Friday, January 30, 2009

Newer Self-Esteem Issues in Schools

(News-Herald, January 29) I recently read yet another columnist complaining about the self-esteem movement in public education.
On the one hand, I agree completely with the arguments that lay a host of ills at the altar of self-esteem worship. On the other hand, complaining about the self-esteem movement in schools is like complaining about disco music on the radio. It’s not that criticism isn’t well-grounded—it just doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on today.
There’s no question that the cult of self-esteem was seriously misguided. It’s not that self-esteem is worthless—people usually make sure that they get what they think they deserve in life, and when they think they don’t deserve much, they can make a mess out of themselves. But studies have also shown that lots of street criminals have extra-super self-esteem. Large egos are not always good.
It has been years since I’ve heard any teacher seriously suggest that a student should receive special kid-glove treatment or manufactured success in order to preserve that student’s self-esteem.
True, education is still haunted by fake success and systems that are jiggered in order to make sure that little Johnny has only happy moments. But this no longer has anything to do with Little Johnny’s self-esteem. The average school is not worried that Little Johnny will feel bad—they worried that Little Johnny’s parents will feel bad. So bad that they’ll call their lawyer.
Years ago we heard about schools where there was no valedictorian because the administration didn’t want the also-rans to take a hard blow to their fragile self-esteems. Nowadays schools can expect phone calls from the also-rans’ moms and dads, threats of lawyers to follow.
Cut a student from the team? Expect a call. Send a student to the office for cheating? Expect a call.
A student in California was suspended from all school activities after he was convicted of fraud in federal court. He sued the school for cutting him from the ball team, claiming he had a future in pro sports.
In Florida, an 18-year old student mooned his teacher at a school event. The school gave him a suspension; his parents are suing the school.
In Connecticut, a student is suing a teacher who woke him up by making a loud noise in class. And there are more lawsuits than I can count filed by students and their parents against teachers who gave them failing grades for plagiarizing or not completing assignments.
One of my favorites—a student was caught hiring a hit man to kill his teacher. The school district expelled him. He sued the district.
Now, I’m a fan of accountability. As a teacher, I assume I ought to be able to justify anything I’m doing in my classroom.
I’m also a fan of parents sticking up for their children. Parents should advocate for their children. After all—if your own parents aren’t in your corner, who will be?
However. Advocating for your children sometimes means making sure that they learn some lessons for life. A basic lesson is that actions have consequences, that you can be forgiven for messing up, but you still have to suffer the outcome of the mess-up. Ten years from now, you don’t really want to be saying to your kid, “Look, stealing that car wasn’t really your fault. The police are just picking on you, and if you’re convicted, we’ll just sue them.”
School districts, for their part in a perfect world, should both make sure their actions are justified, and then steel their backbones. Too many schools suffer from a sort of pre-emptive paralysis, a search not for the right action, but the action least likely to provoke an angry parental phone call. A handful of belligerent parents make schools fearful of all the other good ones.
We have an advantage in small districts—we know which parents assume Johnny’s eternal innocence and who keep the lawyer on speed dial. If Little Johnny sets a classmate on fire, we know that giving Little Johnny a detention will just be picking on him. The down side of that is we will sometimes bend rules to avoid Dadzilla; some day we’ll get sued over that, too.
Venangoland is filled with good, decent, responsible, rational, loving parents, who must sometimes wonder what keeps us from taking some seemingly obvious steps. But I can assure you—we stopped worrying about the self-esteem of students years ago. Nowadays, it’s parental self-esteem we have to worry about.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Investing with Dopes and Crooks

(News-Herald, January 22) The folks who manage my investment portfolio sent me a nice note at the beginning of the month.
Actually, when I say “investment portfolio” I mean the little wad of money that I’ve been squirreling away in the teacher equivalent of an IRA. I confess to not being a great money manager, a confession that does not come easily because, like many people, I have a vague sense of shame floating over the monetary portions of my life. It embarrasses me that I am not, somehow, in better financial shape.
