Rarely, but always surprisingly, a reader of my blog asks me how they can read everything I’ve shared about a particular topic. (I bite my tongue not to ask, “Really? Why?”)
Yet rather than grill them why, or suggest that they have far too much loose time on their hands, this is what I do, by way of an example:
A few days back a fellow BAIPA (Bay Area Independent Publishers Assn) member asked me what I have in print about niching and niche publishing. Heavens, that’s mother’s milk—my primary niche!
So this morning I called up my current blog post, at Word Press, and I typed the word niche in the SEARCH box in the upper right corner of the post.
Up popped 17 related posts with that word (or derivations) in its title. Replacing my current post was one from 10/10/14, with the rest in line, one by one, below the first. (After 10 posts I had to hit the more link to reach 17.) Two titles struck me as particularly pertinent to her interests as I quickly read down, so I told her about them. (Alas, she would have discovered them anyway.)
I suspect the process is probably the same for other bloggers and writers who, frankly, pride aside, should, like me, be writing rather than listing—that or counting and spending their invisible blog royalties! But how can you turn down a person wise enough to read your words?
I hope this helps if you are stuck by the affliction of need described. Or if you’re a writer slightly terror-stricken when being asked the same question. A helpful time-saver for all involved.
TREES AND KIDS
There is an unusual tree commonly known as the Chinese Bamboo Tree. It is real. Years ago I heard a speaker talk about it, using it to make a point. It stuck in my head. I even did some research to find out if the speaker was blowing smoke and made up the tree. He didn’t.
The story goes like this. You prepare the soil, pick the right spot, then plant the Chinese Bamboo Tree. You water it and wait. But you wait an entire year and nothing appears. No bud, no twig, nothing. So you keep watering and protecting the area and taking care of the future plant, and you wait some more. You wait another year and nothing still happens. Okay, you are a persistent person not prone to giving up, so you keep on watering. You water, check the soil, start talking to the ground, maybe even click your heels in some kind of growing dance you read about in the National Geographic. Another year passes and still no sign of growth.
It has been three years. Should you give up? Someone told you that it might take a while to really see the fruits of your efforts, so you keep on keeping on. More water, more talk, more dancing. The neighbors are wondering. And another year passes. No tree.
You now make a decision. If there is no tree on this date one year from now you will stop watering. Period. So you begin year number five with the same passion as day number one. You water, you wait. You keep watering and keep waiting. You water some more and then, could it be? Is it really? Yep, there it is, something sticking out of the dirt. You come back the next day and WOW it has really grown! In fact you come back each day for about six weeks and finally the Chinese Bamboo tree stops growing—but it is over 80 feet tall! Yes, 80 feet in six weeks! Well, not really. It is 80 feet in five years.
The point is simple. If you had given up for even the shortest period of time, there would be no tree. It took almost impossible persistence. The Chinese Bamboo tree is there for one reason and one reason only—because you never gave up on it.
When I talk to teachers at workshops or institutes I find one who teaches first grade and I ask that person to mentally think of a student who they wouldn’t mind see moving to another district. You get the drift, a student who is a real challenge. Let’s give the student a name. I’ll use my own name to be politically correct. The kid is named Jim. I ask the teacher if they ever had a student like Jim that they really worked hard with, tried every trick in the book, searched for new ways to meet the child’s learning needs, and so on, but still felt that at the end of the year that Jim had not learned. That Jim was still a challenge, and although he met the minimum standards to pass, he was not on the teacher’s list of proudest achievements. Most teachers usually agree that they have, or had, a Jim in their class.
Now we move to a second grade teacher and we pretend that they get Jim in the fall, work with him all year, watch their hair turn from brunette to shades of stressful gray, and by the end of the year feel they did their best, but it wasn’t good enough.
Now, for a minute, let’s talk about little Jimmy. He’s not in special ed. Jimmy is just a jerk. Don’t fall off your chair and gasp, “Did he call that kid a jerk?” I did, but not the jerk you are thinking of. My JERK is an acronym for Just Educationally Resistive Kid. He doesn’t have ADD or any other alphabetized condition. He just doesn’t like to learn and he resists it. He isn’t a bad kid or a troublemaker. “Jimmys” exist in all sizes and shapes and even come in girl forms.
