Admiring Public School Teachers – and Still Learning From Them!

My eldest son is into his second week of Kindergarten.  It has been a transition that I was not expecting.  No struggles in the morning to get up and out of bed.  No questions about how many days until the weekend.  No begging for me to stay home so he too can stay home and play with the kitties.  He’s been tired at night, and yes, a bit grumpy, but he is enjoying Kindergarten to the fullest.  The transition has been smooth and pleasant!

Now Kindergarten is different that when I went to school in the early 1970s (yes, I am an aged mother!).  Back then, we went for only a few hours and those hours included a snack with a carton of milk that we ever so carefully opened into a triangular spout, an often very dry cookie with a square of hardened jelly-something on the top, and an ever-so small white, paper napkin.  Our final exam was probably something like putting a blue circle around the dog and a triangle around the cat – a paper that my son came home with on the first day, though that paper also including counting and matching and other feats.  Kindergarten today is more what I remember 1st Grade was – or at least the second half of first grade.

And my son has weekly exposure to the computer lab, the music room, the media center (which we called the library), the art room, and the gym (in addition to recess twice a day).  Yes, school has changed.

And demands on public school teachers have changed also.  My son’s classroom has 22 active 5ish-year-olds.  When they arrive each morning about 8:00 a.m., the kids arrive to a project already set up on their tables.  They bring in their snacks for the day and their homework folder – that’s their entry pass into the room.  The teacher is looking for written communications from home or completed homework or other school notifications.  And all that must be organized for the day, and then reorganized to go home.

My son has come home with a bevy of completed assignments and art projects in his folder, many of which had to have taken hours to prepare 22 of.  The teacher informed us that generally, she is there at 7:00 a.m. for class preparation and leaves about 5:00 p.m. And I know she’s truthful having received a phone call around 5:00 p.m. and an email the next morning just after 7:00 a.m. – all reporting on my son’s progress (thankfully all great news!).  And she likely did this 21 more times with 21 more families.

It made me stop and think about my profession and the profession of my husband.  Indeed, we work some long hours and many with intensity.  But the difference is, that for many of those hours, we get to retreat behind a computer or in our offices where we can take some breaks from being on stage and from the constant demand and questions of colleagues.

School teachers don’t get that luxury on the job.  I get exhausted answering the questions and demands of my children in the evenings and on weekends.  It’s tough work being a parent, and I don’t have work projects set up for them at the table when they arrive.  Can you imagine almost seven hours a day teaching and comforting and leading 22 children?  And then spending several hours more preparing for the next day?  And then there’s the working with the parents of 22 children.

In addition, the organizational skills for teachers required these days are incredible.  In my day, kids either were bussed home or walked home.  Today, they might bus one day, walk the next, they might go to aftercare on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to scouts on Wednesdays, and be picked up by Grandma or Grandpa or Aunt Sally on the other days.  Multiply this times 20+ children.

And then are food allergies to manage, and varying share-days, and homework, and extra projects, and progress reports, and records, and extra-curricular activities.  And don’t forget, most teachers have families of their own to manage.

For years I have heard people say that they’d wished they’d become a teacher because they get summers off.  I’ve also heard many say that school teachers are overpaid for the amount of work they do.  And I’ve also seen parents berate and demean the teacher’s of their children.  It seems that so many of we parent’s think this job is easy and so many think they know more about teaching than teachers.  I’m not one of them.  In fact, I think these “teaching is easy” parents should be put into the classroom for a week – and not just to “babysit”  or “assist,” but actually, to be put on stage and then assessed on how much the entire classroom has learned in the week.  I’m guessing that most would be running for the door by the second day, and that they would be more appreciative of teachers.

My mother was an elementary school teacher.  In her later years as a teacher, she focused on remedial reading.  When children had reading challenges, her goal was to immerse them and get them back with their reading group.  Sometimes they were in her room for a few days working on a letter or too, sometimes the kids were there much longer as they required much more intense and personal attention to get them going.

As she came closer to retirement, she would lament out of concern that a good portion of her job was now dedicated to being more of a mother than a teacher.  So many of her students would arrive hungry having had no real dinner or breakfast (so the schools now have started serving breakfast), tired because they had no real bedroom to sleep in or parents were fighting or partying all night, and often cold since they were not dressed for the cold Michigan weathers.  These children wanted hugs and attention because for whatever reason, they were not getting it at home.  And my mother would give all that she could in a motherly way, but I recall one day her frustration and concern where she stated something like, “Johnny arrives cold, hungry, tired, and lonely.  All he really wants to do is sit on my lap and be held and feel warm and secure, but I am to teach him to read.”  And though I can recall only a few poor parental incidents involving my mother, these same parents who demonstrated little concern for the basic needs of their children were often the ones presenting themselves at school to loudly and publicly berate the school board, the principal, the bus driver, the teacher, and even the custodian.  After all, they would say, it was their right to do so.

My mother retired about as early as she could.  And though I’m not sure she articulated it as such, I believe part of that was that teaching had become very emotionally exhausting.  In the business world, as we get tenure, as a survival technique, we learn to “compartmentalize,” particularly if we have families.  For the most part, we learn to leave the latest declining sales forecast, profitability decline, or personnel issue, at the office.  It’s not always easy or achieved, but we try to separate our young families from our office.  Children demanding our focused attention when we arrive home are quite helpful in that manner!  But imagine, as a teacher, attempting to leave the thought of Johnny and his less than adequate family and home-life issues at school, particularly on Friday when it would be two days before he might have a good meal again.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, particularly as a teacher and a mother, to leave that at work.