I have never undertaken a large financial transaction in which I did not lose money. My personal financial planning and cash flow management skills are slightly more impressive than a magic eight ball. I don’t want to be rich; if I can just get one more kid through college, it won’t bother me to eat macaroni every day until I retire at age ninety. But I will be embarrassed.
I started the retirement account years ago, and figured I had at least done that part right. Turns out I would have been better off burying the money in the back yard, and somehow I feel ashamed of that as well.
My retirement fund is run by one of those companies that somehow makes money move in and out of thin air, represented locally by a nice man who gets ahold of me every few years or so to make sure that, I don’t know, I’m still alive or something. They periodically send me little letters to tell me about the thin air that my money moves in and out of.
Now, given the economic meltdown, I expected that this newsletter might contain a little something extra like “Ooops” or “Sorry” or “Really, don’t freak out.” Instead, this newsletter included puff pieces on the order of “How to make the most out of family time” or “Our friend, the amazing toaster oven.”
Maybe they just weren’t sure how to proceed in the midst of financial chaos. Maybe they didn’t want to disturb me. Maybe it’s hard to type up the newsletter with everyone crowded together on the window ledge. I don’t know. But I feel moved to write them a note to help them with this daunting task.
Dear Nameless Investment Firm:
Perhaps you’re unsure what to tell me at this point in your charming quarterly communications. Well, here’s what I need to know.
See, even out here in the cheap seats, we’ve been able to get a vague sense of the causes of all this mess, and they seem to boil down to two things—people in the financial industry who are crooks, and people in the financial industry who are dopes.
So what I really need to know is, which are you?
Did you figure to make money trading in things that were, at best, shady and, at worst, unethical?
Or did you get involved trading in “instruments” that were created by the crooks and traded by people too lazy, dumb or unimaginative to see the signs of impending disaster?
Please pick one. Please note that the “We just didn’t know this could happen” defense means you’re choosing “dope.” The “We knew there were potential issues but we figured we could skate past them” defense means you’re choosing “crook.”
I understand that it’s hard to spin either choice. There’s no easy way to say, “Yes, we’re run by a bunch of crooks and/or dopes, but you should still entrust us with your retirement fund.”
It could help to follow that up with something along the lines of “Lessons we have learned from this.” But maybe you haven’t learned any yet other than “Welfare is only for people who make a really REALLY big mess out of their business.”
Still, you’ll have to trust me when I say that I can be forgiving.
After all, I haven’t been doing any due diligence, either. I didn’t study up on you, follow up on your work, or insist that your local representative talk to me more than twice a decade. I have been a lazy dope, too, so I can relate. True, it’s not my chosen profession to pay attention to these things, but it is my money and my life, and I handed it over to you, grateful, frankly, not to have to think about it any more. I know that I have to do better. It would just be comforting to hear that you know that you do, too.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Time for a Cardio Stress Test

This is from January of 2005. I reprint it here mostly as a reminder to myself that I should probably go get one thing or another checked up.
Here at the News-Derrick, we like to probe the frontiers of modern medicine and bring back updates for our readers. Or, to put it another way, last week I went to the doctor for a stress test. For those of you who’ve always wondered about that experience, today is your lucky day.
My trip was prompted by an informal check of my blood pressure at a handy grocery store blood pressure chair. I came in somewhere between “Yikes” and “Dial 911,” so I decided it was time to see a real doctor.
I don’t call the doctor often. I did not inherit this trait from my Grandmother Binmore, who believed that illness sprang into existence because a doctor examined you. My problem is that my Puritan New England upbringing leads me to believe that any illness or injury I have is because of some misbehavior. Going to the doctor feels a like some shameful combination of having to admit that I’ve messed up and asking someone else to fix it for me.
I’m old enough to know better, so I call the doctor when I should. Well, mostly. Okay, the last time a medical professional had taken my blood pressure was nine years ago.
After calling I read up on hypertension. Big mistake. As near as I can tell, hypertension has no symptoms, except that eventually it makes all of your internal organs squirt out your nostrils. Maybe I read that wrong, but it was too late. I was soon imagining that every headache signalled the collapse of my eyeballs.
My doctor is Will Fee, because you have to trust a doctor who sings. Will has a remarkably pleasant and personable staff. I am always impressed that medical folks can spend their days surrounded by sick people and stay pleasant.
The whole process involves chatting over some fine conversational points, like my dead ancestors and their medical problems. There’s no place like a doctor’s waiting room to meditate on your mortality.
The test itself involves a great deal of waiting. They take some pictures (I sat with my arms strung up in the same slings that Sea World uses to cart Shamu), and inject some dye into your veins.
Injecting is always an adventure for me—I have small weaselly veins that have been known to burrow and hide behind internal organs. A very nice woman apologized for having to stick and restick me, but she actually did very well. I still have unpleasant long-ago memories of some trainee who inserted the needle and ground it around as if he was trying to work a few scoops of Baskin-Robbins out of the crook of my elbow.
Once the dye is injected, I sat. Actually, stress testing involves a great deal of sitting. I read about 150 pages of a fine biography of Alexander Hamilton (by Ron Chernow—fine gift for the history buff). You’re also supposed to drink roughly a few gallons of water. If you’re scheduled for this, I suggest you bring your own; I love Will, but the water in his waiting room tastes almost as bad as Franklin tap water.
Eventually I arrived at the main event. A nice lady attached some electrodes to me, and then put me on a treadmill. Then I had elevate my heart rate. I’m not sure what the formula is—five times your mother’s age or something. Everyone congratulated me on being in fine shape, but all that meant was that the treadmill was inclined so that it pointed at the ceiling and the speed was set at “very frightened gerbil.”
Then, once I was shooting sweat waves out of my head just like in the cartoons, and my calve muscles were screaming that they intended to secede from my legs, I was notified that I needed to just skootch to the front of the treadmill and hold my chest against the picture taking equipment. This procedure requires three medical people—a doctor and nurse to holler encouragement and a technician to put her hand in the middle of your back and shove you the rest of the way forward. Then the treadmill is set back to “collapse in heap.”
I got to sit down, and Will asked me some questions that seemed odd at the time; on reflection, I suspect he was checking to see if my brain was, in fact, still getting any blood.
Then more waiting (another thirty pages) and a trip back to the Shamu seat for final pictures. My favorite part was discovering I would be radioactive for 24 hours. The picture taking is done with gamma rays. I waited the rest of the day for signs of turning into the Hulk. No such luck.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Franklin Needs a Mayor

(News-Herald, January 15) As you may have noted in last week’s paper, we’re in the market for a new mayor in Franklin
Mayor Heller did a nice job, and I’ll be sorry to see him go. It’s hard to find a good mayor for a small town, and I’m not exactly sure where we should turn for our next one. Retired folks might have more time for mayoring, but employed folks might be more in touch with the current flow of life. Age brings experience, but youth brings vitality and an eye on the future of the city.
I’m not convinced that we need someone with governmental experience. We have professionals to know about the nuts and bolts of keeping the city functioning. For mayor we need someone who can run a meeting and who can be the voice and face of the city. It would be nice to have someone who is positive and upbeat about Franklin, even nicer to have someone who has some vision about our future. In Venangoland politics we settle too often for people whose vision is to just kind of keep doing more or less what we’ve been doing. That’s not really enough any more.
I’m not sure who might step forward at this point, and really, why should we wait. Let’s draft someone for the job. I have a few thoughts.
Toby Saltarelli would make a fine mayor. He already knows a large percentage of the population of Franklin. His long years with Joy put him in touch with the business sector. His long association with Franklin Civic Operetta, particularly in managing and overseeing the building of the Barrow, put him in touch with the arts. His wife’s years working for the county put him in touch with that sector of government. And his years as a church choir director put him in touch with, well, Presbyterians, anyway.
On top of his many qualifications, I confess that I also like the idea of being able to walk into Leonardo’s most nights of the week and say hi to the mayor and his family at their table. That strikes me as small town in the best sense of the word.
