Jamie Vollmer: Increasing Support for Schools

Jamie Vollmer, a now enthusiastic defender of public education. His presentations show the power of communities that value, support, and champion their local schools.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: February 09, 2023


SchoolCEO interviews Jamie Vollmer, a now enthusiastic defender of public education. A former business leader and skeptic of public schools, Vollmer turned into an advocate for educators and schools. His presentations show the power of communities that value, support, and champion their local schools. He provides practical advice and field-tested tools that educators and their allies can use to increase understanding, trust, and support for their schools.


Decades ago Jamie Vollmer’s career was transformed when he was invited to speak to a group of teachers. His three big assumptions about what is wrong with schools were turned upside down. The result of that presentation and Jamie’s willingness to change his mind is a lesson for everyone. Since that day Jamie has gone on to present and entertain tens of thousands of educators, board members, parents, and community leaders from coast to coast.

His enthusiastic defense of public education, educators, and superintendents has been praised. He is insistent and confident that schools cannot do it alone. In particular, Jamie provides insights that can help school leaders change the false narratives that persist about public education.

Toward the end of the episode, Jamie Vollmer presents two frameworks to help schools shift the conversation within their schools and in their communities: the first framework is “every day evidence” and the second is “The Five S’s.”

The Five S’s

  1. Stop
  2. Shift
  3. Share
  4. Sustain
  5. Start Now

We also discuss the importance of brand representation by teachers and staff, and cite SchoolCEO’s research from January 2022 on Who Speaks for Your Brand.

Learn more about Jamie Vollmer’s work and presentations here: https://www.jamievollmer.com/

Learn more about SchoolCEO’s work, magazine, podcast, and other resources here: https://www.schoolceo.com/


Intro Quote: Jamie Vollmer (Guest): And the beauty of this is, as you'll see, as I progress, there's a virtuous feedback loop. So you start getting some feedback, like, look, I saw this, I saw this, I saw this. The superintendent takes that. The staff starts sharing everyday evidence, not only inside their own social networks, but you start sending it to the governor. And then a really, really cool thing happens is that parents, concerned citizens, they get wind of this and they say, Send it to me, and then they start sending it to elected officials. And it's one thing for a politician to get a positive email about schools from the superintendent. It's a very different thing when they get it from a voter or a donor. And what happens is, over a period of time is at the risk of being simplistic, those everyday evidence emails start to ripple across the pond and they interact, and more people have something to talk about that's positive.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Welcome to SchoolCEO conversations, podcast. The goal of this show is to level the playing field for superintendents and other school leaders. If you're someone that is responsible for leading and taking control of how your community thinks and feels about your schools and district, this is the show for you. I'm your host, Tyler Vawser, and to that end, I sit down with leaders in education and authors and researchers in the private sector to discuss how to better market your schools. 

Based on SchoolCEO magazine, this podcast is dedicated to the practice of school marketing. Today's guest on SchoolCEO conversations is Jamie Volmer. Volmer is a former business leader and public education skeptic turned advocate and defender. In this conversation, he details his transformation, what he's learned from first hand experiences in schools, and he presents two practical frameworks that can empower communities to better support their schools with the help of leaders, staff, and teachers. Let's join the conversation.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): From Ice Cream Entrepreneur to Education Advocate

Tyler Vawser (Host): Thank you, Jamie, for joining SchoolCEO conversations. I'm excited to talk to you. I told you this before we started recording, but I heard about you and the Blueberry story a few months ago, and it was actually from a superintendent out of Michigan. And he told me, you know about the Blueberry story, right? And I said, Actually, I don't. And so just about 30 minutes after he told me that, looked it up on YouTube, started watching it, and later that day, we actually got drinks and we talked about it. And it was just such a great conversation. And I might be one of the last people in the K-12 space to know about that story, but I would love for you to tell the Blueberry story in a little bit. But before we get there, if you wouldn't mind just kind of telling the audience about who you are and your background, and then we'll get into the Blueberry story.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Sure. First, thanks for having me. Second, I got into this in a funny way. I have no credentials. After 33 years in this sector, I guess you could say I have my bona fides, but I have no credentials. I was running a small ice cream manufacturing company in my adopted state of Iowa, where I've lived for a long time now. And the short of it is we got famous. We're a little company in the middle of nowhere. But in 1984, People magazine, that fine research periodical, decided they needed to know what the best ice cream in America was. And they had a national competition and they chose our product, the Great Midwestern Ice Cream Company, best ice cream in America. And if you ever had any doubt that the media has a tendency to run in a herd, about a month and a half later, the Cleveland Plain Dealer said we were the best ice cream in America. We were only sold in one gourmet deli in the entire state of Ohio. But they found us and tried it. And so Cleveland said we were the best. And then that snowball started to roll. 