So I as a parent of a child in public school (and let me say that yes, I am a proponent of public schools since they are a slice of the real world), want to express my admiration and gratitude for public school teachers.

I believe that in fact, school teachers are gasp, “underpaid.”  While I admire Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, and Johnny Depp, and Will Smith (our highest paid athletes and actors), for their talents, they do nothing for the education and rearing of my sons or the future of our youth.  Indeed some of them have philanthropic foundations that serve youth, but overall, the impact of these efforts compared to teachers, is minuscule.  And these entertainers make millions, and think about their work schedules!

I have to believe it is the case that most teachers, the good ones (and there are many good ones), aren’t there for the paycheck or the work lifestyle.  They are there because they are inspired by the kids they teach.  They are inspired by seeing the light bulbs go off when after struggling, a child finally “gets it.”  They are inspired by smiles, enjoyment of learning, increasing vocabulary and mastery of numbers.  They are inspired by students who grow into leaders in their classrooms and their community.  They are inspired by the successes of students who come with natural talents, but perhaps even more so by the successes of those who come with challenges. 

And the energy and inspiration these teachers show inspires me as a parent.  I am reading more to my boys.  I’m asking them more questions.  I’m pointing out more facts.  I’m taking more time to listen and to explain.  I’m encouraging more self-discovery and more experiences.  Only a few days into my son’s public school education, and already his teacher has taught me, the parent, many things!

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Longing for a Return to Civility

What is wrong with us – we citizens of the United States?  Who do we think we are?  When did we become so self-important, so sure that we are 100% right about everything from health care, to global warming, to foreign policy, to referee calls, to best videos of all time, to our rights as fans or drivers or employees that all we do is shout our opinions loudly and profanely to the world?  We don’t listen.  We don’t have empathy for others’ opinions.  We no longer analyze but rather just jump to conclusions.  We show disdain for those that disagree with us or for anyone that even stops to think a moment – “you’re either for us or against us, 100%.”  No longer is “I’m not sure about that,” or a middle-of-the-road position acceptable.

In the past several months, I can hardly stand to turn on the news, and now this “self-important, I’m allowed to act inhumane because I’m stressed out or over-worked or in the moment” attitude is proliferating into sports and entertainment.  It seems that civility can only be experienced in the safe confines of home, at church (since my particular church leaves judgment to a higher power), and my son’s Kindergarten classroom where manners, respect, and sharing continue to be emphasized.  And that is a sad commentary on society today.

Respecting the Presidency

As I was driving from work to pick up my sons, I turned on my radio and heard a woman patting herself on the back because she had sent a note to her school to keep her son out of the broadcast of President Barack Obama’s speech to school children.  She proudly noted that she was the only parent in the entire school to isolate her son from his remarks.  She stated how she didn’t know what the President was going to say and wanted to filter her son from things she didn’t agree with.  Now I’ve been self-isolated from a lot of news these days because it has been so hateful (thank goodness), but if this woman was so informed that she’d call into a radio show, didn’t she know that his speech was published the day before?  She could have read it and realized it was focused on getting an education (not on health care or being a Democrat).  I’m sure her son felt just wonderful being the only one who had to go sit in a room by himself – you know, because that isn’t something that his peers might pick on him about.  So she made her statement to the school (and to those of us who couldn’t reach the radio dial to fast enough to tune her out) – but frankly, it was at her son’s expense – and for what was really a politically benign speech.  I’m not sure that’s going to get her nominated for mother of the year.

And then another man indicated that he would keep his son home from school that day because he didn’t want his son inundated with Democratic rhetoric and he “wanted his son to be able to think freely and make decisions for himself.”  Hmm, isn’t keeping your son home, isolated from this discussion a form of thwarting his son’s free-thinking?  I (freely) think so!

And then we have the South Carolina Representative who shouts “You lie” during the President’s speech to a joint session of Congress.  Respectfully, he apologizes.  And that should have been it, but the political parties want blood and continue to squeeze.  And the election funds of both parties have seen a huge influx of money.  We the American Public are rewarding politicians who act like barking dogs with what they want most – more money and more power.  Shame on us!

First of all fellow citizens, this is the Office of the President of the United States of America.  This is the elected leader of our nation.  Now whether it is a Republican or a Democrat, we owe it to the longevity of our nation, to our children, to show proper respect.  You don’t have to agree with the policies, but you do need to show respect.

And I don’t get the idea out there that, “Obama is trying to indoctrinate our children by visiting them in school.”  Are you kidding me?  Where was George Bush on 9/11?  Don’t you remember how his face turned ashen-gray as he learned from the aid to his right as he was sitting in the front of a classroom that the US was under attack?  I remember that scene as if it was yesterday.  Was he indoctrinating?

The fact is that most presidents of late have visited schools and school children.  And they should.  Kids need to see leaders.  They need to dream.  They need to look beyond the street they live on.  And if the President of the United States is coming to their classroom, they need to be there.  Don’t go stealing that type of experience from them and claim it is good parenting.  If my child ever has the opportunity to meet the President, I don’t care if he or she is a Democrat, a Republican, or a Martian, my child will be there and will have been lectured for hours on how to be respectful during the visit.

