Setting up for a summer presentation in an elementary cafeteria, I had a conversation with the cafeteria manager, who explained that his goal was to give his students and staff the best possible experience in the cafeteria. We didn’t talk about food; we talked about the importance of serving his customers in ways that caused them to enjoy return visits.
In another elementary cafeteria years earlier, I watched as a cafeteria manager wearing a funny hat greeted each student by name at the point of sale. “Mr. Nick,” as the students called him, told me that building positive relationships with his staff and students was one of his three overarching goals (Nash, 2011, p. 2). Like the other cafeteria supervisor, Mr. Nick wanted those who spent time in his cafeteria to have the best experience possible. Both of these veteran managers understood that they served people first.
I once observed a veteran custodian pause next to an elementary student as she sat on a hallway bench outside the office, waiting for her mother to take her home. She was reading a book aloud to herself, until the custodian asked her if she would like to read it to him. She smiled and patted the bench next to her. Nowhere in this custodian’s job description did it say anything, I should think, about taking time from the daily routine to listen to a second grader read a book about a red hen. He understood his place was on the bench next to that student—whatever else he had to do could wait. As the door closed into the office closed behind me, the story of the red hen was being told from the top, and with great gusto.
I’ve known classroom teachers who begin calling parents as soon as they receive their class rosters, days before the kids report. These attempts at building solid relationships with parents pay off down the road; such efforts set these teachers apart from those who call parents only when there is a problem. Great teachers continue the relationship building from the first day of school with students. They, like the cafeteria managers and the custodian we met earlier, understand that they teach kids, not content.
While it is great to have individuals like that understanding elementary custodian and the cafeteria manager who wanted the “best possible experience” for everyone who went through his line (both of whom clearly understood their role as ambassadors of good will), even better if such efforts are part of a conscious and determined effort to improve in the area of customer service and climate improvement at the building level. Even better if an entire staff sets its sights on giving everyone—external and internal customers alike—the best possible experience every day.
Debbie Silver (2015) speaks of a relationship culture that should be an integral part of the climate of any school, and not just at the classroom level. “The entire staff must understand that there is an essential process and belief about how we treat each other, how we interact with our students, how we engage with parents and guardians, and how we honor guests who enter the building” (p. 70). I once watched as a school secretary slammed down her phone’s handset and said, loudly enough for all within earshot to hear, “I hate this job!” This from someone who was the first contact for everyone entering the building. I’ve seen other secretaries jump up and smile as they approach a parent or a student at the counter, sending the message that there is no one with whom they would rather talk than that person.
We get so caught up in testing and covering content on the way to the tests that we sometimes lose sight of some pretty important things related to relationship building. As my good friend and principal Kathy Hwang used to ask constantly. “Is what we are doing or want to do best for children?” What’s best for children is to feel part of a classroom and school community of caring and positive people. What’s best for teachers and other staff members is to feel part of a community of caring and nurturing colleagues who value collaboration over competition and action over inaction. Having determined that the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement, teachers and staff members can work with administrators to set some goals and decide on a course of action that involves everyone in creating and maintaining foundational relationships.
This doesn’t just happen; it takes focused effort and gobs of positive energy on the part of teachers and staff. Continuous improvement ought to be the lifeblood of every school and district in the country. There is no process or system so good it cannot be made better. There is always energy in school environments, but much of it is often negative, and this creates headwinds that impede collaboration and delay progress. One goal of every improvement plan in schools and districts ought to be creating and maintaining positive school cultures that help accelerate the continuous-improvement process from the front office to the cafeteria to individual classrooms.
Teachers and administrators can work together to make schools true learning communities, where students know they are emotionally safe—and where failure is seen as opportunity and mistakes as iteration. These communities are infused with laughter and free of sarcasm; they are places students can’t wait to get to each day. They are filled with participants, not attendees; kids get to do things, ponder things, build things, create things and share things with each other as a matter of course. These classroom communities are fun and interesting places to be for teachers who long ago gave up trying to be the only teacher in the room, even as they set their minds to creating a climate of learning. There and elsewhere in schools, it all begins with the purposeful development and nurturing of powerful relationships.
Nash, R. (2011). Harness the power of reflection: Continuous improvement from the front office to the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Silver, D. (2015). Deliberate optimism: Reclaiming the joy in education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.