Friday, February 10, 2017

As a Public Educator, I Began to Panic

I was inspired by Dr. Joe Sanfelippo, Superintendent of the Fall Creek School District, to make 100 positive phone calls to parents, celebrating the 100th day of the school year. I put together a Google Form, gathered information from staff, locked myself in my office, and started on my journey.  The process took about five hours, calling parents from all grade levels, backgrounds, and abilities.  The script of a typical (and they weren’t all typical) phone conversation went like this:

“Hello, is this Jan, Connor’s Mother?”
“Yes it is.”
“Hi, this is Steve Vessey, Superintendent of Beaver Dam Schools.”
“I’m calling to tell you how awesome we think Connor is.”
“Oh...I was really nervous, wasn’t sure why you would call me.”
“I’m reaching out today to tell you what a great job Connor is doing in first grade at South Elementary.  Connor is working hard in math, taking on whatever challenge Mrs. Smith gives him.  In fact, Connor completed this month’s Rocket Math Challenge yesterday and is just doing great work.  Mrs. Smith also told me how well Connor gets along with his peers and how he often helps other students if they are struggling with a math problem.  What a wonderful young man, you must be very proud of him.”
“Yes we are.  I’m still surprised you’re calling me.”
“When you see Connor tonight, tell him we think he’s pretty awesome.  Give him a hug and tell him we’re pretty proud of him.”
“I will definitely do that.”
“My only reason for contacting you today is to share in Connor’s success.  Kids like Connor make our schools better and will ultimately make our world a better place for everyone.”
“Wow.  Thanks.”
“Have a great rest of the day, thank you.”

The 100 phone calls took an average of three minutes each.  Half of the phone calls resulted in me leaving a message similar to the script above, and about half were short conversations.  The task was uplifting, inspiring,  and was the most rewarding five hours of work I had experienced in quite some time.  Several conversations caused me to spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on my own practices and beliefs.

Four different parents with whom I spoke told me that I was the first person to ever call them to simply tell them how awesome their son or daughter was.  As a public educator, I began to panic.  I would like to think these parents are an aberration.  But I don’t think they are.  As a public educator, this stopped me in my tracks.  I found myself looking in the mirror and  asking myself, Superintendent of Beaver Dam Schools, why I have not been calling families to tell them how awesome their kids are.  It’s unacceptable.  What impact could I have on students, their academic careers, their confidence, their self-esteem, if I spent more time telling our students how proud I am of the job they are doing?  What would the impact be on academic achievement in the school district?  What would the impact be on the public perception of the school district or even public education at large?  I found myself reflecting on some of the toughest classes I had when I was a teacher.  How would my experience have been different? What about the experiences of the students in the class? Would their achievement have changed if I spent three minutes a day making a positive phone call? 180 phone calls a year?  I know the answer.  

I find myself wondering about the perception of public education.  As an educator, I am quick to defend the institution.  I’ve spent hours lobbying legislators to help change some of the negative rhetoric about our public schools.  I’ve written guest columns in newspapers, kept a blog, updated my Twitter account, and treaded water in the Facebook world: all in an effort “To tell our story.”  But I haven’t taken the time to simply tell parents how wonderful their kids are. It’s unacceptable.  At the end of the 100 calls, I found myself looking in the mirror, reminding myself to be the change I want to see in the world.  I reminded myself to stop complaining about the variables I can’t control; to take personal responsibility for telling parents how hard their students work; to spend more time telling the stories of the 95% of kids who do everything right; and to stop blaming others for the challenges I have.

So I ask, what would the impact be if everyone in the Beaver Dam School District made five, three minute phone calls each week to tell parents how fabulous their kids are?  What would the impact be in our state if all public educators were to do the same? Just as Dr. Sanfelippo challenged me, I challenge you to make 100 phone calls before April 1, telling parents how amazing their kids are.   You won’t regret it.  You will be inspired by the experience.  You have the time.  You will inspire children.  You will help parents sleep better at night.  You will smile more.  We will all be the change we want to see in the world.

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