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 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.