Sports and Entertainment – the Players AND the Fans

So then we have Serena Williams berating a line judge and Kanye West giving his opinion on who has the best video by stealing the moment from Taylor Swift (someone described this as akin to stepping on a kitten since Miss Swift is known to be so sweet).  Both these bullies claim they were “in the moment” and/or under stress – blah, blah, blah.  Kudos by the way to Beyonce who has shown the greatest act of civility in the US in several months!

And then to bring it home, as I was attending my first Big 10 football game of the season this past weekend, I was bullied by the ticket-holder next to me.  I have been a season ticket-holder for 6-7 years and attended regularly for about 10 years.  If you’ve ever been to a University of Michigan football game when they play teams like Notre Dame or Ohio State, you know that it is a packed house.  The bench space you are allotted is about 16 inches – the average American takes up much more than that, especially when donned in winter clothing.  But, we accommodate.  As each person arrives, we squeeze a bit tighter.

It is bench seating and my seats are two from the end.  My new neighbor arrives several minutes into the first quarter, shouts at me to, “Move over.  You’re in my seat.  Move or I’ll call security.  I’m a season ticket-holder.”  Well howdy and have a nice day to you too!  I advised him that we needed to get the bench of people moving over so we could make more room, to which he replied, “You have to move now.  You’re in my seat.”  He then pushed me over and back and stood with his hands on his hips and left elbow in front of my chest such that he was effectively standing in front of me and making it physically uncomfortable for me.  Yup, it kind stole the excitement of my first game of the season.  In fact, it squashed it like a bug.  So I ask again, “Who do we think we are?”  We drive aggressively like this too.  It’s everywhere and it’s awful.

What Do I Tell My Children?

I frankly am at a loss on how to raise children in this current environment of bullying and shouting and pushing and shoving.  Every day my husband and I remind my boys to say “thank you” and “please” and “excuse me.”  We talk about sharing and speaking politely and waiting for others to stop talking before we start.  But every day, they see US citizens of all kinds pushing and shouting and taking whatever they can take leaving nothing for those next in line.  I’m all for competition and I’m certainly not a Marxist or a Socialist, but come on, at some point you need to think beyond yourself.  If you don’t, aren’t we really the equivalent of a pack of wolves following the alpha male who has dominated all others for the moment?  Isn’t that called a dictatorship?  It certainly is not a democracy.

I Want 9/11 Back

I was stuck in France on 9-11-2001.  In fact, my friends and I didn’t even learn of 9/11 until 9/12.  And then it took almost seven more days before we could get a flight back home.  And when I returned to the US, it was a different country.

When I left about 10 days earlier, I was the only house on my block that regularly put out my US flag.  When I returned, nearly every house on my block and the surrounding blocks had one flying.  When I returned, people came out of their houses to check on their neighbors.  When I returned and went to my first Big 10 football game the season, the fans openly wept as the Star -Spangled Banner was played.  When I returned, politicians were working together respectfully to understand what we were up against.  When I returned, we listened to and followed our president.  When I returned, we treated each other and our first-responders with more respect.  When I returned, people let people merge onto the highway.  When I returned, I returned to a nation of citizens, to a nation of people with different opinions, but with a common bond that included civility, and respect, and empathy, and acceptance.

I want that nation back.  I want that nation for my children.  I don’t want another 9/11 tragedy to spur us into a civilized nation again.  I want everyday citizens like you and me to stand up and speak softly with intelligence and respect.  And I want us to demand intelligence and respect from our leaders, our athletes, our entertainers, our children, and our fellow citizens.  Will you help?

Releasing My Child to the Public Domain

My eldest son is starting Kindergarten in just a few days.  I’m not having the emotional reaction that I see many mom’s having over this monumental event, perhaps because, for better or worse, Nicholas has been attending daycare since he was 12 weeks old.

Our daycare refers to itself as a “Learning Center” so as to distinguish itself from a babysitting entity.  And I am happy with their approach since they are largely responsible for Nicholas’ readiness for Kindergarten.  The school system provided us with a list of things he should know and be able to do by the day he enters, and every item on the list was accomplished several months ago. 

Well, the list did suggest that he know his street address and phone number, and we took responsibility for helping him memorize those two things.  As for knowing letters and numbers and writing his name, our center had that done a long time ago.  Our center is also very focused on social development and has given Nicholas the knowledge and tools he needs to be good to his friends, manage his anger, and when necessary, make an apology.

So I have not had an emotional tug when I think of him entering the public school.  He’s been to Safety Town there and a couple of drop-ins to visit his classroom.  He’s ready and excited.  He likes the learning center, but in Kindergarten he tells me, “You don’t have to take a long, long nap every day.”  (In 30 years, he’ll wish he could have the luxury of such a long nap.)  And after the latest visit to his classroom, I get the sense that he already feels quite comfortable there – so many new things to explore!

Indeed, during our Safety Town week and at the latest and last drop-in orientation, I noticed several moms with puffy pink or watery eyes.  In fact during Safety Town, one mom sat with her girl at the table crying.  The mother didn’t want to leave her there for the 2.5 hours of safety fun and shortly thereafter, her 5-year-old daughter started to cry.  I almost felt guilty.  I took Nicholas to his room, got him started on his construction-paper fireman’s hat, and he hardly noticed when I said goodbye and walked out the door.  He was hard at work cutting and pasting.  There was no drama – just focus on cutting on the lines to make that hat.

