Thursday, January 26, 2012

Educators as School Marketers: Exploring the Potential Disconnection

Given the need for independent schools to attract and retain qualified students and families, it should come as no surprise that the last few years have likely prompted many conversations in which teachers have been asked to be more sensitive to and proactive in the marketing of their school to current and prospective families.  Unfortunately, many teachers are quite confused by such requests and simply fall back on “doing what I always do” in hopes that such actions fulfill the request.  Such reactions highlight a disconnection between the teacher’s role as instructor and the need to assume a more conscientious role of marketer.

I don’t blame teachers for feeling confused.  After all, I doubt many of them had any formal marketing training as part of their teacher preparation.  Certainly a course in school and community relations may be helpful, but as a marketer?

Probably not.

As an administrator at an independent school that has asked its teachers to be more conscientious of their marketing role, I have spent the past few years reflecting on this issue.  My reflections generally revolve around a few questions.

Why might teachers feel a disconnection between the role of classroom instructor and school promoter?

Is there a way to make the connection between classroom instructor and school promoter that makes logical sense to the teacher?

If not, why not?  If so, what strategies can a teacher use to make that connection?

This post shares my thoughts on these questions.

I believe that the reason some teachers feel a disconnection between the role of classroom instructor and school promoter (or marketer, evangelist, etc.) is a matter involving the evolution of what an educator is today.  Today’s educator is trying to operate effectively in a period which will likely be identified by the access to choice, desire for change, and ease of networking.  It is an era that continues to force us to reflect upon and leverage the power of relationships and communication.  Thus, what society now sees as successful, necessary, and desired is undergoing a change.  Most noticeably, this change involves a growing desire for deep and meaningful experiences and interactions which produce a desired sense of distinction and specialness.  I suggest this is a result of almost unlimited choice which demands that consumers reflect much more on, “Why?” one option is more attractive than another.  Herein lies the basic problem.  Before people had access to so many options, “Why?” was not nearly as important as answering, “What?”.  You needed a new shirt, you went to the mall and bought one from the stock available.  Now, you can get a new tie from any tie maker in the world over the Internet.  In order to choose one from another, “Why?” becomes a much greater factor.  

What does this have to do with educators?  

Well, for as long as any living educator can remember, teachers have worked (and have been taught) in a model of education that does not sync well with the growing market for distinction, the market that needs a clearer answer to, “Why?”.  It is a mode of operation that follows a set way of thinking about, preparing for, and delivering one’s class.  I will refer to this model as the factory model and its related mode of thinking as the factory mode. Therefore, this model of education, and the related mode of thinking that accompanies it, has become part of the professional genetic code of educators.  It is part of the educator’s DNA.  This mode of thinking, while useful in clarifying, “What?”, but falls short of clearly answering, “Why?”.

The factory model leaves little room for, and certainly doesn’t place much value in, expanding the nature of a class  beyond the curriculum - no matter how artfully it is delivered.  The teacher’s role in factory mode is limited, teach your course and make sure students are ready for the next course.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that role.  As matter of fact, effectively delivering content is an essential part of teaching.  However, when we ask teachers to expand the nature of an effective class, we then move from content and curriculum to experience and relationships, two areas the factory model cannot and does not address.  There needs to be a heightened awareness of the other pieces of the educator’s DNA to provide the balance and approach to delivering a great class that includes relationships and deep, meaningful experiences.  In other words, the environment created by deep and meaningful experiences helps students and parents answer the question, “Why do I choose this school?”.

These suggestions may seem easy to understand.  I would agree that they are easy to understand, but often circumstances make them hard to employ.  Especially when circumstances prompt a strong response from the factory mode that is deeply embedded in the educator’s DNA.

When things are going well, we naturally are inclined to avoid disruption.  The message most teachers hear is “keep doing a great job in class” or “keep up the good work” which, as open to interpretation as it may seem, for many teachers translates as “keep being a good factory worker.”  

However, in recent years the economic reality many schools face has caused them to rethink operations and work like never before to retain and attract families.  These have been years of uncertainty and pressure to perform at the highest levels, often asking every member of the school to act as “adjunct marketers and school ambassadors.”  Stated a different way, schools need teachers to be more than good factory workers.  In essence, we are asking teachers to ignore a strong and significant piece to their professional DNA (the factory worker) and become more of the artist, evangelist, innovator, and magnetic creative.  We are asking teachers to transform their classes from solely places of learning into places of learning that serve to engage students and families in making deep and lasting connections with the school.  We need teachers to embrace their “intellectual celebrity” and become linchpins for our schools.

