By way of practicing what I preach I’ve recently been going through the “Things To Try” sections at the end of each chapter of Blending Leadership, picking out one or two of the activities, and trying them. Last week, I visited an actual shopping center staffed by real, live people. I had the following “offline thing” in mind:
I went to the mall because I had a free afternoon, and I had to buy some things for the start of the school year. I headed for a shoe store that carried my favorite shoe brand, the same shoe brand that I’ve purchased again and again over the years.
As I walked in to the store and started looking at some of the shoes, I noted that it was 5:01 p.m. I was on a semi-scientific mission, after all, so I had to be precise. I kept looking at shoes, turning them over, roaming around the store, and nobody asked me if I needed help, nobody asked me to try on a pair of shoes, nobody even looked at me. At 5:08, still utterly unattended, I left, and for the first time in years, I considered a different brand of shoes. (Also, for the first time ever, I realized that my “relationship” with this particular brand was completely one-sided. I knew them, followed them, kept an eye on the way they changed — but they didn’t know a thing about me or how best to serve me.)
This cycle — of me being basically ignored as I tried to shop — repeated itself, to varying degrees, in three other stores. I walked into stores and either couldn’t find anybody to help me or found people who seemed very uninterested in helping me. Honestly, I often felt like an intruder or that I was interrupting the salespeople when I tried to engage them. I’m not suggesting that these kinds of sales jobs are easy or exciting. They involve a lot of standing around, near constant interactions with semi-difficult people, and certainly it’s not everyone’s passion to sell the things they are asked to sell in the mall. I recognize all of that, but overall, I found that the actual experience of going to the mall dramatically reinforced my opinion that online shopping is the better way (for me) to buy the things I need. In fact, I actually purchased something from Amazon ON MY PHONE from the mall because I just couldn’t figure out how to find what I needed quickly. It may be many years before I drag my body back to a mall.
Time for a reflective rant: if you operate a store that offers a face-to-face experience for customers, then that face-to-face experience should be a big part of the value proposition. You should present eager salespeople who are eager to help customers. And to make that happen, you should invest money in training those people and holding them accountable for that experience. Because, honestly, if you run an organization that puts salespeople face-to-face with customers and the experience is as bad as it was for me the last time I went to the mall, then you deserve to be eaten by Amazon. And if you’re a school and guilty of the same charge, you deserve to be eaten by Khan Academy (or some other online equivalent).
As mobile technology becomes ubiquitous and trusted, people themselves become more mobile. Most people that I know really like mobility — they like being able to control more of their time, they like being able to avoid frustration. And what’s more frustrating than having to operate in poorly designed spaces (like parking lots or malls that are designed to keep you a little bit lost, a little bit disoriented, so that you spend more time in them)?
This is why I’m very proud to work at the school that I work at. At Montclair Kimberley Academy, we are investing time and energy and resources in building out and articulating social-emotional learning competencies to show students how to engage with each other and with the world. Even better, when we were getting ready to roll out these competencies, teachers and school leaders argued that the competencies should outline aspirational behavior not only for students, but also for adults — for the entire community. They said, “We, too, need to be civil to each other, we, too, need to be good to each other, we, too, need to be good listeners, we, too, need to model social and emotional competencies.”
I’m proud that I work in a school whose value preposition is, in some senses, blindingly obvious and yet hiding in that same obviousness. We plan to maintain and continually enliven the conditions for teachers to work face-to-face with students. It sounds almost goofy to say that so plainly, but it’s true. Working with students face-to-face, in school buildings, is something we plan, intentionally, to be exceptionally good at. So we’re always working at it, training around it, talking with kids about it, and doing it better and better every year. Sure, we’re an award winning 1:1 school with a reputation for innovative curriculum and program. Sure, we offer plenty of our instruction and learning resources via Moodle and Google Apps for Education. But we also get right the most basic and cherished part of the educational equation: teachers and students meeting together, face-to-face, to talk and think and question and grow and (someday, when the time is right) change the world. Though I won’t go back, I’m glad I went to the mall. It provided a stark reminder of what I never want my school to be.