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I recently forgot to include a parent in an informational email. I know this parent well, so it wasn’t personal, it was a miss on my part. I didn’t even realize I did it, until one of the deans contacted me about it. See, this parent complained to the dean, who then talked to me.

Forgetting to include the parent on the email was one of those stupid mistakes that I hate to make, because it could’ve been avoided. It did make me think, however, about why this parent didn’t just contact me directly, instead of contacting the dean. After all, the parent is a mom I know well, I’ve taught more than one of her kids. I guess I thought I had established enough of a relationship with her that if there was an issue, she would contact me directly. I guess I thought wrong.

This is an area I’ve heard more than one teacher speak about. Teachers get calls, about calls, a lot. A teacher’s superiors will talk to a teacher about a complaint – a complaint  from a student or from a parent, or both. Teachers get frustrated at this, because we spend a lot of time trying to establish communication with families. In fact, we are strongly encouraged to do so. Our email and home addresses, and home numbers, are published for the use of the school community, so we can be contacted whenever anyone wishes. We are asked to contact families to give quick updates on students when we can, and are required to give communication on each student every semester. (For one of my courses, I am to write a letter to each student.) We send information, with our contact information, to families on a very regular basis.

I say all this to make a point. Teachers are here to talk with families. It’s considered part of the job. So when families don’t talk with us, and instead talk to us through our superiors, it doesn’t seem to go with the program. Communication feels one-sided. And it leaves teachers in an uncomfortable situation. Why talk to a dean or a principal? Why not just talk to a teacher?

Unfortunately, I see this problem in a different area, in a different industry. I’ll give an example through a recent visit to Best Buy. I watched a woman march to the customer service line, with a male Best Buy employee in tow. The woman wanted to talk to a manager. A manager came in short fashion, and the woman said she had troubles with her phone. The manager asked why the Best Buy employee was there. The employee explained the woman had just bought the phone through him, and he was trying to explain why she was having troubles. But the woman asked to talk to a manager. So the employee explained the situation to the manager.

See what happened there? Instead of talking to the employee, the woman wanted to talk to her boss. Which left the employee just standing there feeling uncomfortable. Because he had the knowledge of the situation, which he then had to explain to his boss. The boss then has to catch up on the situation, because he doesn’t have direct knowledge. But the woman wanted to talk to a boss, so she talked to a boss.

Have you ever seen this play out? Have you ever done this yourself?

Why talk to a boss? Because it feels like something will get done? Because you’re mad? Because you feel you’ve said all you can?

I’ve seen this play out in many areas – fast food restaurants, airports, hotels, the Apple Store (people lose their minds in those places), exercise gyms, churches. One day it hit me, the common connection with all these places: they’re all in the server industry. They’re all places where people expect a certain level of service, because they paid for it. A certain paradigm is at work here: people feel that they give money to a business, so they are a customer. If they are a customer, things should be given to a customer in a certain manner. If things are not given to a customer in a certain manner, the customer has a right to complain about it. After all, they paid for it. And they get to complain to a boss, to make sure the boss tells everyone how to act. And I see this in all server businesses, from burgers to churches.

What I realized is that I see this play out in schools, with teachers and families. In schools, families pay for a service, that service being education. If the service doesn’t go they think it should, families feel they have a right to complain. But the complaints don’t go to the people that know the most, that have the most connection to what’s going on – the teachers. Instead, they complain to a “boss”, being a dean, or a principal, or the head of the school.

If this is the case – there is a link to the attitudes families have with schools and customers have with businesses – that means that families look at teachers as servers.

I understand on some level in all jobs we are all serving, and we are all selling. And I definitely understand that in some ways there is no greater serving role than a teacher. But I must admit, if a family looks at me the same way the woman looked at that Best Buy employee, that doesn’t feel good. If all a teacher is, is a server bringing someone a product (here education being the product), and that someone doesn’t like how the product is, that’s a problem. Because I’d like to think that teaching is different than cooking burgers. I’d like to think that helping a student learn is different than helping someone put new shoes on. I’d like to think that teachers play a different role than a Best Buy employee. I’m not insulting these serving roles – I’m just saying I thought they were different than teaching. And I thought people looked at them different than teaching.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they are the same. In any case, I have a feeling I will have more families talking to me through my bosses, without directly talking to me.

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