And in fact, I’ve been really looking forward to Nicholas starting public school.   The learning center tuition check will be reduced to one child and hot lunch will be provided at school.  For me, that is some money and time back – both desperately needed.

So this summer I have been gleefully dancing along, excited about him starting to learn to read and even some of the projects I may get to help him with, and the no lunches for me to pack, and the cash back, and the feeling that he is just really ready for this, and I’m just moving along counting down the days without looking back – until last Sunday afternoon.

Having been at our learning center for over four years, we have come to know several of the parents of Nicholas’ classmates.  We’ve been put together by various activities and birthday parties and have watched our children grow up together.  Since our kids will be dispersed across a number of classrooms, we decided to get together last Sunday afternoon for a potluck and afternoon at the park.

It was a beautiful day – cool but sunny.  The park is one of those with a very large wooden climbing structure and it was just recently refurbished.  There are castles and boats and climbing walls and slides, and well, you get the picture.  The kids were having a ball running and climbing and squealing in this wonderful and safe playground.  There were of course a few bumps and tumbles, but nothing serious.

My husband and I took turns rotating between watching our 2-year-old, who wanted to climb and jump like the 5-year-olds, and visiting with the parents.  I was on child-watching duty when suddenly, Alexander bounded over to the swings.  Doug was over there with some parents and other kids and Nicholas was somewhere crawling through logs and ropes.  As I turned to follow Alexander, a young boy said, “Can you help me?”  I turned to see that Doug was putting Alexander on the swing so all was safe there, and said, “Sure, what do you need?”

The boy, about 5-6 years, said that he had lost his shoe and wondered if I could help him find it.  The boy didn’t belong to our learning center group, but I was happy to help out.  I asked him where he thought he might have lost it.  He pointed to an area in the play area that was a maze that looked like a castle.  After a few failed attempts at trying to help him narrow down exactly where it was lost, I told him I’d take a look for it.

Now I am about 5’11” tall and yes, over 40 years of age.  Navigating through a maze of logs, steps, and tunnels designed for those under 10 years is not the easiest thing.  But I did my duty.  After several minutes of searching the section, I found my way out.  As I was about to step out in the clear, I neglected to duck far enough down and bumped my head with veracity on a support beam (because it’s a good idea to set the logs just inches above the beam effectively placing your spacial judgment off as you lunge to escape the tunnels and clunk your forehead).  It hurt and took my breath away for a moment.

Dazed, as I rounded the corner to let the young, one-shoe boy know that I did not find his other shoe (he was standing up on a platform that you needed to climb a rope ladder to get to), I found him fist-fighting with another boy his same age.  They were just out of reach so the only interference I could immediately apply was some stern, “Stop that.  Stop fighting.  Hey” –type pleas.

It turns out they were fighting because the second boy had taken his shoe and hidden it (information I would have liked to have had before wandering through the wooden tunnels and using my head for a hammer).  The one-shoe boy demanded to get it back, the second boy said in an obvious lie (he wasn’t good at it) that he didn’t hide it, and then boy number three announces he knows where it is and he’s not going to tell.

My head has grown to twice its normal size and is pounding, but I hear behind me the voice of a man telling the boys to stop fighting.  The one-shoe boy says once again that boy number two has hidden his shoe, to which boy number two says he did not and goes running into the maze of logs.  It turns out the male voice is the father of boy number two and after hearing the accusation, the father says, “Oh, he wouldn’t do that . . . I don’t think anyway.”  Boy number three once again announces he knows where it is.  I ask him to tell me where, and he says, “I’m not telling,” and runs off into the wooden castle.

So what do I do?  My head is pounding.  There is no way I can chase these disobedient children through this town of timber.  I don’t fit in many places.  These are not my kids, and the father is obviously not going to help solve the problem because he doesn’t “think” his child would have done such a thing.

I was shocked.  Had my son and any of the kids from the learning center been involved in this, there would have been a gathering of the participants, a rapid inquest, a finding of the shoe, apologies, hugs, and moving on.  Instead there were children running away and continuing to torment.  So what to do?  I turned to the father and said, “Listen, I didn’t see the whole event, but that young man is missing his shoe and is insistent that the other two boys are involved.”  I don’t know any of you and I’ve just racked my head looking for the shoe because he asked for help.  You are the father of one of these kids – I’m going to let you resolve it.”   And I walked away.

As I walked across the lot to the swings, my head still reeling, it hit me.  This is what I am releasing my Kindergartner to – to the public domain.  I am moving him from the safety of a caring, safe environment where squirmishes, when they occur, are used as teaching moments and parents are supportive of corrective action to achieve proper behavior –  to an environment where it is okay to takes someone’s things and hide them, and hit other people, and run away from adults, even parents, and not be held accountable for that action.

So on Tuesday, when I take my son to his first day of class.  It may be the case that I do find some tears welling up in my eyes.  The tears won’t be forming because I am losing my son to the teaching of others, they will be unfortunately, tears of concern that my son and his learning center classmates are soon to face some physical and emotional hurt from those that have not been reared in a supportive but corrective environment.  Indeed, they will survive, but they are heading towards experiences that we mothers (and the learning center) can no longer control.  We can only pick up the pieces and help them get stronger and move on.  Nicholas will learn how to do this at age five, and I will learn how to do this again at age 42.  Welcome to the public domain.