I’d also be happy to draft Jeri Gent. She did exceptionally fine work for years heading up the Chamber of Commerce. She knows who to see to make things happen in Franklin, and she knows how to get things organized and promoted. She has a background that includes some big city expertise plus solid roots in our own community. She’s articulate, experienced and already knows a giant chunk of the local population, but she also has lots of connections to the surrounding areas that would be a bonus to Franklin in these days of intra-municipal cooperation.
I know I said No Government Professionals, but I would make an exception for Gary Hutchison. Gary’s experience as a county commissioner would give him a solid background in the business of navigating endless bureaucratic bologna, particularly state-level bologna, which I imagine is an all-too-present part of governing any city in the commonwealth.
Gary would inherit the fine old Franklin tradition of teacher-as-mayor (tip of the hat to Bob Olson). He would have the disadvantage of being a Democrat, which means that if my dog ran against him as a Republican, my dog would win (though I should note that my dog has declared that he has no interest in running for mayor).
But I’m not even at the end of my short list. Judy Grandelis has been a successful local businesswoman several times over; she knows how to organize and get things done, plus she knows the community inside and out. And while, decades ago, she and I were about the same age, I’m pretty sure while I got old, she did not. So she has the whole youth thing going for her.
Or Lou Slautterback, who can do promotion and motivation like nobody’s business. Lou knows every Franklin citizen who ever spent a day in elementary phys ed, and he knows every foot of street where someone might have ever wanted to buy a snow cone.
And every one of my candidates raised kids in Franklin, so they have that perspective as well. Oh, and the other thing they have in common is that I haven’t consulted any of them about tossing their names into the ring. This is a fun game anyone can play. Call someone and tell him or her to run for mayor today!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mistreating Employees

(News-Herald, December 2003) There are many reasons not to treat employees badly. I’m not talking about moral or ethical considerations. If a manager doesn’t already understand those ideas, it’s probably too late to educate him. I’m talking about practical, business functionality type reasons. Treating employees badly is bad business.
First, there’s the whipped dog principle. You can beat a dog into submission, but the dog that you train to cower before you will never give you a warm doggy welcome, is never going to rush to your aid of its own free will. Some day you’ll need it, and it won’t come. And if you’ve failed to crush every molecule of its spirit, someday it will find a way to bite you in the butt.
Managing your employees by breaking them simply gets you spiritless, miserable employees. This is a particularly large drawback if your business deals with people; I can always tell when I’m in a store that’s managed this way because the service is lousy.
Other bad management techniques have more subtle ill effects. These bad management techniques get one simple message across to employees—management can’t be trusted.
Maybe a manager makes clear through his actions that he has more important things to do than help employees do their jobs. Maybe he proves himself erratic and unreliable. Maybe he simply turns out to be a liar.
Employees will probably cut the manager some slack, even beyond the honeymoon period. They may view his decisions with a raised eyebrow or a questioning glance. But eventually, once he uses up his slack, things will change.
People will put up with a lot from someone that they believe means well. That’s one of the foundations of a functioning marriage. You know I’m committed to our future together and that I love you very much, so when I bring home the gas-powered wall-mounted deer-intestine stretcher, you find it annoying, but not a serious threat. And I know that you love me and want the best for us together forever, so when you yell at me for buying that monstrosity, I know that I may have to sleep on the couch, but this will still be my home.
But once that belief in the good intention is gone, the world looks different. If I no longer believe in your commitment, everything is suspect. If you want to pick out vegetables by yourself in the grocery store, I start wondering if you’re also cruising the yellow pages for a good divorce lawyer.
The same principle applies in the workplace. People who don’t believe that the boss wants what’s right become more difficult to manage.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I can believe my boss’s plan to achieve his noble goals is stupid; he can chew me out for what he feels is an error on my part. Those things can happen without my losing faith in his good intentions.
But once I no longer believe that my boss wants what’s right, once I stop giving him the benefit of the doubt, the whole work environment changes.
With the benefit of the doubt, employees back their boss’s plays. If a deadline suddenly requires extra effort, if plans fall through, if problems arise, employees just shrug, say, “Well, stuff happens” and pitch in.
