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How APs Can Model Customer Service
Leadership Insights

Just for APs: Modeling Customer Service

By Terry Wilhelm June 10, 2014

I have devoted some of my past posts for assistant principals to the concept of respectful discipline and the art of modeling respectful discipline for teachers. Another crucial area for APs is the notion of modeling customer service.

‘I just have this belief that we are here to serve students and parents.’

I was reminded of the need for customer service skills in education by a colleague of mine who is an assistant principal. As she described handling end-of-year discipline issues, including several parents who were upset or dissatisfied, she said something like, “I just have this belief that we are here to serve [students and parents]. But sometimes a teacher will say something like, ‘I’ll call [the parent] back when I’m ready.'”

It’s a good idea for any professional to wait until she has her own emotions in hand before opening or re-opening a conversation with a parent who may be upset. However, the attitude my friend was referring to was more like, “The parent can just wait and simmer if they want to,” instead of demonstrating a willingness to engage in a two-way dialog with an unhappy parent and get back to them in a reasonably speedy time frame.

Customer service skills matter

While all administrators need to remember the challenges of being in a classroom with students day after day, it is also incumbent on us to model the best possible customer service. The very idea of customer service in public education may be foreign to staff members who appear to believe that students should always be obedient and never mess up and that parents should support us in whatever actions we take when educating their children.

Since there is no education Nirvana where these conditions exist, administrative leaders must balance their leadership with teachers in order to model respectful discipline and customer service while simultaneously helping teachers grow. A related issue is that some teachers will feel unsupported if the administrator does not unilaterally agree with them.

How should APs respond to teachers who give parents or students bad service?

I asked my colleague how she handles teachers who — like the teacher avoiding a conversation with an unhappy parent — do not provide good service to parents or students. She thought for a minute and said, “Usually, I just get really quiet.” This is an excellent response.

Sometimes, the echo of one’s own words — especially if they are less than appropriate —  is all a savvy person needs to realize that they are off base. The silence of the listener speaks volumes. It is also all but impossible to argue with silence. In her book Fierce Conversations, author Susan Scott says, “Let silence do the heavy lifting.”

A related strategy is cognitive questioning. Open-ended questions — especially those beginning with “what” or “how” — can push someone’s thinking. Coupled with intervals of silence, this can be highly effective.

And yes, sometimes we have to be direct when a staff member is failing to do the right thing with a student or parent. But if we can balance our leadership more often—stepping back instead of always stepping up, clarifying and questioning instead of always dictating — we can demonstrate our respect for teachers as well as students and parents and influence the growth of everyone involved.

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