Category Archives: Best Practices
Albert Einstein was perhaps the greatest thinker of the last century. Although he was very intelligent, he credited his successful theories not to his intelligence, but to “curiosity, concentration, perseverance, and self-criticism.” It is this last characteristic which, in my opinion, separated him from other great thinkers. It is also the attribute of self-criticism which separates great managers from the not-so-great. Read the rest of this entry
When it comes to department, district or company policy, we tend to be on autopilot until some new technology, new national crisis, or new “hot button” issue jogs us into policy development. Although hasty, “knee-jerk” reactions may not always be advisable for a whole host of reasons, there’s another reason to lay low and see if there’s another option to policy creation. When we attack that new issue with new language we can draw unwanted attention and scrutiny from employee unions, the media, parents and others when we would have done better to “not leave the porch light on,” as one labor lawyer recently put it. Read the rest of this entry
Last week California celebrated school bus driver day. I have worked with and around school bus drivers for almost my entire career. There is not a day where I don’t pause and appreciate the essential and often thankless job that drivers perform. In fact, during the year I make it a point to meet with each of our drivers. In these meetings I answer questions, solicit ideas, encourage feedback, and make sure the driver knows how I feel about their jobs.
In honor of School Bus Driver Day I share the following story obtained from one of my drivers in one of these meetings. It is not by any means unique. Rather, it is one of dozens (or thousands) of stories which demonstrate the caring, attentive, and supportive role that many, many bus drivers serve.
When I was in-house counsel for the district, I tried to make it a practice to follow up verbal discussion with a short email depicting what we had discussed. I began the practice only after having my “words” come back to me as gospel, when I hadn’t said – or at least meant – what the listener had heard.
At the Transporting Students with Disabilities Conference in Frisco TX last week, I was reminded of the importance of language. What you say can make such a difference.
The first story is one I heard from an attendee in one of my sessions. When a driver, whose primary language is not English, called dispatch to complain that a student had insulted him, the dispatcher heard, instead, that a student had “assaulted him.” The dispatcher immediately called 911, law enforcement arrived in force, and the “molehill” became a “mountain” quite quickly.
We know that parents react quite differently to the word “harness” than they would to “safety vest.” The federal government has, over time, become more sensitive to the reactions of students with special needs and their parents by changing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142, enacted in 1975) to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1997). In 2010, with little fanfare, President Barack Obama signed legislation known as “Rosa’s Law” requiring the federal government to replace the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in many areas of government.
When I referred at the TSD conference to “mufky pufky” meaning (to me, anyway) “hanky panky” of a sexual nature between students, I got a big laugh and a request to tell the world about my creative term. When I googled the phrase just now to see where I got it, I saw a 1965 birthday wish from one person to another, lovingly sending “Mufky Pufky and Ish kabibels” to the birthday girl, and a reference in a language that I don’t know but that sounded like something my grandmother from “the old country” would have said.
Words can be fun, mis-leading, provocative, and insulting – or is that, assaulting. Let’s all keep that in mind as we talk with family, colleagues, parents, and especially students.
People sell thousands of management books with the promise of showing you how to create great ideas. Some companies or departments seem to churn out great ideas at an amazing rate, while others wouldn’t know a great idea if it was naked standing in front of them. No book can tell you how to create ideas but there’s an easy tip to creating environments where great ideas flourish. In fact, we can learn a lot from a simple children’s fairytale written by the great Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.
In 1839 H.C. Andersen published The Emperor’s New Clothes. It was originally going to be a simple morality story which taught a lesson about vanity. If you’re not familiar with it, do a quick internet search. (I’ll wait.) At the last minute the author decided to change the ending. Instead of everyone just seeing the king naked and admiring the invisible clothes, Andersen added a small child who reveals the emperor’s nakedness. This changed the moral of the story significantly. There was still a lesson about vanity but now we all have an invaluable lesson about “speaking truth to power.” That little boy also holds the secret to a truly creative workplace.
Many of us identify with that little boy. When we see things that are wrong, we feel compelled to speak up. However, most organizations don’t encourage or even tolerate that Andersen’s child in us. They don’t want us to expose their weaknesses or they don’t want to be challenged. Maybe they know things are wrong but they really don’t want employees or customers throwing it in their faces. Since these organizations don’t welcome feedback they are often exposed (both liability-wise and otherwise.) They don’t correct problems that are obvious to others.
Another, less obvious problem caused by squelching or ignoring feedback is that it also hinders creativity. Great organizations encourage the free flow of ideas. In this environment anyone can raise an idea to improve things. Those ideas don’t always see the light of day because everyone in the organization is able to (and even required to) check the idea against reality. If the idea’s not going to work, every person in the organization must shout it out. Every member of the best organizations is obligated to be Andersen’s little boy. Because of that, everyone is encouraged to come up with great ideas without worrying about going out into the world with no clothes.
Try it in your organization. Next time someone points out a reason why an idea won’t work, instead of being frustrated with their negativity, try thanking him/her but keep thinking up ideas. Some of them will be great.
I noticed a long time ago that even people I respected as highly intelligent and effective in their lives struggled with self-advocacy. Self-advocacy is widely recognized as an essential skill for each student in order to contribute to post-K-12 success as an independent citizen. Are we failing to teach that skill, or are many adults failing to retain it? When students’ IEP’s and Section 504 plans included language such as “Student will let teacher know when he doesn’t understand the homework assignment,” I have wondered how these students will achieve this goal when so many of the very capable adults I’ve known might well have failed to accomplish it.
