What will make your schools become the choice of choosers?

It’s his cornerstone.

Customer Service2As another academic year winds down, at least one superintendent is making sure students leave for summer break feeling like they already have a bond with the teacher they will have next fall.

“Sneak-Peak” or “Move Up” Day is part of a Customer Service 101 approach to running schools championed by Kelly Middleton, superintendent of Newport Independent Schools in the Cincinnati suburb of Newport, Kentucky.

During the final week of a school year, students experience a school day with their teacher for the following year. Middle school and high school students spend the day in next year’s homeroom. Graduating seniors can return to kindergarten for the day to celebrate how much they’ve learned. Teachers present their favorite lessons. The fun builds anticipation for returning to school in the fall.

“Kids are our customers and they don’t want to go the whole summer not knowing what it’s going to be like in the fall – especially if they’ll be changing schools,” Middleton said, noting that attendance on Move Up Day runs close to 100 percent.

“We do it for the kids, to help them feel comfortable,” Middleton added. “But we’re noticing that it also helps us retain students. Students are less likely to enroll in a private or cyber school over the summer if they already have a relationship with their next teacher.”

Education’s “missing link”

Customer service rooted in strong student/staff relationships is an objective that’s conspicuously absent from education reform platforms.

Kelly E. Middleton

Kelly E. Middleton

Yet, Middleton claims it’s “the missing link” in improving student achievement.

“If schools monitored customer service as closely as they do student attendance, public education would be on the right path,” Middleton said.

He lays out his theory in the book “Who Cares? Improving Public Schools Through Relationships and Customer Service,” which he wrote with colleague Elizabeth Petitt when both were administrators at Mason County Schools in Kentucky.

The pair has also written “Simply the Best: 29 Things Students Say the Best Teachers Do Around Relationships.” They are collaborating on a third book which shows how 20 popular customer service concepts from business can also be applied to schools.

“Students don’t want to disappoint teachers who they know care for them,” Middleton said. “It’s the relationship that motivates the learning.”

The significance extends beyond student achievement.

If one drills down, Middleton says it’s caring relationships that improve school climate, reduce discipline referrals, and influence whether a school district will gain and retain students.

In other words, whether the system will survive.

“Public schools have competition,” said Middleton, who says he feels rivalry for students even though Kentucky law doesn’t allow charter schools. “Competition is personal. It could mean your job and your retirement plan are on the line.”

Educator superpower: Home visits

Move Up Day is only one relationship-building, customer service initiative that Middleton promotes.

elementary school teacher and student high fiveHe also believes that teachers should pay a visit to each of their homeroom students at their home before classes begin in the fall.

Sometimes elementary teachers have students draw a picture of their family and a map to their house on the Sneak-Peak Day. Teachers bring the drawings with them when they visit.

“Parents are more likely to come to school for parent/teacher conferences if they already know the teacher because the teacher has been in their home,” Middleton said. “Home visits greatly reduce the time it takes teachers to know their students. We also think it creates a relationship where a lot of behavior issues get handled without a referral to the office.”

If teachers oppose the plan, it’s usually on grounds that they could enter an unsafe situation during a home visit, Middleton noted.

He believes it’s the opposite.

“The more teachers do home visits, the safer schools are,” Middleton said. “Caring about the kids is the key.”

Because Newport is a community that sees a lot of turnover, Middleton also intends to start a mentoring program in which families with school-aged children would receive a personal contact from the school district within two weeks of moving in.

Be responsive

Failing to respond to inquiries and concerns in a timely fashion is a customer service time bomb that will erupt in frustration that  damages reputations and erodes trust, Middleton said.

That’s why he requires teachers to return calls and email messages within 48 hours. He requires school administrators to respond within 24 hours.

If an apology is in order, his rule of thumb is to give it as soon as possible. The longer its takes, the less likely it will be believed, he said. The more sincere the apology, the more likely you’ll recover from the situation.

More Middleton tips for providing good customer service: 

  • Treat students with the same respect you’d give an adult.
  • Focus on the big picture, which is students, not the adults who work at the school.
  • Nothing (not even standardized test scores) ultimately contributes more to student achievement — and school success — than relationships between students, their families, and staff.

Middleton’s ideas gave me a lot to think about.

I, like many of you, never knew what teacher I would have until registration a couple of days before a new school year began. I’d wander through the school hallways with my mom, reading class lists posted on the window of a locked and darkened classroom until I spotted my name.

No teacher ever came to my home. No teacher ever called my house or mailed a personal note, sad to say. It was almost Thanksgiving when the getting-to-know-you phase finally ended.

Not very good customer service, now that I think about it.

But I never considered myself a “customer,” either.

The difference between then and now is that today there are educational options in many communities. Some may even be publicly funded.

Attention to customer service will help your school become the choice of choosers.

Next Thursday we’ll delve into Middleton’s insights of what the best teachers do to set themselves apart, according to students.

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