of heart.  Few of my superintendent colleagues had a problem with Indian mascots, and there are lots and lots of Indian mascots in New York State. 

But I began to wonder how some of these guys would feel if their team mascot was an ethnic or racial stereotype similar to each of them.    What if your mascot was “The Italian” wearing a bowling shirt and menacing people like Tony Soprano does?  Or “The Asian,”  all "ah so" and karate chops?  Or “The White Folks” wearing business suits?  Can you see it on the school letterhead?  The South High Caucasians.

There are, of course, some great mascots that have avoided the issue completely.  The Scarabs of East Cleveland.  The Student Princes of Heidelberg College.  The Purple Ghosts of Alexandria Bay. 

Well, long long story very short, we managed to change our mascot to something less offensive by appealing to the students’ sense of fairness, encouraging them to suggest alternatives, and then voting.  Also, by not allowing alumni to vote. 

Because I really really don’t like Chief Wahoo, but I have to admit it would be hard to vote no on a cherished piece of my childhood, however scary and obnoxious.  If it came to that, I would hope my better instincts would prevail. 

The Captain

Nearly all flights to and from the Richmond, Virginia airport were cancelled Saturday due to the biggest snowstorm in 20 years, which dropped about 13 inches on the city.  We were lucky enough to be there to witness the historic event from inside the airport, but the airline still held out hope that our flight might actually take off at some point because we were headed to Philadelphia, outside of the path of the storm.

The problem was visibility.  We all loaded onto the plane, crammed our carry-ons into the overhead De-icing  compartments or under the seats, and prepared for take off.  That’s when the Captain came on the intercom and noted that he needed to have a half-mile visibility to actually start down the runway.  Present visibility was only a quarter mile, but it appeared that a window of opportunity would open up in about 25 minutes, he thought.  “We’re going to wait here on the runway, “ he said, “but if it doesn’t improve in that time, we’ll send you back into the terminal where you’ll be more comfortable.”

So we sat for a while.  And then the most amazing thing happened.  The Captain left the cockpit and came down the aisle of the plane, explaining to us in person the weather situation and offering to answer any questions we might have.  We had lots of questions.  Do they de-ice the plane?  How does that work?  Do they have the equipment to clear the runways?  (This was not a stupid question given the dearth of plowing equipment in a city that rarely sees snow).  Can people get their bags off if they decide to leave tomorrow instead?  What if we miss our connections?

The Captain answered all questions fully and thoughtfully, referring some of them to the flight attendant right behind him.  Eventually, true to their word, we did deplane and return to the terminal, where we sat for a couple more hours.  The pilot and crew circulated among the passengers, continuing to keep us updated on information and to answer any questions we might have.  As a result, when the flight was eventually cancelled, no one was angry or frustrated.

At breakfast the next morning back in the hotel, we fell into conversation with a couple of flight attendants next to us.  I mentioned how helpful it was for the pilot to actually give us up-to-date information.  “That’s the current thinking,” one of the attendants said.  “What the airlines want us to do now is give passengers whatever information we have.  It seems to really diffuse unpleasant situations.”

It certainly worked in this situation to mitigate the extra time, cost, and inconvenience of a cancelled flight.  I didn’t need to (and didn’t want to and had no right to) be part of the decision-making process.  But I appreciated being kept on board about plans that would personally affect me.  It was leadership at its most subtle and reassuring.





Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.