The Houston paper. The Seattle paper, the Harrisburg paper. We were in Time magazine, we were in Newsweek. We were on the Today show. President Reagan served it at the White House at a dinner. There was even an anatomy magazine that said we were the best ice cream in America. It's true. It's called playboy. And the result one of the results of all that press is that we got pretty well known in our state. And so at the time, the chief state school officer in Iowa, a man named Dr. William Lepley, fabulous educator, he was running the department. And he called me and he said, I'd like you to sit on this committee. I'm forming a group of businessmen and women together with top educational leaders called the Iowa Business and Education Roundtable. I'd like you to serve. And I said, well, Dr. Lepley, I'm very flattered. How many gallons would you like? Because usually people only called because they wanted free ice cream. And he said, no, you can bring it if you want, but I want your point of view. And you have to understand, at the time we're talking 1988, my oldest child was only two years old. So even though I'm a product of public schools, I had no kids in the system. And that made me susceptible. And I think this is relevant to our overall theme. It made me susceptible to what other people say about public schools. The popular media, professional journals, certainly politicians that every two years take out the pinata batten and beat the live and bee jeepers out of public schools. I was susceptible to all of that. And I had maybe even unknowingly incorporated certain fundamental assumptions about public education. 

So when I accepted his invitation, I told him, look, I think public schools need to change. They're not keeping up. We're not getting the kind of applicants for jobs we need. Secondly, I am persuaded that the people who work inside the system are the problem, that they're all hunkered down in a monopoly, they've got no incentive to change, they're hidebound by culture. And third, my third assumption was if they would just run it like a business, everything would be okay. So Dr. Lepley said, sure, come on. And so I went up for the first meeting. I'm sitting with men and women I've never met before and it turns out that I'm the token small business person. I ran a company with about 50 employees, but I'm sitting right next to David Heard who ran the Principal Financial group, which is the largest employer in the state. And John Deere was across the way and Maytag and Meredith and all these big shots. And they had flown in a consultant from the East Coast. And I looked and listened for about, I don't know, a couple of hours. And then I decided, well, this is pretty interesting. And so I went ahead and went to the second meeting because by the way, it was a two and a half hour drive from my house. And then I went to the third and it was pretty interesting. I mean, running an ice cream company was exciting and we got bigger and bigger and was it big rush for a while, but it was not intellectually stimulating. And we were talking about all kinds of interesting things, technologies in schools and the new assessment and it was just this fabulous learning curve. And after a while I found I'm raising my hand for subcommittees. The short of it is I become executive director of the Iowa Business Roundtable. I quit my job at the ice cream company after about 18 months of volunteer work, and now I have a platform from which to pontificate, and I do with a vengeance. 

Now, no educator wanted to hear me. I was just a bully with my three assumptions. But Chambers of commerce, economic development councils all across the state, I'm giving this speech the system needs to change. Those people are the problem and they would just do what we do and I'd get a standing ovation in every place. I mean, it was great, but I had to admit, at the end of a year, I really hadn't changed anything inside our schools, which was kind of the point.

So in the Christmas break we're coming up right now, we're coming up on the 32nd anniversary, the Christmas break of 1991. I get a call from a superintendent in western Iowa and he says, I'd love you to come and talk to my staff, do an in service. Tyler, I didn't even know what an in service was at that point. And I said, sure, I'll come do that. Now your listeners have to understand that superintendent must have hated his staff because I was just going to push him around and he wants me to come. He calls me at the Christmas break. He wants me to come first thing the first day back after the break. It was a late start, so the kids weren't coming until noon. So every single teacher, support staff, administrator would have had the entire morning to get kind of ready for the onslaught. But no, they have to come into the auditorium and listen to me. 

So I'm sitting there on this little high school stage, and every ten or 15 more teachers come into the room. The ambient temperature drops another 20 degrees. I mean, it's icy. Rage is filling this place. They're so angry. And the principal comes out, and he says, Good morning. And they kind of ignore him. Now, normally, the principal would have said good morning to get their attention. He ignores it. He says, this here is Mr. Volmer. He's come from a business group in the state capitol to tell us how to run our schools. And he walked off the stage.

I don't care. I'd given the talk before I knew what I was doing. So I get up to the mic and I start in, what's the matter with you people? You know, if I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn't be in business very long. Teachers, they all cloak themselves in tenure administrators. They shield themselves behind this monopolistic bureaucracy, and they and the board collude to use the rules and regulations that those hoodlums in the state capitol think up in the middle of the night to vex them. They use those rules and regulations as excuses. Listen, in business, we invented total quality management. We understand continuous improvement, zero defects. After about 15 minutes, how it starts is they all ignore me. The teachers are grading papers, they're chatting among themselves. But after 15 minutes, all pencils are down, and they're glaring at me. 

I get to the end of my talk. Forget applause. It's dead silent in that room. And I go to walk off the stage. I'm a tad intimidated, I guess. And there in the wings behind the curtain, the big red velvet curtain, is the superintendent who invited me. The chicken has not shown his face once, but he's looking out from behind the curtain. He's pointing at me. He's going. No. Go back. Q and A, Q and A. And I'd forgotten that I agreed to take questions. So I went back into the middle of the room to the podium, and as soon as I got there, a woman stood up. And I looked at her. She appeared to be pleasant. I thought, okay, I'll start with her. She'll be polite. 

