A Culture of Essentialness (Design Principle #7)

I want to know why Starbucks was open yesterday. The districts surrounding four of our schools in Colorado and Texas closed yesterday because of icy roads or temperatures in the single digits. Most people reading this blog will be so used to school closures when the weather is cold or inclement that they will assume it was necessary – you know, safety and all. And certainly there are times when schools should close due to truly dangerous conditions, but yesterday?

All of our schools were open at 6:30 a.m. as usual and all staff members in all six schools managed to get to school on time. In the six years that we have been operating, we have never had an inclement weather day – no late start, no school closure. O.K. maybe we should not be the standard – maybe we’re a little too zealous about providing an essential service. So, let’s look for another role model – how about Starbucks?

I called two Starbucks in Colorado Springs at 6:30 a.m. yesterday and asked if they were open. They were. I also asked the barista at the Briargate Starbucks why they were open.

Mike: “Hi, this is Mike. Are you open today?”

Barista: “Yes, we are.”

Mike: “Why?”

Barista: “What do you mean?”

Mike: “I mean schools are closed and some businesses may open late. Why aren’t you closed? Didn’t you find it dangerous to drive to work?”

Barista: “Not particularly; I just drove slowly and left a little earlier than usual.”

Mike: “Do you ever close?”

Barista: “Well, we had reduced hours on Christmas . . .”

Mike: “No, I mean do you ever close because of bad weather or road conditions?”

Barista: “Not that I know of. I guess we would close if it really got bad, but it has never been that bad.”

Mike: “But it’s cold – I mean really cold.”

Barista: “Well, it’s not cold in the store.”

Mike: “Are you like a crazy person?”

Barista: Chuckling, “No. It’s just an expectation at Starbucks.”

Mike: “Ma’am, you are too cool for school.” [I know, that was corny and old – nobody says that anymore.]

So, I have a modest proposal: only close your schools when the local Starbucks closes.

Unfortunately, our collective behavior related to inclement weather is just one of many ways we demonstrate to the public that we are not essential. [An essential organization is one that provides a public service, the absence of which would be very harmful to the public.] Maybe school is not that essential for children who come from well-resourced families or who are already at or above grade level. But struggling students and underserved children need effective schools with effective teachers if we are to give them a fighting chance at being prepared for a Year 2035 world and workplace.

And yet, many districts are trying to find ways to decrease the number of student-teacher contact days. Some allow teachers to be absent 20 or 30 days out of an already-meager 170-day calendar. How essential is an employee who is absent nearly 1 out of every five days? How essential are we when we shun accountability and avoid measuring how well the students are learning what we teach? How essential are we if we cannot raise achievement for struggling students. Are we essential if we know the world and workplace is changing quickly, but we shrug our shoulders and say we can’t really change the system.

The really sad part is that students and families are starting to believe that public education is not essential. I suspect the lower enrollment post COVID is partly due to lower expectations of what a public education can provide. I wonder too whether worsening student attendance, tardiness, and work ethic is reflective of the lower expectations we have for the profession ourselves. I know districts where staff members are allowed to come in late to work; where teachers only work four and a half hours with students; where administrators are allowed to take off Mondays and Fridays adjacent to a holiday; where schools are closed when there is the threat of snow; where “unsatisfactory” teachers are allowed to continue teaching children; and, . . . well . . . you fill in the blank.

I am an optimist, but I have this nagging feeling that we have passed the tipping point. It will take a lot of leaders to emphasize how important we are and act to grow a culture of essentialness. But we arrive at the this point of urgency at the worst possible time – when salaries are still too low, when teacher vacancies and mid-year resignations are growing, when school leaders do not believe they can hold people to higher expectations (for fear of losing even a warm body), when many if not most of the entering teachers believe they are entitled to attend four weddings and a funeral each year, and when the notion of self-sacrifice for the sake of making a real difference for children seems to be a smaller part of the employee value proposition.

So, what will it take. Perhaps the best way to approach this problem is for every school leader and teacher to simply ask themselves whether their school is essential. And if the answer is no, then at least admit it; but if the answer is yes, then clearly outline the behaviors and actions that demonstrate what an essential organization actually means.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *