Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Why Don't They (Just) ____?: Dropping "Just" and Seeking to Understand

Asking As A Parent

With two school-age children of my own, I have often heard complaints among parents in the vein of "Why don't they just ____?," where "they" are the school, the teacher, the principal, etc. I myself have been guilty of these exasperations:
  • Why don't they just email us this information? 
  • Why don't they just put this on the school website? 
  • Why don't they just print this for us?
Working in a public school, though, I realize that the answers are often not so simple. It's not always a matter of "just."

Why don't they email? Probably time. Teachers don't have a whole marketing or communications department on their side. It is just them, doing it all, and chances are high that it's all alone and on top of all of their other core responsibilities.

Why don't they put this on the website? It could be time (see above). It could be that the school's web host was down. It could be a matter of who has editing access and if that person is available (see above regarding time).

Why don't they print out this form or that packet? It could be time (see above). There may be no paper allowance available or the toner is out and there is no budget for more. Or, the machine could be broken... yet again.

Is there room for improvement and should educators strive to improve? Of course! Always! But, as a parent, I try to regularly replace "just" with a little understanding.

Asking As An Educator

Parents aren't the only ones guilty of asking "just" questions. Working at a school, I will hear staff members similarly question, "Why don't they just ____?" about students and parents. For instance, while managing Chromebooks for our district's 1:1 implementation, questions arise such as the following:
  • Why don't they just charge their Chromebook at night?
  • Why don't they just write a better explanation about how they broke their Chromebook?
  • Why don't they just buy Chromebook insurance on the website?
Over the past four years of helping with Chromebooks, though, I have encountered circumstances that convince me that it is similarly not always a matter of "just." In fact, my recent experience with a parent crystallized this for me.

To provide some context, managing Chromebooks is a lot of work. Helping students and parents with Chromebook insurance is just one element of management and it alone causes extra work at the beginning of the school year while the purchasing window is open. The recommended method for families to purchase insurance is online; but, even with this self-service process, parents often call or email for help figuring out what information they should enter on the online form.

Why don't they know what to put on the form? Obviously, they don't live and breathe Chromebooks like those of us who manage them, and so it makes sense. It's tedious, but it is understandable.

If families don't use the online option, there's another layer of frustration since the paper form process causes an extra burden of work. We must still help with figuring out what information should be entered on the paper form. In addition, we must make copies of forms for the parent and the school, add notes to our online circulation system, package and mail forms and checks to the district, and double-check that submissions have been received and processed. So...

Why don't they buy Chromebook insurance on the website? Some families may not have wifi access at home. Some families may not have the ability to make online payments. Or, my recent experience opened my eyes to another reason I had not considered.

Asking Because Of A Parent

It started off with a phone call from the front office. There was a parent who wanted to purchase insurance and needed help. It was after my official workday was over and I was tired out, but I took a deep breath and explained the process and the fact that payment needed to be made by check. The parent did not have their checkbook with them and so we resolved to connect the next day.

By the end of the next day, I had long forgotten about the parent until the library door opened and in they walked with a checkbook in hand. Spotting the checkbook, I knew right away why they were there and so I went to get the paper insurance form and printout with the student's Chromebook information that I had set aside the day before due to the phone call.

I handed the paperwork to the parent and then they leaned in and whispered, "I can't read or write." It must have been clear that the words didn't fully register with me upon the first utterance and so they repeated, "I can't read or write."

Why didn't they buy Chromebook insurance on the website? Because they're illiterate.

After processing what this meant in terms of completing the transaction, I quickly shifted gears to help fill out as many of the paper form fields as possible, all while explaining what I was writing: Chromebook model, serial number, and so forth. For fields that required personal information, the parent was able to write in the basics that they've surely mastered to memory over the years.

The point that really made me pause, though, was when it came to the parent writing a check for payment. I pointed out the payee so that they could copy it. I confirmed which plan they wanted and specified the corresponding payment amount required. They wrote the numbers in the box on the check, and then they unfolded a scrap of paper from their wallet with a handwritten reference chart for how to write out numbers in word form: twenty, thirty, forty, etc.

The parent found the words that matched with the corresponding numbers and then copied them to the check. They clearly had their system to navigate through the world, and any previous feelings of impatience I had slunk away. 

I finished up the transaction with the parent and wrote down my contact information in case they had any further questions. Of course, now it is my own questions that keep bubbling up.
  • How did the parent learn about the option to purchase insurance? It sounded like the child had perhaps told them. Although, the parent also mentioned that their child is "not always the most responsible" and so it is necessary to remind them about things a lot.
  • How challenging might it be to rely on a child for decoding the written world while still parenting that child?
  • How many times do I not consider barriers to entry that may exist? As often as they are outside of my own experience. In this case, it took the parent making themself vulnerable to expand my awareness.
As I filed away a copy of the insurance registration paper form, I noted the two sets of handwriting: mine and that of the parent. When it came to filling out the form, I was helping them. But, as I picture the juxtaposition, I am left thinking of how the parent helped me. 

They reminded me about the importance of striking "just" from my questions and truly pausing to ask, "Why don't they ____?" 

If I am open to the full explanations for these questions, then perhaps I can make changes so that "they will ____." Or, in the least, I might at least understand why not.

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