There are some people in our country who claim that public schools have a monopoly on the educational market. I personally believe that nothing could be further from the truth.
Public schools are the primary means of educating students in the U.S. Despite this fact, the past decade has seen a significant increase in students attending private and charter schools or being homeschooled. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (a division of the U.S. Department of Education), the number of students enrolled in public school has dropped from 74% to 69% since 1999. Enrollment for charter schools and homeschooling has increased during this time, while private school enrollment has remained relatively flat.
There are many reasons why parents choose alternatives to public education. I truly believe that education is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Each schooling option has its benefits as well as drawbacks. But because the trend is headed away from public schooling, those of us who believe in its merit need to ask ourselves why this is the case.
Of the many reasons, one that I think is a factor is how parents feel they are treated in a public school. This is where the idea of customer service in a school comes in. Even though parents have options, some individuals in the system act as if they do not. Some teachers, principals, and support staff have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward parent concerns. This is a factor that schools can control to help reverse the trend of declining enrollment.
We probably need to start with the question, “Who is the ultimate customer in our schools?” Some might claim it is students. We are here first and foremost for the kids, right? There is partial truth to that claim, but most students are not the ones who decide where and how they are educated. This comes from their parents.
It is really the parents who are the “customers” in our schools. Our parents do a pretty incredible thing: Five days a week, they drop off their most valuable possession in the world. They leave their children with us for a large part of the day. Too often in schools, we take this decision for granted when it is really a pretty remarkable concept.
So as an institution, how do we honor this decision by treating our parents with the utmost respect? As public schools are not a monopoly, we shouldn’t act as such. We can learn a thing or two from the private sector in how to improve in this area.
Here are some ways we can offer better service to parents:
Listening: This one sounds so simple, but can be very hard. It really isn’t just listening that we need to do more, it’s how we listen. We need to listen to understand. In order to do this, we need to leave our preconceived ideas at the door, ask probing questions of our parents, and use paraphrasing and clarifying statements to make sure we are understanding. All of this takes time and practice, but think about how beneficial this is in the corporate world. We all know that when the drive-through employee reads our order back to us, we are more likely to get the correct food. It takes a little extra time and slows down the line, but pays for itself in not having to go back and manage a mistake later.
Communication: Customer service is about communication, but it’s really as much about proactive communication as it is anything else. As a teacher or principal, are positive phone calls home taking place at the start of the year? As office staff, are informational newsletters distributed to the parents? Is social media being used to its fullest potential to promote the good things the school is doing? One of the most common complaints I hear about schools from parents is that they didn’t receive any communication from the school about certain things. It’s hard for schools and teachers to communicate because there are so many options for how parents prefer this. Schoolwide systems work well, as do consistent timely communications that take place.
Problem Solving: When the time is appropriate, we need to work with parents to solve problems. This happens all the time in the corporate world—Taco Bell messed up my order, so they gave me a few coupons for some free tacos. This is kind of a silly example, but it’s the kind of spirit that we need to show in schools. How can we help to support our parents through tough decisions? How can we work together to solve problems instead of just giving one option and telling parents to take it or leave it?
This doesn’t mean that the customer is always right. As schools, we have policies, laws, and regulations that hinder our options. We must look out for the educational experience of all students and one student at the same time. There are times we lack the resources or time to ensure that we meet the needs of every student every minute of the day. But through communication, listening, and problem solving, we can serve our parents and students. And by thinking about customer service first, we can retain our customers and increase their satisfaction.
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