Silos, Ladders, and Customer Feedback

On the drive into work recently, I was listening to an automotive dealer lauding his company because it had the intestinal fortitude to kill a product that customers clearly told that company they did not want and would not buy.  Ironically, later that morning, I received an email from a former colleague who is still in the business of consumer research.  He sent me a link to the Detroit Free Press article on the subject, accompanied with a comment stating his amazement that an organization would actually kill a product that customers were already heckling before it was ready for sale.  While many would think this a common sense approach for all companies who depend on customers to buy their products, it is not uncommon for corporations to well, “dismiss” the customer.

My colleague and I have spent years “listening to customers” and reporting their opinions to countless organizations.  Our successful clients were those that took customer messages, incorporated them into their product design, retail environments, customer service centers, and even their parking lot design and made changes quickly.  Our less successful clients were those who told us that we obviously recruited the wrong customers to our focus groups, or we sampled the wrong 1,000 respondents when we were conducting quantitative research, because of course, these organizations knew their customers and they knew the customer would like what they built.  Why they were just completing the consumer research because they had to check the box on the product development flow chart that said they had to do research with the target audience.  Consumer research was just really a formality to moving forward.

In fact, we had one organization that scheduled what seemed like endless focus groups in two cities for the purposes of the evaluation of a new product idea.  We recruited carefully to insure that we had the right customer – the customer that this product was to target.  Group after group declared the product ugly, pointed out several problems, and advised the organization that they would not buy it.  They threatened to leave the brand and explore competitor products.

The message was clear.  Don’t produce this!  However, our client informed us that we must have recruited the wrong people.  The 100 or so people that evaluated this product couldn’t have been the right people.  “We know our customer and these people are not our customers.”  The solution was to conduct several more focus groups with several hundred more people in three more cities.  And in the last city, the reaction to the product was “take-it-or-leave-it.”  The customers weren’t as vehemently negative.  And while we cautioned that the region of this last city is known for more “polite” communication, the absence of absolute negativity from the customers in this city was all that was needed to give the client the permission to proceed.  They did and the product, unfortunately but predictably, failed.

Now lest you think that this occurs only in large organizations:

  • From a 24-year-old technology developer during a focus group on search engines with baby boomer women who couldn’t see benefit in the proposed technology:  “I know search engines and I know baby-boomer women (perhaps his mother?), and what they want.  These women in this group just don’t understand the technology enough to understand how much they need it.”  Ah, if the customer can’t understand your product grasshopper, it’s dead in the water.  And yes, the technology, whatever it was, lost its venture capitalist funding.
  • From a youngish consultant in social media marketing:  “I tell all my clients to throw away their traditional marketing methods.  There is no reason to conduct direct mailings or run broadcast advertisements.” Hmmm, I just hope his clients are all targeting moderate to high-end urban audiences that can be and want to be connected all the time by voice or Internet technologies – and who will opt-in to receive marketing messages.  That’s everybody, right?  I’m not betting on a lot of repeat-clients for this gentleman consultant.

Leaders in organizations, big and small, just like celebrities and politicians, tend to surround themselves with people who work well together and thus, tend to agree with each other.  And the group begins to drink its own Kool-Aid.  Product development groups are often put together because they are high functioning as a group – to start.  It would seem, however, that they quickly become isolated.  They become silos on their own farm isolating themselves from those whom they are serving.

It also goes, that those who have had success in the past tend to climb that corporate ladder accompanied with some legendary success stories.  These climbers gain more power in the organization and colleagues with less power tend not to want to report things that are not in agreement with the dude on the top of the ladder.  I recall a conversation with a brand consultant on a flight home from NYC.  He told me he had gone to the city to deliver some bad news to a corporation regarding some customer feedback.  The process was to present to the product team and the product team would then either have the consultant re-present with CEO in the room or the team would deliver the message themselves.  The team’s response to his findings:  “We can’t tell Mrs. Johnson that.  She would be furious.”  So, the product team decided to pretend that the findings were never collected and the consultant was heading home a day early and a bit dazed.  We laughed as we predicted that he would not be hired again by that organization because it is easier to shoot the messenger rather than deliver the message (or pretend the message never happened).

It’s hard to listen to customers.  They are needy and always looking for something better, and for the most part, in most cities, they tell it like it is.  They aren’t very loyal anymore either.  It takes guts to listen to the customer.  And it takes still more guts to deliver the customer’s message to those who need to hear it, to those who have the power to pull the plug on a project and either make modifications or start all over.  And those with power don’t make it easy to deliver negative feedback, particularly when it’s a “pet project” that Mr. Power has wanted to develop for the past 20 years.  And it’s hard for me to advise people climbing the ladder to keep delivering the real truths to those at the top of the ladder.  The more successful customer-driven organizations of course embrace delivery from all rungs; but still too many just kick the messengers off the ladder and send them home early.

