Food for Thought
by Leigh Currey Merrifield
I think I mentioned last week that I’m a saver; I save little quips and stories I receive from readers and via e-mail just in case they might be appropriate at some future time. Over the years, I have collected quite a stack! This little piece, authored by the CEO in question, came to me in 2002! Yes, it’s 15 years old, but you know what they say about “oldies” being “goodies”. What this successful businessman learned was that you’d better have your ducks in a row if you’re going to preach to teachers about how they do their jobs. Read on to see how he learned his lesson ……….
……. I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of in-service training. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife!
I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle-1980s when People Magazine chose our blueberry flavor as the “Best Ice Cream in America”!
I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the Industrial Age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society”.
Secondly, educators were a major part of the problem. They resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business because we knew how to produce quality – – zero defects, total quality management, and continuous improvement! (In retrospect, my speech was perfectly balanced – equal parts of both ignorance and arrogance.)
As soon as I finished my talk, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite and pleasant, but she was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload on me.
She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good nice cream.” I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, ma’am!” “How nice,” she continued. “Is it rich and smooth?” she asked. “Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed. “All premium ingredients?” she inquired. “Super-premium! Nothing but triple-A,” I answered – obviously on a roll! But I didn’t see what was coming ……….
“Sir,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised, “When you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do with them?” In the silence of that room, I could literally hear the trap snap. I was dead meat, but I didn’t lie …. I said, “I send them back.”
“That’s right!” she barked, “And we can never send back our ‘blueberries’. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, insecure, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, with rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all, EVERY one of them. And that, sir, is why it’s not a business; it’s school.”
In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet with applause. And so began my long transformation. Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material; they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of dissimilar, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night!
None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in society. But educators cannot do it alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission and active support of the surrounding community. For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs, and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools. It means changing America.
This week’s dessert: “Be sure to taste all of your words before you spit them out!” ~ Author Unknown