STAYING OUT OF THE WEEDS

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I was extremely blessed that when I started in the restaurant business I had some great mentors. They gave me a great foundation, which allowed me to excel as a bartender. The first lesson I was taught, and has served me well ever since, was the value of doing extensive prep work.

Right from the beginning, I worked with people who would spend hours preparing for a shift. They’d over-cut fruit. Back ups were double checked to make sure they were more than adequate. Soda and tonic bottles were bled so things didn’t explode all over you when you opened them. They would make sure that extra glassware was readily available in case more people than anticipated walked through the door. In short, they would over-prepare so that virtually any unforeseen challenge could be faced with minimum disruption.

As a young bartender, I scoffed at their over-preparedness. I would complain that we’d already cut enough limes, only to be met with the response of “cut more limes.” I would often try to predict how many people I would serve, and then prep for the minimum based on that prediction. “Man,” I’d say, “Those guys are wasting time.” Yeah, but I never thought it was a waste of time when the extra hundred people walked through the door and I didn’t have to interrupt service to cut more fruit, go get another bottle of liquor, or clean up the bar because tonic had exploded all over me.

As part of that lesson, they taught me when to make changes and when to wait. Ten minutes before opening, I might look over and think, “We’ve been serving a lot of Bourbon lately. I’m going to move them all over here and put the wines over there.” They’d tell me, “Not now, you are not going to.”

Their point was that you don’t make changes right before you get busy. Every action has unintended consequences, and if you are having to deal with those consequences right as you are hitting peak action time, you are going to run into problems. Problems that will hinder your ability to provide effective service.

Anybody who’s ever worked in the service industry will tell you stories illustrating the thrill of successfully navigating “being in the weeds.” For those of you not familiar with the term, “being in the weeds” describes those times when everything is firing on all cylinders. When the bar is five deep and the waitress is screaming orders at you while the kitchen is demanding you pick up food. Surviving the weeds is akin to surfing a giant wave and not wiping out. At the end of the prolonged surge, there is a tiredness, but deep satisfaction that has to be felt to be understood. Equally important, all the people you served leave with their own sense of satisfaction.

I’m sure teachers get a similar sense of satisfaction. For teachers, it would be akin to trying to teach a class while little Johnny can’t stop talking, little Mary has a toothache and can’t stop crying, the principal is buzzing you about an upcoming team meeting, and the technology is acting up. On top of all that, report cards are due tomorrow, you have a meeting during your planning time to decipher a new grading plan, and you still have 50 papers to grade for the morning. This is just a sliver of what teachers navigate daily while trying to produce results.

The weeds are an internal part of the restaurant business. The goal is for the staff to be in the weeds every night. Therefore, if an establishment’s staff can’t navigate the weeds, then odds are the place is not going to be successful. Hence, the importance of them not losing focus on the importance of the prep work.

Oh, the horror stories I could tell you about working with someone who did not adhere to the rule of prep. The result of lack of prep work is always a failed shift, where customers leave unhappy and team mates are forced to work extra hard because unfortunately, as much work had to go into putting out fires as serving customers. Nobody leaves those shifts happy.

Right about now, you are probably wondering, “Why’s he regaling me with his bartending tales? What’s this have to do with education?” I believe that right now, in regards to Metro Nashville Public Schools, everything. I believe right now, teachers and administrators in MNPS are trying to pull off a shift with that bartender who didn’t do their prep work. The bartender who thought that they could just cut enough fruit to get the doors open. That they didn’t have to worry about back ups and that they could rearrange the furniture right before opening.

I am extremely blessed that many of you educators trust me enough to share what is going on in your schools. Emails and phone calls come in daily telling me about this new policy or this new initiative and the concerns that go with it. I try to sort through it all and figure out how to dive deeper into these things so I can hopefully better communicate them to the public. Lately I’ve felt a bit of anxiety because I haven’t been able to prioritize and then find time to research and fully understand these new initiatives. There are just so many of them. Last night I realized what I was feeling was a lesser version of what teachers and administrators in MNPS are currently feeling.

The start of school this year saw the introduction of a new literacy plan, a new grading and report card plan, and a new homework plan. None of these plans came fully fleshed out or with adequate training. There are parts of each of them that are still being sorted out after 4 weeks of school.

For example, part of the literacy plan includes units that teachers are being told they must teach. That is problematic by itself because these weren’t developed by MNPS teachers; rather, they were developed by an out-of-state vendor. They are being forced on teachers. And each of these units – forgive me if some of the terminology is off – has a task at the end. Is that task to be evaluated? If so, what is the rubric? What’s to be done with the evaluation once completed? There are also questions about the appropriateness of a unit because its contents are very New York City-centric. Being as this is Nashville, there is a potential for students to become distracted by the unfamiliar terms and lose focus on the task at hand. Is the timeline appropriate for kids districtwide? What happens if a school falls behind? And that’s just one aspect of the literacy plan.

The other two plans have their own questions. With the grading policy, changing the way teachers do their grading and how they’re reported on report cards is a huge change – and it was done, as I mentioned, right as school began. This has been very frustrating for teachers to adapt to because it is such a big change. And the district’s new homework plan has not been a hit with parents or teachers from what I’m hearing. Again, this was a big change that was imposed on teachers with no input from them and with little time to prepare.