I found out years later that she was a 27 year veteran high school English teacher who'd been laying in the bushes for me for about an hour. She starts out just as nice as you please. She says, Mr. Palmer, we understand you make good ice cream. Well, I was insufferable in those days. I said, Excuse me, ma'am, best ice cream in America. Thank you. Thank you very much. She said, yes, sir. Something tells me it's rich and smooth. I said, oh, it's a 15% butter fat, low overrun, overruns the amount of air that you whip into a product to make it cheap. This was very low, very dense. Oh, you're going to love it. She said yes, sir, I'm sure I will. She says, Let me ask you something tells me you use nothing but grade A ingredients. Your nuts, your berries, your flavorings. They must all. And Tyler, like a jerk, I interrupted her. I said, excuse me, ma'am. At the Great Midwestern Ice Cream Company. Our specification to the supplier. It's not a it's AAA. And a little smile shot across her face that I did not understand at the time. She said, yes, if you should be walking through your factory and you come out on your receiving dock and a shipment arrives, I don't know, a shipment of blueberries, and those blueberries are not up to your AAA standards, what do you do? And in the silence of that room, you could hear her trap snap. I knew I was dead meat, but I wasn't going to lie to her. I said, Ma'am, I would send them back. She springs to her feet, she shoves her finger towards me, and she says, that's right. You would send them back. We can never send back the blueberries our suppliers send us. We take them. Big, small, rich, poor, hungry, abused, brilliant, creative, curious, cautious, frightened, ADHD, juvenile, rheumatoid arthritis, english as their second language. We take them all, Mr. Volmer. And that's why it's not a business. It's school. Well, I would have gotten the point, but all 250 in the room jump to their feet and start yelling, yeah, blueberries, pal, blueberries. 

I left that day and I was down to two assumptions. Don't let anybody back you into a corner and start telling you how to run it like a business. What did she show in 90 seconds? Schools have no control over the quality of the raw material. They take what the parents send, and they ain't keeping anybody at home these days. The fact of the matter is, schools have no control over a constant and reliable revenue stream that is left to the vagaries of state politics. It's not a business. But I left there, and I had to admit she got me thinking. But she didn't say anything about my other assumptions, that the system needs to change or that the people inside were the problem. I don't know. It's been a long time. There must have been some secret mechanism, this is before the internet shows. There must have been some secret mechanism for superintendents to correspond instantly. I don't know. Tom toms or something, smoke rings. Because by the time I got home, I had a message waiting for me from a superintendent on the Mississippi River. A woman which, frankly, in those days was rare in the Midwest. A woman superintendent. And she says, mr. Palmer, we'd love you to come to our district. And I said, OK, I'll come give a she said, no, no, we've all heard this speech. We'd like you to come and spend a day with us. I said all right. She said, I have three conditions. First, dress down. You don't have to be in a suit and tie. Second, I don't want your secretary calling you. I don't want you calling your secretary. It's going to be as though you work in the building. And her third requirement was, once I arrive, I cannot leave.

So I showed up on the appointed day and first thing she made me do after she made me do bus duty at the elementary school good morning, good morning, good morning. First thing she made me do was be a teacher's aide in a third grade classroom. What does that mean for a six foot tall man? They're eight years old. It meant bending over and standing up and bending over and standing up and trying to convince the little spaced out boy at the window to come and join the group. Lunch bell rings. They all dutifully file out. I'm still feeling pretty good. And I said to the teacher, let me buy you lunch downtown. I'm going to give a speech in a couple of weeks to a chamber group. That joke will go right over their heads. She looks at me and she says, you know, we don't get out for lunch much around here. It's been arranged that you're going to dine in the building today. Where do you think they took me?

Tyler Vawser (Host): The cafeteria.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): I've been to the cafeteria dozens of times and it is always a life altering experience. But that's not where they took me. Take another guess.

Tyler Vawser (Host): The teacher's lounge.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): The teacher's lounge? This is not a pretty sight to the uninitiated. A bunch of grown ups using 15 to 20 minutes to inhale food, gossip and cut out paper wreaths, paper turkeys, paper pumpkins, not fine dining. So she has me doing playground duty during lunch, so I have to wolf down my food. I get out there, I supervise the playground and the last lunch bell rings. She takes me, this cruel woman that she was, by the arm. And she makes me be a teacher's aide in an 8th grade classroom for the afternoon. 

Now, if we were with a room full of teachers right now, everybody would have just groaned. And I will tell you that I will go to my grave with that smell in my nostrils. It was a warm Friday afternoon in May. Last bell rings. She picks me up. I hadn't stood on my feet for a whole day in decades, so the muscles behind my shin bones ache. The small on my back was killing me. My brain was dying for advil and caffeine and I would not have turned down a beaker full of gin. The point of this is that's when I lost my second assumption, nobody can spend, I don't think you can spend a full hour, let alone a full day, inside a public school and walk away and think the people working in the system are the problem. 