Just last evening, a woman I admire, with academic and career credentials anyone would be proud to have, described her inability to ask a person whom she had hired to do work in her home to deliver the result he had been hired to deliver. The problem wasn’t that the worker was unable to meet my friend’s needs, but that my friend was uncomfortable simply asking for what she was paying for.
Maybe my friend’s reluctance was a creature of past discouragement. If one doesn’t think “asking” will work, why put oneself “out there”? Poet Maya Angelou said “Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it!” Maybe we’re somehow afraid of success.
Or maybe self-advocacy is too often identified with being “pushy” or “aggressive,” rather than task-oriented and self-assured. Are people reluctant to go after their needs because they simply are insecure about how to do so?
But let me encourage you a bit, at least as self-advocacy applies to your position as a pupil transportation professional. Consider carving out those requests that you must make for the sake of your student riders, from those things you’d just like to have in your work environment. Practice asserting yourself with supervisors to get the equipment, the changes, the personnel that you need to keep students safe. When self-advocacy is, in reality, for the benefit of students whose safety depends upon you, you’re obligated to take the plunge. Maybe if you (1) identify what they need; (2) develop a plan to get it for them; and (3) carry it out with good timing, respect, and awareness of the style and limitations of the people with the power to give you what you need for students, you’ll find you’re successful – at least some of the time. Maybe, then, you’ll try it in your personal life as well.
Long-time star of the Tonight Show, comedian Johnny Carson frequently played the role of Carnac the Magnificent, a “mystic from the east” who could psychically “divine” unseen answers to unknown questions. When student safety is in your hands, you can’t depend upon others being mind-readers. You’ve got to ask for what you need to keep students safe.
I recently had the opportunity to see the movie Argo. The lead character, Tony Mendez – played by Ben Affleck, is a CIA extraction expert. That means it is his job to help people the U.S. government considers “important” out of countries where they are in danger. This particular story involves trying to extract six U.S. diplomats from post-revolution Iran. (For those of you that haven’t read about it or seen the movie, I won’t spoil it for you.) Needless to say, if your job is so important that people’s lives depend on your performance, it is essential that you are thoroughly trained and ready for the mission. We’d like to believe that Mendez spent much of his career learning and practicing the essential skills for his job. He had to have studied and practiced foreign languages, foreign cultures, weapons, strategies, and tactics. Although we don’t see this in the movie, we know it to be the case. Mendez’ bosses would not have entrusted him with such an important mission if they weren’t certain he was the best person for the job.
As someone who has performed trainings both here and abroad, of course I feel training is important. Otherwise, why do it? In these tight budget times, some organizations are unwisely trimming and cutting their training budgets. We all know of the operation that barely complies with mandated training hours but really is just going “through the motions.” They might look the other way when a portion of the pre-trip is skipped. They might overlook a student’s serious medical issue. They might even ignore or minimize a parent’s complaint. When what they see or hear doesn’t match what they trained, instead of revising or increasing training, these managers often point to compliance with the mandated minimums. Unfortunately, when something goes wrong they use the same reasoning to assuage their guilt.
For those transporting students or educating students with special needs, many more than the six lives with which Mendez was concerned are actually on the line every day. Our customers expect and deserve a level of performance which is exemplary. Modifying a famous quote from Seneca: “Heroism results when training and opportunity meet.” It’s our job to ensure that the expertise really is there and ready for our critical mission. I know I take the responsibility of training very seriously. Those I respect in our profession do as well. We don’t have Ben Affleck making movies about what we do. Our heroic efforts get less publicity. However, make no mistake about it, they are no less important.
Sometimes when you travel it seems like you run into the same person at various points along the way. Last week while traveling back home from the Dominican Republic where my daughter is teaching, I had one of those experiences. I saw the same woman at the ticket kiosk, baggage counter, magazine store, and security check line. It was at this latter point that I really took notice. She was in a very tight embrace with a younger woman (who I later learned was her daughter.) There were more than the usual hugs and goodbye tears.
The parent sat a few rows ahead of me during the flight to the U.S. and I could see that she remained very emotional throughout. As it turns out, she was near me during the 2 mile walk required to get through passport control and U.S. customs in the Atlanta airport. This is where I asked her the first three words: “Are you alright?” Well she wasn’t. During Atlanta’s poor imitation of the Bataan death march, she identified herself as “Sherri,” and revealed the horrible circumstances she was enduring. Her only child was in medical school in Santiago because they couldn’t afford a school in the U.S. She had sold many of her possessions and scraped together all of her savings to afford this one week visit with her daughter because the student was very homesick and was threatening to quit med. school. It was highly unlikely she was going to see her daughter again for at least 3 years.
Upon her return to the U.S., Sherri would face additional difficulties and many unknowns. Her abusive soon-to-be ex-husband was challenging every step of the divorce process. She was certain this would continue because he had been totally non-supportive of their daughter or her for the last few years. Sherri was also uncertain if she would be able to keep her 2 jobs. She had left her jobs abruptly when her daughter’s dreams were at stake. Read the rest of this entry