Let’s jump to grade three. We have the same conversation all over again. Jim is passed on but he is a disappointment to every teacher so far, and they all worry that if things don’t turn around Jim could become a troublemaker or an academic disgrace.
Jim holds his own in grade four. No big changes. He surely doesn’t love school, but he isn’t failing anything. He exhibits no passion for anything at the schoolhouse. And no signs of any real change either.
Grade five. Jim has a new teacher and all the other teachers try to warn her that Jim is, well, how do we say it? Jim is special, but not special ed. He exists, but barely. He will continue to be a challenge, but he’s not a threat to safety. Jim is Jim. Try anything, but nothing will probably work. If you don’t believe me, ask all of his previous teachers.
At semester break the new teacher makes a comment about Jim at a teachers meeting. With anticipated sadness, everyone listens. Here is what she says…
“Jim is quite a writer. He turned in a couple of stories and I told him he was very creative. He is now writing a mystery story and it is good! And he’s also showing some talent in basketball. He’s really growing too. I love his passion to play ball and write. He seems to thrive on the success of his hook shot and his imagination. I really enjoy that kid.” Jim has arrived!
Was it the new teacher who pulled out Jim’s hidden talents and secret love for learning? Was it some biological change that caused Jim to mature and become a better learner, a more serious student? Was it his physical abilities that expanded his self-esteem and made it easier for him to write?
Maybe it was a little of all these things, but it was also what I call the Chinese Bamboo Factor. Every teacher Jim had since he entered school worked hard providing opportunities for Jim to learn, to grow, and to become. Every teacher watered, fertilized, and cared for Jim. Even when the year ended and they were sometimes glad to pass him on to another teacher, they still knew that they had done their best to give him the best.
Oh, by the way, my story could stop and start at any grade. And Jim could be Janet, and the teacher could be a he rather than a she. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is the Chinese Bamboo Factor—never, ever quit on a student. Even when you see no progress, it doesn’t mean that the kid isn’t processing something somehow somewhere.
One more thing, a big thing: the Chinese Bamboo Tree did start to grow very shortly after the seed was planted. The roots grew deep and strong for many years before there was any sign of a plant above ground. Sometimes that same thing happens with kids. They develop a foundation of learning. They learn to learn. They creep along doing the minimum, building their strengths (or finding them), and sometimes they just wait for the right combination of factors before they bloom. It may be the motivation of a certain teacher or a new found confidence or skill. It may be that all of a sudden “they get it” and learning becomes exciting. If we knew exactly what the formula was and how it worked for everyone, we could probably cure the ills of the world.
So what do we learn from the Chinese Bamboo Tree? I’d suggest the following:
* It takes patience to teach some, even most, kids.
* When you give up on a kid, you give up on a human being.
* Even when you don’t see progress, if you do your best, it is probably happening.
* If something doesn’t work with a kid, try something else—but never quit trying.
* Some of our best teaching doesn’t “break soil” until all conditions are right.
* When you think you are growing a tree, you may be growing a root.
* Strong roots support strong trees.
* Sometimes it takes a lot of patience to change a life.
Jim Burgett is a veteran educator, nationally recognized education speaker, and consultant. He was named the “Illinois Superintendent of the Year”by the American Association of School Administrators and “Administrator of the Year” by the Illinois Association for Educational Office Professionals. Burgett has received numerous honors and recognition for his leadership and skills as a motivator. Jim serves on many boards for the State of Illinois, various professional organizations, the Editorial Board for an educational publisher, and several community organizations. He is the recipient of the Award of Excellence from the Illinois State Board of Education, was named a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International, and was a finalist for Teacher of the Year in Illinois.
Education has been the cornerstone of his career. Jim has been a teacher of grades five through twelve and a principal of elementary, middle school, and high school. During his 38-year tenure, Jim has served as the Superintendent of the Elizabeth Community Unit School District, the River Ridge Community Unit School District, and the Highland Community Unit School District, all in Illinois. Jim retired from the Blue-Ribbon Highland District in 2004.
He has frequently published in professional journals, speaks across the country to a variety of organizations, and has keynoted most major educational conferences nationwide. Jim Burgett is known for his practical leadership. He consults many districts, leads strategic planning sessions, and has been a leader in such areas as school construction, administrative standards, and effective teaching strategies.
