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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Turning Down the Job

Updated: Mar 5

Something about the jobs to be done framework has always rankled me. It's too transactional on its face to grasp the complexities of what we're selling at independent schools. I've written about how, in the school business, jobs-to-be-taught is often a more useful way of thinking about what we should be doing in school marketing. Lately, I've been reading the late anthropologist David Graeber's writing about bullshit jobs and thinking about NAIS Chief Innovation Officer Tim Fish's insistence that in strategic planning schools should be asking themselves not only what they're going to do to achieve their vision but also what they're not going to do or stop doing. I think of this as a jobs-to-turn-down codicil and believe that jobs that should have been turned down are one of the greatest producers of bullshit jobs. Accepting roles that the school can't hope to be good at, or worse, do not lie within the mission, or roles that a noisy but small subgroup want, or legacy programs that have jumped the shark but no one has the courage to dissolve, all of these become institutional zombies which require zombie wranglers, directionless jobs with salaries or a stipend, or jobs loaded onto an already overbusy employee.

You can find good examples of jobs that should have been turned down at schools that did not adequately set expectations as they built a new division. Invariably hamstrung, at least initially, by scale and expertise, new divisions should employ a radically conservative approach to the promises they make to beta families, that is, what jobs they accept. We've done projects at schools that, 15 years or more after starting a new division, struggle with enrollment because they accepted too many jobs, effectively allowed multiple constituencies to project their hopes and fantasies onto the blank canvas, many of which move rapidly from "wouldn't it be great if" to reality because school leaders are unwilling to say, sorry, we're not going to do that. These schools lack a core value proposition and are stretched so thin that they are forced into mediocre programmatic performance across the board.

Another common example lies on the other end of the novelty continuum: the legacy ninth grade program at a PreK - 9 school. A vestige of a time of stronger boarding school enrollment, the few 9th grade programs left at elementary/middle schools have unpredictable, unsustainable enrollments that put enormous strain on institutional resources. One head told me recently that the entire schedule of his otherwise robustly enrolled school was based on the 9th grade program, which contains 7 students this year.

Schools more often accept less dramatic, incremental bullshit jobs that, together, begin to have an outsized impact on human and financial resources and school culture. Online grade platforms, part of the great movement of transparency that has swept schools in the last 20 years, are a good example of this category of jobs-to-be-turned-down. Heightening anxiety and eroding trust among all constituencies that they touch, these tools have had the exact opposite effect from what was intended. One-to-one programs in elementary schools are another example. They saddled schools with enormous upfront and ongoing costs and burdened teachers with the implementation of a tool they soon saw had specious value in the education of young learners but had to continue using because of the investment, a decade long charade of pretending the emperor had clothes.

I think we're entering a time of assertion in independent schools, assertion of the school's expertise and purpose. We must be articulate in describing who we are and what we do, and just as articulate in describing what we are not and in fending off those who would impose their own narratives on our schools.

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