The Blueberry Story has been around for over ten years now. Most educators have read or heard this story several times. I re-read it periodically to keep myself focused on the reason I keep doing what I do year after year. In the next week or so, most schools will be filled with children from very different backgrounds, some eager to learn and some not so eager. Some will be sad to return, missing the days of summer trips and Playstation. Others will be excited to return, knowing they will get a good meal and a safe place to be for a few hours of the day.
She jumped to her feet. “That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them all! Every one!
It is this time of year that weighs most heavily on a teacher, at least for me, for the burden is heavy. A good education is vital to not only individual success but for the strength of our country and our world. People in the US know that public schools are open to all students but few really understand what that truly means. In my classroom I can have the daughter of a millionaire, sitting by a homeless boy, across from a girl that struggles to read. Yes, it has happened. And, as a teacher, it is my job to meet each one of those student's individual needs along with the thirty other kids in the class. Each one with a different story and different issues.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” (Ian Maclaren). When students walk through my door for the first time, I don't know what battles they are fighting or what they have already been through. Part of what a teacher does is build relationships with each student no matter how difficult the student may be.
As the new year begins, keep in mind the huge task that lies before each teacher. Teachers fight a hard battle everyday to meet students where they are and take them farther than they ever thought possible. And to the parents of those students be patient with teachers for “every teacher is a real person with a real life full of real concerns and needs” (Sanders).
I'm thankful for all the “blueberries” that walk in the school door. They aren't perfect, some are more tattered than others. It is my hope that each one will walk out the door just a little bit better than when they arrived because of something I did. It's not a business – It's teaching. And that's just what teachers do.
The Blueberry Story:
The teacher gives the businessman a lesson
“If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!”
I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of inservice. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.
I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that had become famous in the middle1980s when People magazine chose our blueberry as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”
I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society.” Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure, and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement!
In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced — equal parts ignorance and arrogance.
As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant. She was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran, high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.
She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”
I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, Ma’am.”
“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”
“Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.
“Premium ingredients?” she inquired.
“Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.
“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”
In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap…. I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.
“I send them back.”
She jumped to her feet. “That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”
In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!”
And so began my long transformation.
Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.
None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when, and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a post-industrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission, and active support of the surrounding community. For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.
Copyright 2011 Jamie Robert Vollmer
Sanders, Julie. Real moms praying for real teachers. The Mom Initiative http://www.themominitiative.com/2013/07/26/real-moms-praying-for-real-teachers/
The Blueberry Story first appeared in Education Week (Volume XXI, Number 25 · March 6, 2002) used with permission
The opinions above belong to Shelly Wilfong and are not the opinions of any school corporation.