Everybody is dancing as fast as they can, and every single year we add more. Those people are not the problem. I still have my first assumption that the system needs to change, but not for the reasons that I once thought. And that's what puts me on the road Today trying to help school districts, administrators, teachers, support staff, their allies in the community, try to help them build a conversation with the broader public, the people of the district, about why they need to be engaged, why public education is important to everybody, whether you have children or not in school, and how we can build a grand coalition to create the schools that we need.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Both of those stories are so powerful, the blueberry story, but then your experience going into the school for a full day, I hadn't heard that before, so thank you for telling it. What I find really interesting about your journey and your story is that there's a transformation that takes place and it's through firsthand experience and that you're telling it publicly. It's pretty rare in the year 2022 that people are willing to change their minds on anything, but especially to put their own skin in the game and actually go to a place that will change their mind. Right. We're all willing to share opinions on things that we know something about and things that we know nothing about, but it's pretty rare that someone will say, you know what, let me show up and find out if I'm wrong. And I admire that, and I think it's one impressive that it happened at all, but especially that you've been willing to use that as a platform to educate other people who had the assumptions that you originally had and get them to see that it may not be exactly what they see.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Well, and let's give credit where it's due. If it weren't for that high school English teacher, I may have wiggled off the stage unscathed. But your point? In my presentations, I have worked very hard over the years to research, small r, anecdotes, lots of experience, lots of interviews. I've worked hard to come up with things that superintendents, principals and the like can do that cost no money, because I believe that we need to engage the people of the community. I want to make it clear, just as an aside, I'm not talking about this umbrella term community involvement. Actually, for the first five years of this career shift, that was my goal, increasing community involvement. And I know this marks me as a heretic in some quarters, but I honestly now think chasing community involvement in the proper definition of the term is a complete and total waste of time. It's not that we don't need the community involved. 

Americans are busy. They're dancing as fast as they can. It's hard to be involved. Let me be clear. We need parental involvement. We need all the parental involvement we can get. It is the number one indicator of student success. But this idea of community involvement, it's frustrating. It burns out administrators in the pursuit and in certain presentations that I've seen over the years, people who have created formal approaches to community involvement. I don't mean to be disparaging that they have their place, but they cost a lot of money. So my goal has always been to stand up and talk about things that folks can do that cost no money. They almost always cost a little time. I mean, we're trying to get something done. But one of the things out of my experience that you've just referenced is everybody knows what the employee of the month is. Well, I say we need to have a program in every school of the employer of the month and bring in an employer from the community to spend a day like mine, not some VIP walking tour where they wander around with their hands in their pocket and say, oh, computers, isn't that fascinating? I want them to do the work. I want them to see what it's like. Because while what you say is very true, the total regarding change, the total impact of a day in a public school in America, from those that are struggling with no money and all of the problems to these palaces, I was recently in a school district in Texas that just passed a $672,000,000 bond. Even there, the onslaught of challenges of problems, nobody can spend a day only the complete knuckle dragon neanderthal can spend a day in that environment and not walk away changed. 

So I have talked about many, many times from the stage, create an employer of the month. Obviously, there are safety issues these days that people have to do some due diligence, but bring them in, get them in, get them into the cafeteria. I mean, they'll walk away different people. They may not be your friend anymore, but they will walk away different people. And if you cycle enough of those opinion leaders and influencers over time, you're doing what is my core message. Cultivating allies, strengthening partnerships.

Tyler Vawser (Host): It's really interesting. This has come up quite a bit in the podcast when I'm talking with superintendents and others, which is everyone in America for the most part has an experience with public schools, right? Most students, most adults went through the American public system, and yet we don't actually know what it's like as we're adults, right? So you have this memory of what it was like when you were ten, when you were 15, when you were 1617. But one, things change, and two, we forget. And as adults, we don't remember exactly what it was like for the teacher unless we were one. And so I love what you're saying about just show up for a whole day, dress down, don't go on the VIP tour, but just be part of what's happening day to day in the life of a school. At SchoolCEO, we talk a lot about the idea that we want to help you market your schools, to change the way that people think and feel about your schools, but what's more powerful than actually experiencing it? So I really love that point that if you go and experience it, it will change how people think, and it probably will change how they feel as well.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Well, if your listeners can hear a smile in my voice, you've stumbled into a wheelhouse. I've created a term. So you have just described the experience of the vast majority of adults in America, and you said they don't remember. I have created a term, if I can be so bold. It's called nostesia. Nostesia. 50% nostalgia, 50%, Amnesia, nostesia. And the vast majority of adults in America suffer from Nosthesia. And they all think it used to be better if we could just have the schools we used to have around here, everything would be all right. Well, first of all, I always asked the follow up was, yeah, what year would that be, sir? And then they index through the decades, and you show them, for example, graduation rates have never been higher than now, so I shouldn't pick on I won't mention his name. I had some old boy and was actually in Way, western Nebraska, at a PTA event where I was invited to speak. And he gave me that line, if they just used to be when I if they were like they were when I went to school. And I said, when was that? He goes, oh, 1957. And I said, yes, I hear you there. I went to school back in the do you know what the dropout rate was in Western Nebraska in 1950s? It was approaching 50%. He said, oh, that can't be true. Everybody I graduated graduated, of course. Yeah, everybody I graduated with graduated. But that's it, as you suggest. There's a portion of which they forget, and there's a portion of which they burnish the experience through the lens of nostalgia that plays to my most troubling statistic. Tyler the thing that keeps me up is that in every single school district in America, the majority of the people who pay for the system have no children in school. And in most districts, that number is over 70%. Sometimes superintendents will say, well, we're really engaging our parents. Yeah, that's great. No kidding. That is fabulous. However, you're missing most of the people who pay your salary to put a fine on it.