So for those of you at the top of the ladder (and those of you climbing the ladder, when you get there), be sure to embrace dissonance.  Invite employees and your over-worked consultants, particularly those focused on consumer research, to disagree and to deliver the good, the bad, and the downright jeered.  If you rarely hear disagreement or every idea you present is met with, “That’s a great idea, the customer will love it,” you’re probably living in a silo and you’re likely thwarting honest feedback.  When presented with unexpected customer feedback, take action to make sure the findings aren’t an anomaly, but if you continue to hear customers jeer and threaten to leave your farm, it’s a good bet it’s time to plow up the crop and replant.  And congratulations to General Motors for plowing up the field on the Buick crossover that customers said they would not buy!  I think I just heard a silo crumble!

Question: Financial Struggles? Answer: $125 Swim-shorts.

My mother has installed the ritual of “spring cleaning” within me.  As an elementary teacher, each spring, after she closed up her classroom for the summer, we would spend about a week spring cleaning the house from top to bottom.  The windows, walls, and ceilings of every room and every nook in the furniture would be cleaned.  Closets and drawers of stuff would be emptied, washed, and re-organized.  Once finished, each room would noticeably glisten.  Our hypothesis was that once thoroughly cleaned, the weekly cleanings thereafter would be faster.  Perhaps, but it was also a sense of accomplishment.

As an adult, each spring, I continue that ritual in my own home.  I even spring cleaned while living in apartments – I supposed I yearned for that glistening freshness and sense of accomplishment even in rented walls and windows.  With two young children, this annual ritual must be done by taking a couple vacation days to clean – my cleaning vacation as I call it.  So that is where I found myself in early June of this year – my husband at work, the kids at daycare, and me with my bucket, rags, and vacuum.

During these cleaning vacations, I tend to listen to television in the morning and my iTunes library in the afternoon.  This cleaning day was no different.  It was still fairly early and the morning news show was on. 

As is typical, the morning news shows start the broadcast in the early morning with typically harder news and then as the broadcast moves further into the morning, they offer some special segments – what I often call, the fluffy stuff.  With the economy in the rough shape that it is, the fluffy stuff has revolved largely around “saving you money” themes.  Segments were plenty on how to save money on vacations (which strikes me as odd because when I had no money, I saved on vacations by not going on vacations), how to invest wisely in these tough times (again odd, since if I have no money, an 5%-8% (really good in this market) return on zero principal is still zero), and how to select the most inexpensive organic foods (okay, need I even touch this one?).

The most memorable money saving segment during my June 2009 cleaning vacation, however, had to be the segment on saving money on kid’s summer clothes.  They of course, in an effort to expand the time, had a mini-runway with darling, well-behaved children dressed in colorful clothes.  It started sensibly enough.  They talked of mixing & matching shorts and t-shirts and some tips for dressing up the casual-wear.  The prices they alluded to for the outfits seemed a bit high, certainly higher than the $2.99 shirt and $3.99 pair of pants that I sent my preschooler out the door in – but I thought to myself, perhaps they are quoting NYC prices since the broadcast is based there.

And then came the beach portion of the money-saving fashion show.  Out came a handsome pre-teen boy in some colorful, wildly patterned beachy swim-shorts followed by a couple of youngerish kids in other colors of the same short.  The shorts were eye-catching and each child was of course, properly accessorized with flip-flops and cool sunglasses, and carrying over-sized beach balls.  The fashion narrator went on to talk about the fabric of the beach shorts, how durable it was, how the color won’t fade, and how these shorts were the “hot” swim shorts of the season – everyone wants them.  And then she states, “ . . . and at only $125, these swim shorts are a steal!”  I about dropped my bucket of cleaning fluid.  “A steal?”  I wanted to say to the woman, “I’m sure they are a steal my dear, because if you are economically challenged this summer ‘stealing’ them is the only way you can (or should) get them!” 

And to make matters worse, the news anchor went on to agree with the fashionista.  They concluded that due to the durability of the fabric, that for young boys who are rough on their swimsuits, the shorts were worth $125 because you’d only need to buy one pair for the summer season.  And then they went on to say that the shorts are so durable that it’s likely your boys can wear them next summer (because of course the one thing we know is that young boys don’t grow once summer ends).

So this makes me wonder.  Do these folks really get it?  $125 swim shorts for kids as a money-saving strategy?  Is this really a good lesson to broadcast to the masses?  Even if these times weren’t economically challenging, unless you are a celebrity or Wall Street executive with a retention incentive bonus, does it really make good financial sense in ANY economic environment to buy $125 swim-shorts?  And just for the record, I bought my five-year-old son a pair of Batman-themed swim-shorts for $14.99 with a 15% discount off that price.  He was delighted – he thinks his swim-shorts are pretty “hot.”  And these crime-fighter shorts have lasted the season, and it’s a high probability that Alexander will be seeing these swim-shorts in his future as he grows into them.

So this is how my “reality” saving money segment and lesson regarding boys beachware would go.  Nicholas would come out in his Batman shorts, bare feet, hair askew, holding an oversized beach ball.  Alexander, in a toddler-size pair of swim-shorts (handed down from Nicholas from his toddler days) would come running out shortly thereafter screaming at the top of his lungs because he wants the beach ball that Nicholas is holding just out of his reach.  Nicholas would begin to run away from Alexander.  Alexander would continue pursuit around the stage for awhile and then out of view of the camera but with shouts, whines, and screams still heard in the background of “My ball.  My baaalll!”  I would hold up my 15% discount card I received as a loyal customer and let the public know that for $12.74 plus tax, all this can be yours.  And you can put the remaining $112.26 you saved by not buying the $125 swim-shorts in the bank (versus using the savings to buy gold or some type of financial derivatives recommended in the previous money-saving segment).