In addition to writing Teachers Change Lives 24/7, Jim’s most recent books are The Art of School Boarding: What Every School Board Member Needs to Know and The School Principal’s Toolbook. Burgett also co-authored Finding Middle Ground in K-12 Education with Brian Schwartz and both What Every Superintendent and Principal Needs to Know and The Perfect School with Jim Rosborg and Max McGee. Jim also wrote “How to Handle the Death of a Student, Faculty, or Staff Member” as part of the “Excellence in Education for Superintendents and Principals”report series.
Yesterday (12/17/14) our blog was titled “How to Gracefully Accept and Pre-Answer a Complaint.” It and today’s follow-up blog are based on Jim Burgett’s The School Principal’s Toolbook. (The same process was shared in Jim’s recent The Art of School Boarding where the same “what do I do with this complaint?” dilemma faces School Board members.)
In yesterday’s blog Burgett suggested the complaint recipient follow an acronym CALM. Key to the first response was the need to go to the appropriate level of the chain of command. That is where this blog’s acronym, PASS, picks up the procedure.
Principals usually have two choices when they are given a complaint. They answer it because it is appropriate to do so, or they gently hand it back (throwing the complaint) with a sense of direction and assistance rather than compassion and understanding. If the complaint belongs somewhere else then that is where it must go, with some redirection from you.
If you need to “throw” the complaint, there are also four steps and a helpful word to remember: PASS. Pass infers to pass it off, and that is what you will do in many situations.
PASS means: P-Point; A-Avoid; S-Share; S-Summarize
Point: To “point” means to defer or refer. This is the tricky part. It is where you explain the chain of command to those who pretend not to know there is one. (Who doesn’t know about the relationship between the boss and an employee? It’s similar to the directions given on an airplane—does anyone really need to be told how to fasten their seat belt?) You point the person to where they should go with the question or complaint. Yes, this is where they should have gone first and where they need to go now. Even if they tell you they don’t want to go there, won’t go there, or want to talk directly to the “head honcho,” you gently indicate that policy requires that the person closest to the situation should be contacted first. Only if the problem can’t be resolved do you climb the chain. You also point out that in most cases problems are resolved quickly when the chain of command is followed. If they refuse to follow your guidance, pause for a moment. We will cover that later.
Avoid: Avoiding is very important. Avoid any promise of action. Avoid any assurance that you understand the issue. (In almost all cases, you can’t understand when you only hear half of the problem.) And avoid a repeat of this situation by making it clear that the chain is the proper approach. Again, if they adamantly refuse to follow the chain, hold on for a moment.
Share: “Share” means to briefly share your role, your position in the chain of command, and your reliance on the system to function as designed. I would always tell them that if they go through the chain and are still not satisfied then you will certainly be glad to talk to them about ways to handle their concern. In some cases you will send them to the assistant superintendent, or even the superintendent. When you go above your level, you always offer to help them make the contact. You become very helpful, but you do not solve the problems when they aren’t yours to solve. If you send them “down” the chain, and they refuse to go there, you offer to facilitate a meeting with all parties.
Summarize: The final S is for “summarize.” I like this part. If done well, it ends the conversation on a win-win. If you have thrown the complaint to someone in the chain of command, and explained the why appropriately, you have done your job well. If you need to discuss the complaint with the person, and you do it calmly and respectfully and with the intention of finding the facts before you offer potential solutions, you will have done your job well.
You aren’t quite done, though, when you have finished PASS. You need to email or call those involved. If you suggested the complainer contact a teacher, the superintendent, or another administrator, you need to report this conversation, even if you think it was resolved or was too minor to be reported.
Your upward chain of command is probably to the superintendent (or principal if you are on the building team) so if you feel they need to be aware of the situation, be sure to email them an FYI as well.
Remember, when dealing with criticism, have a plan. Remain CALM, know the PASS technique, when or where to use it, and always be fair and respectful. Golda Meir may have said it best, “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.”
This 8-point structure explained in the two blogs guides the outsider with questions or difficulties to their resolution. It is professional, positive, and it keeps the complainant and the system’s respondents “in the know” as the difficulties are met.
Whether you’re a school principal, publisher, engineer, or whatever, have you ever been swept off your feet by some windbag (sometimes well-meaning) bellowing one or many complaints at you? And then had to think up some positive (and intelligent) response, right on the spot, to at least level the one-person-shouting field so their problem could be sensibly resolved (or at least addressed)?
