Monday, July 31, 2006

the ash street inn revisited

Ellen and I are back at the Ash Street Inn in Manchester NH for an afternoon and evening before flying west to Buffalo NY and driving from there to Niagara-on-the-Lake for the Canadian segment of our vacation.

It seems a good moment to reflect further on what thoughtful service providers do to provide a welcoming environment for their clients, and what we might learn from such attitudes and actions as we prepare for the beginning of the coming school year.

What strikes me this time around is how thoroughly our innkeepers, Darlene and Eric, have not only anticipated our conscious needs but even some we weren't aware we had. There's the coffee & tea, cookies & fruit on the dining room counter, as I've indicated. But once we reach our second floor room, there's also a comfortable small work table with a soft but bright energy-saving fluorescent light, a collection of "Ash Street Inn" ball point pens in a small round wire-mesh container, an outlet right by the desk so that I can easily plug in my computer and get right to work.

Now it happens that today is the deadline for my 'authorization' of the writing project data we've entered this quarter about our programs and participants. It's no small matter, therefore, that this comfortable and quiet little 'business center' has been set up in this room for use by guests, and no small matter either that the Ash Street Inn is a wireless environment that makes access to the internet both speedy and uncomplicated. It's small touches like these that allow me to enter the needed information, and check the data that's already been entered, with time to spare before the early evening deadline, when this particular online information system closes down for keeps.

That's what I mean by anticipating the unanticipated needs of one's guests. My guess here is that Eric and Darlene have had a number of business travelers who've entered this B&B facing similar deadlines, coming with a deer-in-the-headlights look in their eyes, wondering how they could possibly meet these deadlines. They prepared their room 'accommodations,' that is, with these guests in mind. The result is one feels a sense of support, and welcome and encouragement, just as if one has been given an unexpected 'leg up' on an arduous climb.

Now wouldn't it be startling if this was the environment and this was the attitude that greeted us as we walked into our first day of school? You have critical deadlines to meet, right? How can we help you meet those deadlines? You're worried about teaching that 9th grade SDAIE class you've never taught before, yes? What can we do to make you feel supported, encouraged to face this class with a sense of eager anticipation? You've been assigned a disproportionate share of special needs students, students who failed this class last year, or just all-around trouble makers, perhaps because you have a reputation for being an effective teacher for such students. How can we help you manage these students, how can we help alleviate your sense that not everyone is pulling on their oars with the same effort that's expected of you?

As my last two examples might suggest, I think that fellow teachers, and especially veteran teachers, can do a lot to promote such a welcoming and supportive environment. Certainly it would take some special effort and some special school site based before-the-school-year investigations. Which of the relatively new teachers has been given particularly challenging teaching assignments? What students have you had that your colleagues will now have, and what can you tell them about teaching these students effectively? What resources for English Learners have you discovered at the school and district level -- both people and curriculum resources -- that one of your colleagues will benefit from learning about? Might you tell your colleague that that especially difficult class at that particularly difficult time of day is one that you have also taught, and that you have survived?

I remember discussing approaches and attitudes such as these when I was co-teaching a series of workshops for the Northern Nevada Writing Project, for which I served as university-based Director from 1983 to 1987. The question we kept asking ourselves is how much time we could afford to 'sacrifice' from the content of our grade level specific workshops in the teaching of writing at the elementary, middle and high school levels for such 'community-building' or 'maintenance' activities. The conclusion we reached, after several years of offering these five-session-only workshop series, was that we never allocated sufficient time for setting the 'climate' for the under-appreciated, wary and skeptical teachers who attended these workshops. My conclusion now is that we could have and should have devoted one quarter of our time -- all of the first three hour session and the beginning of second -- to the sole purpose of making sure these teachers felt welcome, to making sure they knew we understood and appreciated the work they were doing, to providing them with a quiet and comfortable desk, easy access to the internet, and a wire-mesh basket of pens reading "Northern Nevada Writing Project -- a small gift to you for the great job you're doing."

Honestly, would creating such a welcoming environment at your school be all that difficult? Wouldn't the pay-off in teacher productivity and collegiality more than compensate for the time and effort spent on helping to bring such a opening climate of enhanced expectations into being?


Laura said...

Methinks I hear the Voice of Experience again, as I'm thinking about these proposed two sessions of writing for teachers...each 5 meetings. The entire first and half the second would need be community building. (I'd like to email you the draft proposal for MP teachers writing workshops tomorrow for your comment.)
I don't think we can overdo that aspect with our students...go slow to go fast, well begun is half done - and all those other homilies - are statements of a true observation.
I was talking with a younger friend who is just going into teaching. She was perplexed this afternoon because she has to write a yearly plan for her first grade class and hasn't learned how to do that in teacher's college. As we talked I related that the community building, establishing routines and expectations, welcoming and getting acquainted was an invaluable foundation for the year. Consider it a unit for openers, part of the curriculum. Rapport. Even a year with some difficult students went better when I took the time to build the community in my classroom.

miz p said...

I find your idea here challenging as well as intriguing. At first I thought your message is mainly for principals and admin. But then it occurred to me that teachers have ownership of the school community as well. It's a new perspective to think about how we might plan to make our fellow colleagues feel welcome at the beginning of the year as well.