It is hard to tell if these new plans are bad or good because there are so many questions. This is where prep work comes in.

Few people prep and plan like teachers do. They will look at a district calendar and make plans for the year. They will get together on their own time to plan out the first nine weeks of school. Do you realize that the day school ends in May, teachers are already formulating plans for next year? It’s one of the reasons why standardized test results are virtually useless. By the time results arrive, teachers have already created their lesson plans.

In order to capitalize on this natural tendency, you have to provide information in a timely manner. The first week of school is not timely. Two weeks before school starts is not timely. Two months before school starts is timely.

On top of new policies, teachers and administrators are challenged by a new district management structure – the creation of quadrants overseen by community superintendents – implemented on July 1, as well as buildings that due to construction issues are grossly inadequate to house kids, a shortage of teachers across the district, and a school board looking to pick a fight with the state over student data sharing. If this doesn’t constitute being in the weeds, I don’t know what does.

You talk to anybody in the district right now, and the description you’ll get is one of chaos. I’ve had teachers tell me they are trying to survive the chaos. I’ve had principals tell me they are trying to manage the chaos, but directives from district leadership change daily and sometimes hourly.

For example, Chief Academic Officer Dr. Monique Felder has a penchant for sending one directive at 11pm only to send another an hour later at midnight counteracting the first. Even in departments of relative calm, I’ve had people tell me, “We’re running pretty smoothly, but we feel the chaos outside the door and it’s distracting.” One long term MNPS employee who’s keeping the faith told me, “I just think the problem is that leadership has so much on their plate.” Like School Board member Dr. Sharon Gentry has said, there is “too much on the plate to say grace over.”

I’m not trying to paint a picture of abject failure. Don’t get me wrong, there are incredibly great things transpiring in the district. We have great people doing great work. But we shouldn’t let that great work blind us to the potential for even greater work. If you take Tom Brady and put him behind an inadequate offensive line, he goes from being a Hall of Fame quarterback to being just a very good one. You also create a situation where the individual player may still shine, but the team fails to execute at an exceptional level.

When you are in the weeds and things are starting to go off the rails, you need to adjust quickly or things tend to continue to spiral out of control at a rapid rate. Luckily, in my career, I’ve had good managers who were always willing to help navigate the weeds. The role of a good manager can’t be overstated.

The good ones were able to assess where the problems were coming from and create solutions. Sometimes those solutions involved moving people. Sometimes the solutions involved prioritizing and taking things off the plate so that I could focus on service. Sometimes the solution involved jumping in and talking to customers, explaining to them what was going on and why, along with a promise to improve.

The good managers always took the heat for us, even when they were not responsible for the issues. The good managers always sought our input when things calmed down a bit and listened to our feedback and concerns so that we weren’t constantly in an unmanageable state. The good managers realized that they were there to set us up for success and they did everything in their power to meet that goal.

I’m hoping that over this Labor Day holiday, MNPS leadership takes a deep breath and realizes that they have got to take steps to calm the chaos. Dr. Joseph likes to speak about drowning out the noise, but if you’re not careful the noise can drown out the instruction.

Part of the challenge is realizing that not every problem has to be solved at once. Working hard is admirable, but working smart is exemplary. I think as a district it’s time to shift the focus from the former onto the latter.

For example, currently the new Community Superintendents are working from 7 am to 10 pm every day during the week and similar hours on the weekend. Riddle me this, Batman, how is that sustainable? What happens in a year or two when they leave out of exhaustion? When does this schedule afford them to opportunity to look at a challenge with fresh eyes? In creating this new position, shouldn’t it be embedded with more realistic expectations? Expectations that would allow people to remain in that position for perhaps as long as a decade, therefore creating stability instead of feeding the chaos.

The community superintendents is just one example. Teacher expectations far outpace teacher compensation, and I would argue that especially in elementary school, these expectations are not sustainable. Veteran teachers will tell you that they’ve done it, but in the very next sentence will tell you how much the job has changed and the work load has grown. Evidence of this is the fact that many schools are still not fully staffed.

I looked at the roster for MNPS and found something interesting. Of those district employees hired in 2016, 1,454 remain MNPS employees. The number for 2015 drops to 1,109, and for 2014 it goes to 972. 632 people hired in 2013 remain with the district. This is not just teachers, but all district employees. Remember my offensive line analogy? Admittedly, I don’t have the number hired each year, but even if those were available, I don’t think it would tell a tale of stability.

In all fairness, I’m not trying to paint this solely as Dr. Joseph’s problem. Like all large urban school districts, MNPS has always struggled with controlling the chaos. Dr. Joseph is just latest person charged with getting it under control.

Upon arrival in Nashville, Dr. Joseph encouraged everyone to read the book Leadership and Self Deception. A large part of that book, which I read, prescribes deep self-evaluation. Now is the time for district leadership to apply the lessons in that book and use them to get control of the chaos while there is still time to get out of the weeds.

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