I found a much-needed pocket solution for almost any such assault when I edited Jim Burgett’s first-rate book, The School Principal’s Toolbook. (We published the book last month: Jim’s sixth.) And yes, we are kin: Jim is my famous brother—and he is tactfully very smart! (Until I was saved by this approach, my system had been to move right into their face and talk twice as loud.)
Here’s his method for accepting complaints.
I define “complaint” to include a wayward comment, a concern, a jab, a flat-out inflammatory outburst, or anything in between. It may come at a meeting, at the Dollar Store, at church. It may happen any time or any place. Seldom do you have prep time so you need to be prepared 24/7.
Because School Board members also attract complaints at the odd moments, in my book The Art of School Boarding: What Every School Board Member Needs to Know I outline how those members should accept (receive) a complaint, then how to respond to it (throw it back) [Read my blog tomorrow (12/18/14) about how to respond]. [The process is] equally applicable to principals and other leaders so let me share [it] here through an acronym that should help you remember the steps used to catch (receive) the complaint.
The acronym is CALM: C-Compliment; A-Ask; L-Listen; M-Mimic
Compliment: The first step is to compliment the complainer! No matter how irritated they may be, or you may get, remember to compliment them. “Thanks for your interest in the school.” “I appreciate your concern.” “You have been a long-time supporter of the district, and that is appreciated.” Get your compliment in to set the stage for what follows, always thinking of the word CALM. It will help you stay calm as you go through the steps. The compliment at the beginning may be the easiest step, and it is a way to focus your attitude, and theirs, in a positive direction. It may be very hard to do. You may only be able to say something like, “I understand it may be hard to share your concerns, but I am grateful that you are speaking directly to me.”
Ask: As they discuss their concern, you will probably need to stop them and ask some questions. Your first question may involve the chain-of-command issue. With the building leader this is often the first question as well. Let’s say the citizen is complaining about a discipline issue that they think was unjust. Let’s assume the disciplinary action was administered by a teacher, like having the child miss a recess for not turning in an assignment. After complimenting them, I would briefly listen to the initial complaint, then stop them and ask, “What did Nick’s teacher say to you when you asked her about this issue?”
Do you see the direction I am suggesting? I am assuming the parent knows the proper chain of command and assuming she went there first. This is a much better approach than a back- sided reprimand such as, “You did talk to Nick’s teacher about this, didn’t you?” My first statement is factual and should not provoke controversy. My second statement is a put-down, with the assumption she didn’t follow the chain of command. If the parent comes back with a sharp statement like, “No way am I going to talk to that teacher, we had her before when Sarah was in her class, and she was a pain then!”
Then you ask a follow-up chain-of-command question: “Okay, if you didn’t talk to the teacher, then what did the assistant principal (or athletic director) say when you shared this concern with him/her?” Again, you are not offering judgment, just asking, what did you do about this issue before coming to me? Obviously, if you are the next person in the chain of command, this question is inappropriate.
Listen: Even if you want to defend the school, the teacher, the administration, or the nature of the beast in general, don’t. Just listen with all the listening skills you can muster. Eye contact, no nodding because that might be construed as agreement, just maybe a comment if you need clarification. “Who is the person you just mentioned?” “When did you say this happened?” Questions should be asked only if you need more information when you indeed share this conversation, which you will, in most cases, even though the complainer will not expect that to happen.
Mimic: The last step in CALM is to mimic, or paraphrase. This is the final step before you begin to handle, or “throw,” the complaint. Paraphrase means to summarize the comments if they need it, and in most cases, even if they don’t. Here is an example: “Mary, let me see if I understand your concern clearly. Nick missed an assignment. You think it was his second or third missed assignment this term and Mrs. Hawken had Nick stay in during recess two days in a row to catch up with his missed assignment. You feel this is not an appropriate punishment. Do I understand your concern?” Expect the respondent to modify your summary, but keep to your plan. Stay CALM, don’t encourage or engage in further discussion, don’t agree, and unless you feel it is appropriate, don’t even say you understand her concern or frustration.