But without the benefit of the doubt, employees start to scrutinize everything with suspicious eye, wondering if they’re being set up or stabbed in the back. Maybe the plan fell through because he wants an excuse to phase us out. Maybe that deadline requires extra work because he wants to teach us a lesson and put us in our place. Maybe it rained today because he’s trying to stop our picnic.
Hours are wasted on piddly complaints and what should be minor issues. Average bosses are simply annoyed by silly employee complaints. Really good bosses hear the real hurt and dismay behind those complaints. Really lousy bosses think that employee discontent is proof management is doing a good job.
Every little issue is perceived as a twitch on the trigger of a gun pointed straight at the employees. The workplace becomes tense, testy, cranky. Less gets done, and it gets done less well. It’s all well and good to tell people that they should stop feeling that way. You can tell someone hanging by his fingers from the side of a cliff to be more cheerful, too. But when people don’t feel safe, they don’t feel safe. You can’t order someone to have faith and trust.
Faith is reserved for God; imperfect humans are incapable of deserving it. What we have for each other is trust, which is lost or gained based on behavior, and once it’s gone from a workplace, it’s a long hard road to earn it again.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The New Year with Walt and Tila

(News-Herald, January 8) The down side of Christmas ’08 was that my son’s Hollywood bookstore job kept him from celebrating with my daughter and me. The up side was that my gift was a personally autographed copy of Tila Tequila’s book from a signing at his store.
Ms. Tequila is one of the new brand of celebrity, a young woman who has made herself famous simply by repeatedly insisting, via and other media, that she is famous. It’s emblematic of our age; if you simply insist repeatedly and loudly that you are the greatest waffle juggler in Montana, eventually many people will take your word for it.
I received this treat in person because daughter Barbara and I made the trek west to join up with son Thomas for some family holiday face time. Family holiday gatherings are always fraught, but I have the advantage of two children who love and like each other. And despite the jet lag, busy schedules, and time-squeeze pressure, we had one other secret weapon—Disneyland.
I’ve never been to any kingdom, Magic or otherwise. And like a good curmudgeon, I was fully prepared to poop on Walt’s party, to be unmoved by Disney, the great plasticizer of pop culture product. But I liked it. It was fun. And not just post-modern ironic I’m-too-cool-for-this fun (the kind of fun you have with Tila Tequila’s book).
I’m not going to shill for Disney—they have that covered. But I noticed several lessons that any operation interested in tourism (such as, say, the Oil Heritage Region) can learn from Disney operation.
Total commitment. Nothing in the Magic Kingdom is just good enough to get by. For example, one tiny part of one minor attraction, with a handful of questions, tells you which Disney character you resemble. It is a simple computer program that could be housed on a pedestal next to a water fountain, but Disney puts it in the Beast’s library, a fully realized set from floor to ceiling.
Point is, nobody decided to make something that sort of kind of suggests the idea of the library without trying too hard. It is easy in any job to define “done” as “whenever I’m tired of working on it.” That is not a definition that leads to success. A good excuse is not the same as a good result.
It’s a mistake to do things halfway. The successful festivals in the area (Applefest, First Night) succeed because a group of volunteers makes a commitment to do what it takes. The not-so-great festivals flounder because there’s nobody behind them making that kind of commitment (“Yeah, we can, uh, put a couple of codfish on a card table and call it Codfest”).
Give the people what they want. And not what you want to give them. One of the great banes of small town attractions is people who plan based on what they want people to want. (“So what if people don’t like codfish. They should, so we’re only putting codfish on the table.”)
Simple example: People invariably want to eat. That’s why the combination of Franklin On Ice and a chili competition made sense. Yet there are some local events at which people cannot get food. That’s a mistake. At Disneyland, there is always food.
