The Telephone: It’s All About Relationships

In honor of Alexander Graham Bell’s 164 birthday, here is a little tale about the telephone.

My first year as a principal I had a problem common among new principals: I was overwhelmed with the volume of calls to return. I was falling further behind all the time. I was prioritizing the issue that was right in front of me involving students or teachers. I was putting out fires and learning about the school. I thought I was keeping up with it all.

In the spring of that year, the search committee that had first interviewed me reconvened to give me feedback about the first few months of my principalship. Fortunately, there was lots of positive news. However, among the more critical feedback was the feeling that I was not responsive to parents. Some heard complaints that I never returned calls or that by the time I finally got to them, the issue was passé.

Ouch. This was not the way I wanted things to be. For a few minutes, I looked about for someone to blame. While I could find fault in others for a couple of specific instances, it became clear to me that I had not made responding to parents enough of a priority in my daily workflow. Once I properly placed the blame at my own feet, I had to figure out how to fix it.

Over the next several months and into the next school year, I worked out a system with the secretary* that reversed the problem enough that the end of year survey showed no problem for year two.

First, the secretary would screen calls to try to determine the real urgency. She would also ask if the parent had spoken with the teacher yet. If not, the secretary would ask the parent to contact the teacher first about the issue. Some parents had talked with the teacher, while a few convinced the secretary that they had.

Next, the secretary would email me with the subject line starting in “Call:” followed by the name and phone number (for more on how I use email to manage todos, read this). We used only the email system for low to medium priority return calls. If the secretary felt that the call was more important, she would email and either speak with me or leave a written message in a special spot on my desk.

So far, this system was essentially what hadn’t been working. So, I added into the mix a change in mindset: Every call deserves a reply right away.

Since the workload or pace of the day had not lessened, I also started asking the secretary to make some return calls. Now, please don’t think that I had the secretary do my work for me. I would ask her to call the parent and do what she needed to make sure the parent knew I would take the time to listen. So, the secretary would assess from the tone of the parent which of the following was enough. One, just the word that I knew of the call and promised to return it soon. Two, a scheduled return call. The secretary accessed my calendar and put in the phone call as an appointment for me. Three, skip the phone and get a face-to-face meeting scheduled.

With this return call made by the secretary, the parent knew that I was going to give the time needed. The parent knew that the call was important to the principal. Many invitations to a meeting were declined; the parents would say the issue wasn’t that important. Whatever the response, the parent usually hung up satisfied for the time being.

There were some variations on this system. In some cases, the secretary would just skip right to the meeting without giving me the initial message. This was usually a stroke of genius as the secretary was far better tuned to emotions than I. In other situations, I would ask the secretary to skip right to the meeting because I knew enough of the situation. I also sometimes asked the secretary not to return the call at all. Instead, I would go speak with the teacher and ask her to call first. In most cases, the parent really didn’t want to speak with the principal, the parent just wanted resolution.

There were a few drawbacks to this system. Not everyone was satisfied having to wait; they expected the principal to available to them at all times. Also, this increased the workload on the secretary. Finally, there were a couple of times where I got the email, but just did not call back in a timely manner – a couple of times, but far less than before.

All told, I am pleased to have gotten the situation under control by making sure that parents felt like I was listening and that I cared; we benefitted from a stronger relationship.

And after all, it’s all about relationships.

*For purposes of anonymity and due to multiple personnel involved in secretarial tasks, I am using the term “the secretary” to describe the actions of at least three different people in two different roles over three different years.

Cross posted to Principal’s Point of View

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