Tyler Vawser (Host): I want to take a quick break to tell you about the next SchoolCEO conference happening on March 6 and 7th, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. This is a great opportunity to take some of what you're hearing right now and begin experiencing it with others. We love the content that we put out in the magazine and in our podcast, but it's nothing compared to experiencing great speakers firsthand and hearing them cover concepts like brand and culture and influence in an environment that's really dedicated to help you do your best learning. With no vendor booths, no crowds, no breakout sessions, you get the opportunity to hear directly from keynote speakers for over an entire day. And to do that with other school leaders that care deeply about shaping a culture within their schools, that help their teachers and staff do their best work, that want to see their brand as a school district improve and change the experience of their community members and their parents. And ultimately, what we want to help you do is do all of that so that you can reach the goals and the outcomes that you have for your students. We'd love to have you join. You can visit Schoolceo.com conference to learn more, and if you have questions, reach out. You can email me at tyler@schoolceo.com. And we'd love to see you in Memphis in March.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Of the threads that I just see you tying all this together, right? Are these false assumptions that we all have, right? I think the nostalgia is such a clever term. I think you should double down on that. That's brilliant. But yeah, people have this false assumption of what it was like even when they were there. Right. They're painting a glossier picture than it was. It's not tied to data, it's not tied to facts. They're kind of telling themselves their own stories. And that goes back to even your own three assumptions. Right? And I'm curious, what are the other assumptions that you've heard from audience members, especially people like that guy, who they have an assumption of what their experience was and what it's like today. What other false assumptions are you hearing?

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Most of the false assumptions spring from the truth. The reality that the relationship between schools and the economy was better, that your listeners don't need me to do a quick history. But we come out of the agricultural age in the one room schoolhouses. We go flying into the industrial age. The Committee of Ten in 1898 create the first Carnegie units and we begin to break everything into silos. And so because kids left school and got a job, many of them jobs good enough to raise a family, that is harder today. So there's a trick in there where they assume their schools must have been better, not recognizing that there's a disconnect that society, and particularly the economy, evolved more quickly than our schools. And a lot of it is, by the way, tied to nosthesia is the phrase, that ain't the way we do it round here. So that you have plenty of your listeners today have tried. To make systemic change and wound up having to brush off their resumes because the board said, simplistically, that ain't the way we do it round here. So they're caught your leaders, your listeners are caught between the need to move their schools forward into this new infotech economy and a society that is linked to a different mindset of what constitutes real school. Oh, that ain't real school. 

So that disconnect leads to the assumptions. The major one is schools were better SchoolCEO, did a better job at educating the young people. That is baloney. It's baloney. Our schools today are teaching more children in more subjects to higher levels in more creative and dynamic ways than ever before in the history of this country. 

But many of them are still ill prepared to find a place in the economy because it's just changed so quickly. So that your listeners can do everything that their state and federal legislatures have mandated that they do and still wind up behind the eight ball when it comes to preparing kids to succeed, many of the best educators work outside the system. They find ways around the obstacles to progress.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Yeah, I think that's a great point. I think a lot of times we get caught up in the current moment and think this is the first time, or it's different this time, and it rarely is. When you look back at history, there are surprises. That's what history is, a collection of the surprises. But in the day to day moment, we often forget that the day to day was about the same 20 or 30 years ago or even further back than that here's.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): One of my other tips is that when you talk to the people of your community, broadly speaking, I borrow from the world of marketing. There are three groups. 15% are early adopters. They're going with you no matter what you do. 15% are what I call the retros. They ain't changing. They ain't changing nothing. I've argued it's genetic. They don't even like as far as they've advanced in their own lives. It gives them the willies. But the 70% in the middle is persuadable. And so, again, some people say, Jamie, we really can't do this. Yes, you can. Don't spend any time on the 15% of the retros. You can't shut them out. You can't appear as though you're not listening. But let me tell you, you will not change their minds. You got to talk to the big group in the middle, and that's where the game is won or lost. The problem is that I recently read a book called Sapiens. I don't know if you've ever heard of it.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Sure, yeah, I'm familiar with it.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): It is a fantastic book. The history of human Homo sapiens. But the big takeaway for me, Tyler, was that of all the species on the planet, it appears that Homo sapiens even versus all the other Homo utupes, homo Neanderthal, Homo Denisovian, homo sapiens are the first to believe in a fiction, to tell a story, a made up story, and then believe it and then fight for it. And as a result of that, we identified tribes of people who believe the same fictions very powerful. And as a result, we are the preeminent species on the planet. So it's a good thing, but it has a downside. And Yuval Harari, the author of Sapien, said, actually, he echoed Plato, those who tell the story rule the society. 