But since I will only appear as a reality fashionista in my own mind, perhaps the better advice is that the next time a “money-saving” segment from the morning news show comes on, go turn on your iTunes library.

Finding My Inner Voice

“Build it and they will come.”  “Speak softly and you will be heard.”  “Don’t buy ice cream at the grocery store in 80+ degree heat with two more stops to make.”  “Take life with a pinch of salt . . . and wedge of lime and a shot of tequila.”  Listen, can you hear the soft-spoken advice of your inner voice?

For many, it is the golden years when the inner voice is finally heard.  Perhaps it is in these years that we finally have time to hear the inner voice that guides and directs us and offers us wisdom, or perhaps as we’ve gained experience, we are more easily able to interpret or believe our pleasant, peaceful, and wisdom-filled inner voice.

Call me an overachiever, but in the last two months, I have had the opportunity to hear my inner voice – and more than a few times.  And while I expected my inner voice to be heavenly and pleasant, it turns out, it is a loud, guttural yell that generates itself from the bottom of my gut and explodes through my head.  Far from angelic, it is really much more like the frightening voice that emerged from Linda Blair in The Exorcist (less the split-pea soup, thank goodness).

And what wisdom has that inner voice offered?  After a morning filled with two boys finding every means to stall and torment their mother before getting out the door for school, the inner voice offered this:  “GET YOUR SHOES ON NOW” – phonetically, “now” is pronounced “naawwwwwwhhhhhh!!!”  The decibel, tone, and gravel of the voice shooting past my tongue was such that my 5-year-old stood to attention like that of a well-trained soldier, and the loud whining from the 2-year-old stopped immediately.  After the inner growl, there was a long moment of silence – and then rapid movement to the shoes and out the door.

The inner voice has also offered, “PUT THE BOOK DOWN NOW” when the toddler attempted to throw a hard-covered book across the bed as we were reading and “settling down” for bedtime.  “STOP RUNNING NOW” emerged while with dad still at work, I was attempting to get dinner cooked and served while the boys tested the limits of sibling rivalry by wanting whatever the other one had, taking it, and then running around the house playing keep away – screaming and whining for the duration.  “GIVE ME THE SCREWDRIVER NOW” the inner voice ordered as the toddler began to tap on the picture window with his daddy’s tool that he must have obtained by quickly (I was tending to preschooler potty issues) scaling drawers to climb to the counter to get into the bag in the cupboard that holds the tools.  (And yes, we are quickly running out of places high enough to hide things and are considering renting a storage locker until we are through the toddler years.)

Now, the inner voice takes some time to build.  It is usually preceded by at least three attempts of firm but polite requests from the normal voice for the less than acceptable behavior to stop.  It is also preceded by physically intervening in the behavior – removing the book or toy or tool and encouraging proper behavior by getting down to the level of the offender.  And when these civilized gestures to quash the unacceptable behavior or noise fail miserably and just before my head explodes, the inner voice expels itself.

It’s never a proud moment.  But the inner voice achieves the objective.  Children seem to realize that when the inner voice of mom becomes outer, she means business.  There will be no more warnings – the guttural punch of the inner voice is not a warning shot, it is the “prepared to have really bad things happen if I don’t stop right now” shot.

I’ve admitted hearing my inner voice to several mothers – some with children of similar ages as mine and some who have been through these ages.  They too are overachievers having heard their inner voices early in life and in much the same circumstance, tone, and emphasis.  They too agree that their inner voice is not the saintly whisper they had imagined it would be.  And, we all long for the day that our normal voices are heard by our children, the first time we speak, making our inner voice truly inner and generally unheard, until of course, it emerges again in our golden years in the in the saintly, wisdom-filled undertone we have come to expect.  So yes, I have found my inner voice, and God-willing, I will lose it soon.

Nationalized Health Care – Does it really have to be that complicated?

“The US healthcare system is the best in the world.”  I hear that from several talk show hosts and their guests.  Why people from around the world come to the US to get healthcare when they get sick!

Indeed, we do have a great healthcare system.  But it is only great if you are independently wealthy (like those people from around the world who come here to get treatment), or you are properly insured.  If you don’t meet either of those two requirements, the US healthcare system isn’t that great.

One of the themes that Barack Obama ran on was a reformation of the US healthcare system.  He argued that our system isn’t fair and it’s too costly.  And I have to agree.  There are few out there that wouldn’t argue that we could use some improvements to our system (except, of course, for those extreme conservatives and those who want nothing that the Obama administration supports to succeed).  But the reality is, office visits are expensive.  Treatment is expensive.  Drugs are expensive.  Health insurance is expensive.  And the stories of the uninsured and the underinsured are horrible, and unfortunately, plentiful.

So we’re hearing bits and pieces of the health care reform bills going through our legislature, and frankly, the bits and pieces are frightening.  If you change jobs, you have to take the government plan.  If you aren’t insured by a private plan by July 1, XXXX, you have to take the government plan (meaning that eventually, every citizen will be in the government plan).  The only exemption from this mandated government plan will be of course, the legislators who developed it (if nothing else, that alone should raise our suspicion, red flags, disgust, <insert your terms here>).

