As a very young teacher, I was convinced that job interviews were opportunities for each party to communicate its needs and assets, for each to find its interlocking "fit." Thankfully, an early mentor disabused me of this folly. She said, when you interview for a job, your interviewers are mostly interested in discerning whether you would be someone they'd like to work with, and most people are quickly won over when you ask them about themselves and their experience at work, and when you reflect back what you have discerned about the place in your short visit. This distinction between communicating and relating is one of the most important things I have learned about how good schools work, at every level of the organization.
I'd like to say a little more here about this distinction as it appears in the enrollment process, as I believe that the ability to build relationships is the most important skill for enrollment professionals to possess, and that many enrollment offices mistake communicating for developing relationships.
This is not to say, however, that communicating with prospective families is unimportant. Prospective families expect our websites, print materials and other communication vehicles to convey accurate, up-to-date information about the school, and often generalize mistakes into an evaluation of just about everything at the school: "If they publish misspellings, just think what their accounting must look like!"
Nevertheless, prospective families come to our schools searching for an ideal version of the most important thing they can provide (outside of unconditional love) for the most important people in their lives. And even though some might describe a disturbingly linear imagining of their child's future (your school as necessary step to prestigious secondary school or college), may even have indoctrinated their child to parrot this vision of the future, good enrollment professionals know that a whole world of fear, hope, guilt, and fantasy lies behind the fun-house mirror of that disguise. A moment later, a next prospective parent arrives, the former's antithesis, wearing all of those same emotions as badges. Enrollment professionals must articulate artfully the mission of the school and how they see it brought to life, but mostly they must employ their very best empathy instincts to begin to know the child and the family, to build a relationship based on trust.
The tour is the part of the process where great enrollment professionals really shine. They treat this moment as an opportunity to come to know more deeply prospective students and families as they encounter the school in action. They craft each tour based on what they have already learned about the family and continue crafting it once in motion looking for moments when the prospective family see themselves reflected in the varied facets of the school. Schools that entrust this moment to volunteer current parents or to a rotating group of school administrators miss the opportunity to build the foundations of a relationship that we expect to continue for years to come. And, in those unfortunate circumstances when a student is not invited to attend, that same relationship provides the best hope for the school that that disappointed family will leave the process feeling fairly treated.
This relationship takes on another kind of critical importance when new families move into the school. At this moment, enrollment professionals receive their well-deserved reward, a halo status unique at the school: in the minds of each new family, the enrollment director will forever be associated with the warm relationship s/he built with the family and its consummation, that happy day when the acceptance letter arrived; the rest of us at school, conversely, have years ahead to avoid disappointing them. Schools are wise to take advantage of the enrollment director's halo status and build into their job descriptions the role of Chief Connector. This role often emerges naturally at elementary schools where the public face of the enrollment office is a single person and where parents are more present, but can be made even more effective with planning, and can be scaled up at larger schools with multiple people in the office. In practice, this means having your enrollment director present at daily community touch points and important events with the goal of checking in, following up on, keeping track of families as they move into and through their years at the school. Some enrollment professionals understandably see this kind of interaction as misleading to families who should be developing relationships with the teachers and division administrators, but I believe the enrollment director, the person at school who should be as deeply connected across all constituencies as the Head, can play concierge in these moments. This kind of caretaking serves as a critical retention effort, and by sharing family information discreetly with key colleagues like the Director of Development, the Head, the Division Directors, and the Director of Business, the Chief Connector makes it possible for the school to network efforts to help families.
I confess that I got the inspiration for this blog piece at a bar, namely the bar near Gate G11 at the Minneapolis St. Paul airport where each customer encounters his own iPad mounted on a little stand. The bartender who stood waiting just an arm's length away told me that I had to use it to order. I poked at the picture of a beer.
These circumstances ignited my grumpy Boomer sensibilities, my inner Homer Simpson. What's the world come to? How could Moe dispense his cockeyed wisdom at an iPad interface tavern? Could Bart still hack in to perpetrate his pranks? Is chatting up the bartender even a thing anymore?
At schools we're working on something with much greater import than cheeseburgers and idle chatter about baseball and the economy, but the iPad bar experience was a good reminder of how we must use every real interaction with prospective families as an opportunity to know and understand them.