So when you couple the vast majority of taxpayers having no kids in school and therefore being out of the loop and really don't understand the challenges or the miracle of public education, and you have people organized people some. With let's not go down that slippery slope, but some with motivations that are antidemocratic. You have those people bond together and tell a story. And what I will refer to as our tribe, those who support and believe in public schools don't tell the story, don't tell it enough, then what happens is the negative story dominates. And so that coalition has advanced these stories that suggest public education should no longer be supported in America.

Tyler Vawser (Host): The way that we think about that here is kind of what you were saying, kind of three groups, right? You have your advocates that are going to come along with you anyway. You have your detractors that are telling that false story. They're out there to get you. They're just waiting for you with a trap. And then you have the big majority, which is the neutrals. Right. And I think a lot of times we spend too much of our effort trying to change the detractors to neutrals. And when what we really need to do is take those that are neutrals and get them to become advocates, those people are willing to change, but they need that stronger story that you're describing. A story that tells them what you assumed to be true is not. And here is the truth in a way that you can hold on to. It ideally a story or a fact.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Right.

Tyler Vawser (Host): I love the example you gave about what schools were like in 1950s and the dropout rate. Nobody's thinking about that. That story is not being told and it's short, it's succinct, it's relatable, and it immediately changes your false assumption.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Yeah. And that middle group, the neutrals, as you describe them, they're also on a continuum from the advocates, tractors. So you're not going to get all of them, but all we need is some critical mass. Now, who does this? This is important and I'm glad you got me to think about it. The default, in my experience is that the superintendent, the principal, or if the school district is lucky enough to have one, the communications PR director and the superintendent and the principals are swimming. I mean, they're over their heads already. Yes. They go to the Rotary Club and give a presentation from time to time, the communications people get dumped on their desks, are just covered with stuff. Please do this, please respond to this. Please do this. The real power is in the broader staff in almost every school district. Listening to this podcast, your employees are the largest employee group in the county. And in that group is latent power. Power to tell the story, we need to energize, 

Besides the blueberry story, I am famous for what's called sometimes Jamie's List. So for 25 years, I'd be creating a list of all the things that have been added to the school year in the last century. Tyler, I started that list maybe in 94, 95, and it was an eight and a half by eleven trifold piece of paper. It all fit on that. Now, it is a ten and a half by 40 inch poster. And every year we add more every year we add more to the list of mandates. So it's a little bit hypocritical of Jamie to come in and say, yeah, I know you're busy, but it would be really good if you could help tell this story. So I start out with what I call the five S's. Now, I'm talking to all the staff, certified and classified, by the way, because the classified staff, bus drivers, custodians and arrest, they're very powerful in the community sometimes. That's right.

Tyler Vawser (Host): And before you get into The Five S's, just a note for our listeners. So a SchoolCEO magazine earlier in 2022 published our January edition, which focused on this topic of like, who speaks for your brand? And we reached out to 1600 school employees, from superintendents to teachers to classified staff. And what came back really surprised us, which is, of course, people look to the superintendent and the communications director to protect and promote the brand. But teachers felt a big responsibility for promoting the district. They even felt like it was important to them to know what the priorities are around messaging and brand for the school district. But the issue, and I think you're going to get to this, the issue was no one's training them, right, no one's telling them what to be communicating to the families. And of course, they have the red folders, they've got to talk about homework. And we don't want to add more to their list, but they are having those conversations with teachers, with each other teachers, but also with families and with students. And they're the ones that actually are representing the brand at scale because there are more teachers than superintendents or communication directors. And so we'll add that to the show notes just so people can read that study and some of the suggestions that came out of it. But I'd love to turn it back over to you and hear about the Five S's for staff, teachers and classified.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Well, thanks for that.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Before I get to The Five S's, then, on the topic of what do we talk about? Because that's often the case. The teachers say, I'm ready, I'm ready. What do I say? So there is an idea called everyday evidence of fill in the blank. Your school's, your district success. In fairness, this is not my idea. Superintendent, now retired, Mike Paskowitz from Michigan, first talked to me about this everyday evidence of your district's success and how it works. Is the superintendent or the principal, depending on how it's constructed, goes to the staff and says, look, I know you're all busy, but I really need you to help me here. I want you to be on the lookout for anything you see that's going right inside our school. 

Anything you see that you believe you can identify as going right inside one of our schools, on our district, whatever. And for heaven's sakes, it doesn't have to be hand of God, rainbows in the cloud, miracle events, small things. A janitor, a custodian helping a kindergartner find a lost shoe. A basketball coach organizing the girls basketball team to create Christmas baskets for senior center. A parent hugging a principal because it's the first herd child. The parent's child is the first child to graduate from high school. And the mother attributes it to this principal. Things that are small miracles that happen every single day by the dozens in every school. I'd really like it. If you see something, drop me a note, for heaven's sakes, don't send an essay. Teachers are notorious don't send an essay. Just send me a note saying, boy, you know, I saw this and it was really cool, fun. That's the first step of everyday evidence.