If you have successfully “caught” the complaint, here is what you have done: You (1) started the conversation on a positive note by sharing a compliment, (2) suggested that the chain of command needed to be followed, (3) patiently, without interruption, listened to the story, and (4) summarized what you heard with a short and concise paraphrase, with no agreement or editorial comment on your part. You have presented yourself professionally, positively, and with an attitude of concern. You also set up the next step by bringing the chain of command into the conversation. If you followed steps 1-4, calmly, you should be proud of yourself. It’s not always easy to do, and in many cases, it takes practice.
Tomorrow (12/18/14), let me share Jim Burgett’s four-step process of responding to a complaint. Both the means of acceptance and response work, sometimes with appropriate modifications to meet your topic or position. The best thing is that if you can remember them, you’re loaded and ready for the verbal mugging!
(1) “Ebooks have grown exponentially and reached a healthy balance by 11/14,” says Mark Coker, head of Smashwords in a no-nonsense delivery at BAIPA (Bay Area Independent Publishers Assn) on Nov. 8. Here is a much-abbreviated summary of Mark’s very enjoyable 10-point presentation. When Mark began Smashwords, about it 8 years ago, ebooks accounted for .5% of the books published. Today they are 35% of the U.S. total. But in the last year that growth has held steady at about 35%. That may represent a rough new balance between bound books and ebooks in the future.
(2) “The stigma of self-publishing is disappearing,” Mark feels. It’s no longer a sign of failure, a last resort, or a desperate “inch from evil.” The growth was led by romance writers, with Amanda Hawkins the pivotal figure, who first cracked the million-copy ebook threshold. “It’s best for all publishers if there’s a healthy selection of traditional and self-published books available for choice.” But Coker assured the audience that the indies have the flexibility to outsell, outcompete, and underprice the big traditional producers.
(3) Writers earn a much healthier bite of the royalties by indie publishing, 60-80% of the list price, versus about 25% net royalties (12-17% of the price) of the traditional houses.
(4) “The big (traditional houses) just don’t understand self-publishing.” They couldn’t make money from writers, so they had to fleece them. They turned to vanity press, like Author Solutions (bought by Penguin), and then give bad, over-priced service to those they otherwise wouldn’t let publish at the top level. “They should just abandon the vanity approach,” say Coker.
(5) The democratization of the publishing tools is what freed the indies from having to use the overpriced, underpaid, and tortugian-produced big-press book process. Indies today have full access to presses, have much freer and faster promotion venues, can change prices in minutes, and can play with pre-ordering, free copies, two-for-one, and many more means to put their printed products in others’ hands.
(6) “Keep your eye on the ebook subscription services,” Mark advised, “like Oyster and Scribd where anybody can pay $10 or so to read any book in their catalog—and those book publishers with the catalog products are paid as if the whole book was sold if a small percentage is actually read. Amazon also has a form of this through Kindle Unlimited but the model isn’t very friendly because you must give them exclusivity of use and Kindle pays a much smaller percentage from a pool, which seems to be about $1.50 a read.
(7) Mark discussed the new court decision between Amazon and Hachette. The decision revolves around the agency model. Let me pass on this because the decision is so new that the dust hasn’t cleared sufficiently to see who won, who lost, and how it will affect indies (like us). See future blogs here and elsewhere for emerging clarifications.
(8) Ebooks are going mobile. Lots of selling abroad. Apple iBooks sell 45% of their eproducts overseas.
(9) Mark got a laugh when he said that he had read that “self-publishing creates a tsunami of dreck.” He agreed that lots of self-publishing books are mediocre in appearance but he felt, overall, there is “more high quality content in books than ever before.”
(10) Yet selling books is getting harder. Now there’s a glut of high quality print and it is harder to reach readers. Add to that that the growth in books is outstripping the readership, and folks read less in part because of the many other was to learn and be entertained. There are fewer major publishers, fewer agents, and lower advances in the traditional arena. “But don’t despair: ebooks are immortal, they sit there waiting to be found forever. And right now there has never been a better time to publish, when there are more world readers than ever before.”
I must remind blog readers about an overlooked element of self-publishing that largely circumvents the usual paths but uses all the now-available presses—and can be pre-tested for title, author, theme, price, and format before a word is written or a page published. That is the niche field, which is always begging for more tightly-focused books and where the selling price is largely determined by how well the book answers one critical question or defines a new process (or an old process done in a new way). As many of you know, this is my area of specialization so let me send you to a list of related products that might help you explore this indie and traditional field.