Details matter. The attention at Disneyland is mind-boggling, right down to artistically coordinated shingle styles on the lovingly constructed faux buildings. Disney’s world may be fake and plastic, but the difference between a cheap cartoon and a real creation is attention to detail. Again, Applefest and First Night are models, with attention paid to getting the little things right. I have heard too many planning processes involving phrases like “Oh, I’m sure someone will take care of that. It will just work itself out.” This is never a good sign. (If you’re a church group, substituting “God” for “someone” doesn’t help.)
People matter. The people doing the work, that is. At Disneyland, every person I dealt with treated me like someone they were glad to see, even people who didn’t have to “notice” me. And local employers-- if employees are grumpy and treat customers poorly, the fault lies not with them, but with management. (Hint: threatening and belittling them will not improve their performance.)
Can Venangoland be Disneyland? Bradensburg Road in an ice storm makes a lousy thrill ride, and the County Commissioners will never pass for Mickey, Donald and Goofy. But we can always learn from people who do the job as well as Disney.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Making a Difference

(News-Herald, January 2) Resolution season often raises the question of futility. Not just the futility of changing our own nature (“I will climb off this couch and become an Olympic athlete”), but the futility of individual action. People may feel this year, because of one mess or another, that in the face of economic collapse and general governmental bollixation, there is nothing one person can do.
There is a standard uplifting shiny sweet answer to “What difference can one person make?” Big groups of people are made out of single individuals, and if just one person brings along just one more person, then it grows and grows and suddenly we can all hold hands and change the world together. Cue the violins.
It’s not that I think that notion is wrong, exactly. I just think it’s beside the point. To debate whether or not one person can make a difference is like debating whether or not a person is going to breathe.
If you are alive, you are making a difference. The question that matters is “What kind of difference are you making?”
Every day you make choices. Every choice you make has consequences. The fact that these consequences don’t alter the course of Civilization As We Know It does not make them any less real.
If you choose to shop at one place and not another, that has economic consequences. If you choose not to shop at all, or to shop with a bunch of money you don’t actually have, that has economic consequences, too. Whatever you choose to do with your money, it has consequences, both for you and for other people. I remain endlessly amazed at people who do not spend money in a local store or restaurant, but who complain when it closes.
It’s not just economics. Organizations throughout the area go begging for volunteers, for people to help out. There is this notion that sitting on the sidelines is a neutral act, that it doesn’t make a difference. That’s wrong. If you could have stepped up and you didn’t, you have made a difference, and not a positive one.
Circumstances put choices in our paths. Sometimes we had some control over the circumstances, and sometimes we find ourselves unexpectedly plunked down in the midst of them. But wherever we find ourselves standing, we are making a difference. We can’t help it. We just have to choose the difference that we make.
Choosing to wish really hard that we didn’t have to choose—well, that’s a choice, too. But if you have the power and skills necessary to deal with the situation in front of you, then the choice is yours. Saying, “Well, what difference could I make, anyway” is a cop-out. Circumstances and your own capabilities have determined that you will make a difference. What kind of difference is it going to be? If you can step up, you must step up.
In a way, I’m defining responsibility. Some people try to duck their responsibilities. Some try to trade them for responsibilities they don’t really have. Some can see their responsibilities, but pretend those mountains just can’t be climbed. “That would be hard,” they say. The world is filled with people who simply aren’t doing their jobs, and every one of them is making a difference. Just not a good one.
In the course of most days, you meet people, even just to walk past them. At each meeting, you will make a difference. If you smile and are pleasant, that makes a difference. If you are gruff and cold, that makes a difference. If you ignore the person and act as if he doesn’t exist, that makes a difference. It won’t alter the course of that person’s life, but it will affect how he views the world, his life, or you. You can’t avoid making a difference.
It’s possible that, living in the small environment of Venangoland, we make a proportionally larger difference than someone who is one among millions. I don’t know. But I do know that how we handle the circumstances and moments and people that we encounter makes a difference, whether we want it to or not, whether we believe it will or not.
It’s typical at resolution time to reach for something outside the normal, to add some new element to our lives (“This year I will definitely go hang gliding”). But I remain convinced that there is more than enough material and challenge in our daily lives to make for a year’s worth of new resolve and positive difference.

From my Flickr