Then the superintendent or the principal takes that weeks group. And by the way, back to your advocates and my early adopters. We both know that not every teacher is going to respond, not every classified, but some will. And the beauty of this is, as you'll see, as I progress, there's a virtuous feedback loop. So you start getting some feedback, like, look, I saw this, I saw this, I saw this. The superintendent takes that. Now, I asked Mike, Mike, I cannot promote this if it takes 2 hours a week, nobody has the time. He said, no, once you get this down, it's like 30 minutes most. I said, fine. Once they get the batch of feedback, they pick one and they strip it from jargon. It's too much Jargon in our schools. They strip it of jargon. And then what the superintendent or the principal does is send it, create an email and send it to the governor of the state and every elected official that serves the district. Send it once a week in a blast. And then you could enhance it by asking a couple of questions like do you consider how your budgetary decisions will impact your local children?

The one I love is, when is the last time you or a member of your staff has stepped foot inside of a public school for a meaningful period of time. Those questions go every week with this week's everyday evidence of our success. Now, what's cool about this? And this speaks to what you really smartly raised, that they don't know what to say. They're eager, but without content. What the superintendent does is copy. This is important. Copy his email to the governor, to everybody on staff. So it's not as though he's jamming it down their throats. He's just saying, hey, here's what I sent to the governor today.

Tyler Vawser (Host): It's a nice little psychological twist that's really interesting.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Then what happens is the staff starts sharing everyday evidence, not only inside their own social networks, but they start sending it to the governor. And then a really cool thing happens is that parents, concerned citizens, they get wind of this and they say, Send it to me, and then they start sending it to elected officials. And it's one thing for a politician to get a positive email about schools from the superintendent. It's a very different thing when they get it from a voter or a donor. And what happens is, over a period of time is at the risk of being simplistic, those everyday evidence emails start to ripple across the pond and they interact and more people have something to talk about that's positive. It doesn't cost a dime, it takes a few minutes. And I said it's a virtuous cycle because people who were, let's say, blase about it or not interested at all, all of a sudden they want to be part of this game. This is cool. I may notice something that winds up going to the governor.

Tyler Vawser (Host): I also like that it's exclusive, right? You're doing something that unless you're on the list, you're not going to get it. And I think that's actually really like a breath of fresh air compared to social media, because social media is always there, it's always available. But being on an email or not being on an email gives it actually an added weight that I think makes it more intriguing, more interesting and more exclusive.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Yeah, I think the term in the change theory is it's sticky. It's a little sticky. So now you've got, again, I got to think of stuff that doesn't cost anything, that leverages the power that we have. And the staff has tremendous power. Everybody has a social network of various sizes, family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and everything can be shared within those and they all overlap.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): So then you get to the five S's, and this is the first S of my five S's is stop. And this is so important and I hope I've built up some goodwill with your listeners that they know I'm on their side. But the people working in our schools have to stop badmouthing one another in their schools, in public. This is so corrosive. The teacher who stands in the grocery store in the checkout line bashing another teacher or a principal, or worse, a kid spreads that negativity through that grocery store like a virus, and everybody within earshot catches it. And we're just human beings. What do we do? We go home and we repeat it. 

This is the perfect lose lose moment. We think less of that person. We think less of the schools. Now, I'm not asking teachers, I'm not asking paraprofessionals, I'm not asking school secretaries to be martyrs. Lord knows the job is hard. Sometimes you're just going to want to gripe. Fine, you have my permission. Gripe. But gripe to your spouse. That's why we have them. Keep it out of the public domain. That's the first s. The second s is shift. And this goes to the heart of everyday evidence. Shift your attention from the negative to the positive. Tyler this is the only thing I've learned about how the universe works. What you put your attention on grows stronger in your life. If you have staff members who start out at the beginning of the school year focusing on every little negative thing that goes on inside their building, their hallway, their classroom, their district, come May, June, the only thing that's changed in that person is that they are more negative. That's it.

Tyler Vawser (Host): That's right. Yeah. Jeffrey Collier, a superintendent in Michigan of Saginaw. He's the one that told me about the blueberry story. That's why we're talking today in his school district. They actually talk a lot about positive psychology, specifically the idea that you need to look for the positive. You're going to look for something anyway. So instead of looking for something bad, look for the good and highlight that and focus on that. And that's something that they work with their staff, both teachers and non teaching staff. But even I think it goes throughout the culture to students as well, which is, you're looking for the good, not trying to find what's bad.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Yeah, and talk about virtuous cycles. Neurophysiology has now kind of strengthened my hand, because neurophysiology now says, if you focus on the negative, you have less energy, you feel worse about yourself, your interpersonal relationships decline, you actually weaken your immune system. How that works, I have no idea. Focus on the positive. The immune system strengthens, you have more energy, you feel better about it, and all it is is a shift. And for anybody listening who works in a high school who would struggle to make the shift from the negative to the high school, find a buddy. Find a little positivity buddy who will help you. And if you can't find somebody in your building, look in the elementary school. That's where they all are. 