Certainly, the switch away from factory mode is not easy.  So, a set of guidelines or examples to help teachers understand exactly what is involved in this new approach is helpful.  For some teachers, this requires an acceptance of a dual perception of their work and a commitment to an approach to their work that is conducive to the creation of deep and meaningful experiences.

The Perception of the Work

Many teachers talk about their responsibilities, but rarely do they speak of their cause.  I believe this is directly associated with the factory mode.  Responsibilities are external.  They are dictated to us as part of the job.  They represent a contractual agreement between school and employee.  Typically, responsibilities are specific and measurable.  There is a place for responsibilities, but that place is part of a market agreement between school and employee.  With responsibilities, there is an expectation of immediate reciprocity.  You fulfill your responsibility and you get something in return (a paycheck).

Your cause, though, is personal.  You chose it.  It defines you as a person, not as a worker.  The only contract you have with your cause is with yourself.  Any agreement involving your cause is social.  There is no immediate expectation for reciprocity.  You give of yourself for your cause because you recognize the value in sharing your talents for the betterment of others.  You may not even get a “Thank you”, at least not right away.  That’s “ok” because you do not engage in your cause for the rewards.  You engage in your cause for your contribution.

In order to suppress the factory mode and embrace the marketer inside, teachers need to accept their responsibilities, but adjust their approach to their class as their cause.  Perceiving one’s class as their cause (instead of their responsibility) begins to place the emphasis of the work on the receiver (student) and not on the giver (teacher).  

In other words, if you view your class as your responsibility, you are doing YOUR job, fulfilling YOUR obligation, serving YOUR need to collect a salary.  Again, there is nothing wrong with being paid a fair wage for doing a good job.  However, viewing your class as your cause places the emphasis on the receiver.  Your class is serving THEIR needs.  You are responding to THEIR issues.  Your role is to demonstrate that your class is worthy of THEIR following and participation.

Your cause is student centered.  Your responsibilities are yours alone.

Accepting the cause perception, and the social agreement from which it operates, is not a denial of the factory mode of thinking and the responsibilities that accompany it.  After all, the market agreement that brought a teacher into the classroom must be honored and there does need to be some markers set up for the teacher to measure content delivered progress.  Finding the balance between the two, or applying the correct approach to any given situation, is the key.

The “Open House Culture” in Your Class

Once you begin to perceive your class as your cause, you are in the right mindset to build an inviting and engaging culture in your class, one conducive to deep and meaningful experiences.  To do so, I suggest borrowing the characteristics of one of the more enchanting events at schools, the Open House.

Open house is your school at its best.  Your doors are open and you welcome new prospective families to tour and learn more about your school.  Ultimately, successful open house events prompt the attendees to take the next step in the admissions process with the eventual desired outcome being a new enrolled student.  Your class’ “Open House Culture” operates similarly.  In an “Open House Culture”, you are presenting your class (your cause) at its best.  An effective “Open House Culture” prompts students to “take the next steps” towards becoming an active contributor to your cause (your class).

Borrowing from the numerous Open House experiences I have had, I suggest their are five qualities of effective open houses and also provide the ingredients for an “Open House Culture”.  These qualities are: friendly, trustworthy, reliable, responsive, and interactive.

The Director of Admissions at my school frequently reminds us all that every interaction with parents and students is an opportunity to either improve retention or motivate that family to recommend a friend.  Having a cause mindset and nurturing an “Open House Culture” in your class are powerful foundations upon which you can clearly address the dual role of educator and marketer in your school.

Final note:  If you and I share some of the same reading preferences, you probably noticed the influence of a couple of different people in this post.  Over the past few years, I have found the writing of Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki among the most influential.  Kawasaki’s Enchantment has become my “go to” guide for winning the hearts and minds of people.  Godin’s Linchpin, Tribes, and practically every title from his work with the Domino Project are invaluable reminders and prompts for us to embrace our ability to do great work.

Also, this article was cross-posted on Kevin J. Ruth's blog, Introit: thoughts on the life and culture of independent schools.

Thank you for reading this post.  As with all my posts this month, I ask you to consider joining me to help support a worthy cause - St. Jude's Research Hospital.  Between now and the end of January, 2012, I will donate $1 US for every copy of either of my two eBooks purchased.  You can find additional information about this offer by clicking here.
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