We’re also hearing about the tax proposals to cover this plan.  Those of us who are lucky enough to have private health insurance will pay a tax on that insurance, some say as much as $4,000 (they didn’t indicate whether that was per insured household or insured person).  This action too will send many to the government plan.  And, now they talk of taxing food and beverages to pay for the plan.

And lastly, we hear that some bureaucrat will be making decisions on your care based on your age, health status, and let’s face it, other things like your celebrity, your ability to bring in votes for the bureaucrat, etc.  And it’s quite likely, the way that government works, that the bureaucrats running the “reformed” system won’t be experts in the field.  They’ll be friends of the current administration.  Remember FEMA & Katrina?  Did they have operations and emergency experts directing that operation?  Nope – they were “friends” of the Bush administration.  That’s why we had semi-trucks full of ice traveling around the country for months and communications specialists telling us that all was well and under control in New Orleans while simultaneously the media displayed images of mayhem and distress – kind of our own US “Baghdad Bob” approach.

Now generally, doctors and those that work in the health care system seem to support health care reformation, but many seem reluctant about the kinds of things we’re hearing coming out of Washington.  One of the key issues they stress is that the system cannot support every citizen using it because there is a huge, well HUGE, lack of primary care/family practice physicians.  There are not enough currently and few of the future crop of physicians are electing for family practice because of the low pay (relative to specialties) and the need to pay back student loans of huge sizes (much easier on a $450,000 per year surgeon salary than a $190,000 family practice salary).

So we have a problem.  Let’s just say it.  The health care system in the US is broken.  And our current administration is adamant about fixing it (laudable).  But the problem is, that the government can do nothing in an efficient way, and efficiency is the only way to solve this problem.

So in my schooling, I am taught that “markets are efficient” – for the most part.  So why not create a real health care market focused on competition, efficient administration, demand and supply, choice, and incentives?  Why not:

  1. Create health insurance “pools” of people.  Just like an employer is a “pool” of people, perhaps a state is a pool of people.  Let insurers COMPETE to provide coverage to those pools – you know, like insurers compete for private pools of company employees.
  2. Insurance companies can then create plans for or bid on providing that “pool” of people insurance.  An insurer might bid on the Idaho pool and the Dakota’s pool because it believes it can deliver good coverage to those pools and but perhaps not to pools in the north-east states.
  3. Make citizens buy catastrophic care with some prescription coverage.  Give them the option to buy some level of preventative care, but don’t require it.  Then, if they really need it, they are covered, but if they simply don’t have money for preventative care, they can opt out until they do have money.
  4. Administer health care coverage at the state level – not at the federal level.  Can some bureaucrat sitting in DC really understand health care in Hawaii or in Utah when they grew up in NYC?  I don’t think so.  Then, aside from a handful (and only a handful) of government monitors & auditors, their is no need for an army of federal administrators and their assistants and their assistant’s assistants.
  5. Invest tax dollars in two areas:
    1. Create a fund for the education of family practice physicians; pay their schooling and REQUIRE they pursue family practice.  They also need to accept public pools of patients (with acceptable levels of reimbursement, of course) and perhaps donate a few days a year to an public-low-fee-urgent care center located in already existing ER’s (for those who cannot afford preventative care insurance and the indigent (and we’ll always have indigent)).  If these funded physicians use government funds and then decide they want to become a surgeon, then they need to pay the government back with penalties and interest on a very aggressive schedule.  If they refuse, start garnishing wages.  Once they’ve worked off their loans and time commitment, they can then go specialty, but to thwart that, after XX years of service in the family practice arena, offer them incentives – perhaps entrance into a partially federally-funded malpractice insurance pool.  Get creative for goodness sake.  There are lots of retention specialists around that could offer some consult on this!
    2. Get our medical records online.  There is no reason I or my doctor’s office should have to fill out ten forms with the same information on them.  And HIPPA can take a hike (or at least get more flexible).  All this HIPPA stuff and every celebrity with a pimple has their medical records leaked to the media!  Invest in the medical records infrastructure so we can take administrative costs out of the system.  I’m sure there are many IT companies who would take on this type of job passionately (just make sure it isn’t Halliburton, or anyone related to Halliburton, that wins the contract).
  6. Let citizens go in and out of the public pool and the private pool as their lifestyle and life-stage evolves.  It is likely the private pools will still be better because employers will offer health care insurance as incentives.  But the care the public pools offer should be decent, and if insurers are competing for the public pool business and we have an increased supply of family care doctors, it should be.

So you may say, this won’t work.  It is much more complicated than all this.  So tweak the approach, but make the approach competitive.  American’s understand competition and we want choice.  I want good health care for my fellow citizens and friends and family who are now unemployed or under-employed, but I want, if they/we desire it, to be able to strive for more, for better.  And if more-better is private insurance, let us pursue that.  For if there is no incentive or reward for working harder or taking risks to achieve more-better, why would anyone work harder or take risks?  There is effectively no more “American Dream.”

So please, no gargantuan, hugely complicated, expensive, wasteful, federally-managed (yes, I realize federally-managed is an oxymoron), health care plan.  Simplify it.  Decentralize it.  Incentivize the right things.  And let’s make the US healthcare system the real envy of the world!