So the second I love it. The second s is shift. The third S is, for heaven's sakes, share these positive things that you see that you are aware of. The fourth S is, once you begin, sustain the effort. Keep it up. Ask yourself, maybe Sunday night, how many positive things did I say about my job, my building, my school? Maybe the answer is this week I said three things. Fine, no judgment. Maybe next week you go to four. And the final s is start now. For the reasons that you've indicated regarding the culture war that is going on inside our school, it is essential that we energize this movement towards telling the correct story. And here's the ace up our sleeve. We're not lying. Our story is the truth. The negative story is a lie.

Tyler Vawser (Host): That's right. When you've delivered those five S's, which thank you, I think those make a lot of sense. They're simple, they're easy to remember and they are impactful. When you've told staff and you've spoken in front of schools, those five S's, what questions do you get? What's the pushback? What are the parts that staff are excited about adopting? I'd love to hear you just talk about that before we wrap up.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Well, I think that the answer to that is first of all, they all get it. I mean, when I say stop badmouthing, oh, everybody starts nodding their heads, yes, they should stop badmouthing. And so there's a buy in right away. The notion that shifting your attention. I've been in environments where people say that's going to take some effort because they're inundated with negative news about the media, which after a while they start to buy. That's the biggest tragedy to me that there are people working in our schools who've bought the big lie that public education is a failure and needs to be abandoned. 

So in trying to be responsive, I guess I would say that they're still uncertain as to actually how to share the third S share. And so that creates a bigger discussion about I'm not asking you to stand out on the highway with a sign. I'm asking you to just begin to drop into your daily routine conversations. I'm not adding anything to Jamie's list. Just in the course of your conversation, drop in a couple of things that went right and whether it's with just your nuclear family or the person over the fence in your neighbor's yard, just start. You don't have to change the world.

There are so many of you. If you all did it, you would see a sea change in the feeling about public education in your community inside of a year. I've seen it. So those are the things it's like stepping out on the ice because if I bring up school, I'm going to hear all this negative stuff. That's what everybody wants to talk about. Fine, let the wave pass and then say, I see your point. I want to tell you about this that happened and don't expect it to change overnight. But again, it works because it feels good. I mean, that's really bottom line, it makes people feel good.

Tyler Vawser (Host): It's interesting around negative stories. I think it's a really easy way to find commonality with someone right you joked about the grocery line, but if you're in the grocery line and you turn to a stranger and you say, I can't believe how long this line is, right? You kind of make this connection. And there's a weird way that negativity can spread kind of a shared experience, and something that I've been practicing on my own is when there's something negative, especially around schools, right?

Tyler Vawser (Host): I have four kids, three of them are in school is when someone kind of tells a negative story. If I know them well enough, I'll ask this question at the end of it, which is like, what do you get from telling that story? What's in it for you when you share that? And it's a little bit aggressive, right. And I think what people the responses so far have been like, I don't know, it's just something I'd heard. It's like, I know, but you're telling me about it. What do you get out of it? And actually, I don't know. I'm just saying it. And so I think what you're talking about is start saying the positive stories. One, there is something to get out of that, which it helps the teacher's life. It makes our students lives better. It also means parents are going to be more engaged. 

They want to be associated with something good. But to start challenging the negative stories, which is, what are we actually getting out of this? What do you get out of gossip? What do you get out of talking about the same story that you've been telling for ten years about the good old days and how in 1950, it was better, right? What do we actually get out of that? And I think that bigger question can start to change the narrative in addition to what you're saying, which is challenging the false assumptions. Start sharing the positive stories and doing that kind of throughout the ladder from the everyday parent and everyday teacher up to the Governor's mansion.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Yeah, well, I think that in what I just saw are rooms and rooms full of teachers. Not the opening day remarks that I give, which are always big fun because everybody's up. But the times I'm invited to come in in the middle of the year, like now or at the end of the year, I see rooms and rooms of people who are pretty tired and beaten down. So I love it. I'm going to start doing what you just said, but you and I are in a different category. And so those advocates, my early adopters, they may step out on the ice and do that. 

The vast majority of the people who we want to actualize that potential, I don't want to speak for them, but I'm guessing they would say, yeah, I'm not going to do that. But they can let the wave pass and then say, okay, interesting. I want to tell you about something that happened in my building the other day or in my classroom, whatever, and just say that. Don't expect for converts overnight. But I just have too much anecdotal feedback. I mean, I'll give a presentation, and two months later I'll get a call from a principal who said, I didn't do anything you said except ask them to shift their attention. And there is a palpable change in the hallways of my building because we're doing this. Wow. And that alone. Hey, it's a start.

Tyler Vawser (Host): Yeah. Well, thank you, Jamie Volmer. I really appreciate your time. Thank you for telling the blueberry story again, but adding so much more to it. I, in particular, love the story of you spending a day in a school. I think that's something that, if every American adult could do, that would immediately change our conversations that we're having about public education.

Jamie Vollmer (Guest): Well, thanks so much for inviting me. It's been fun.

Tyler Vawser (Host): SchoolCEO magazine publishes original research, interviews and more in our quarterly magazine that's read by more than 15,000 school leaders. If you work in K-12 Leadership Administration or in Communications, we'd love to start mailing the magazine to you.

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