The Name Game

Hey, what's in a name?

Once upon a time, folks who kept their checkbooks balanced and hung up their clothes when they weren't wearing them were considered well organized. Today, these people are Obsessive Compulsives, the scourge of the nation, strapped into recovery programs and ridiculed on Maury Povich because they occasionally polish their shoes and take out the trash. Gone, apparently, are the days when people who wanted to drop 10 pounds of post-holiday fat were referred to as "dieters." Today, these people are Eating Disordered, a group that appears to include all persons who have ever eaten (or thought about eating) anything tasty that can be gotten from a drive-through window.

We are a generation of people who crave change, perhaps because craving anything else might get us slapped with an acronym implying a mental illness. While we are busy hiding our desire for neatness and a side of fries, our leaders are also busy, renaming our formerly benign activities, because calling something by a different name makes it better. Dr. John Baracy is one of those leaders. The Scottsdale School District superintendent has recently renamed each of the key positions in his office to reflect our changing times -- or, as Baracy insists, because bigger and better job titles bring about a bigger and better sense of pride in one's job.

And what receptionist wouldn't be proud to be known as the Director of First Impressions, which is what she's called in Baracy's office these days? Thanks to the superintendent's new program, the once-lowly bus driver is today called the Transporter of Learners, although probably not by the kids he schleps to and from school each day. And Baracy's assistant can't help but shine from under his new name: Executive Director for Elementary Schools and Excelling Teaching and Learning (although by the time he's finished rattling off this officious title, the dismissal bell will have rung).

Dr. John Baracy and the Woman Formerly Known As Receptionist.
Emily Piraino
Dr. John Baracy and the Woman Formerly Known As Receptionist.

Dr. Baracy may be on to something. The folks at Tempe Elementary School District are still using the similarly zany titles he gave them five years ago, during his tenure as superintendent of that agency. And Baracy displayed some kind of amazing word power when I visited him last week, to inquire about the magic of renaming things. Because although I enunciated clearly, none of his intelligent, upbeat answers seemed even remotely related to the questions I was asking. Perhaps my new title should be Executive Director of Profoundly Stupid Pretend Journalists, because I left more confused than I'd been before I arrived.

I went home and shampooed with Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific (I used to use Prell, but is a shampoo with such a short name really getting my hair clean?) and ate a muffin clotted with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter (because margarine seemed suddenly inadequate), and thought about what Baracy had told me. And here is what I came up with: Names are fleeting. Titles can empower us. And change is good. Especially when it justifies salary increases for oneself and one's employees.

New Times: I'm sure you've been asked this a lot lately, since you started renaming all of your staff members: Are you nuts?

Dr. John Baracy: Well, when I came to the district, everyone wanted to know who I was going to fire. I told them I planned to listen to the hopes, expectations and dreams of our community. A lot of parents were saying, "Dr. B, I left your district because I stood in line for 45 minutes waiting to be waited on." It became clear to me that we needed to provide better customer service. We needed to build a culture in the district that would value service more.

NT: How does changing titles help you to do that?

Baracy: The changing of the titles alone did nothing, and we never claimed it would. It's part of a process of changing the culture of our district. This is one step in a many-step process to make Scottsdale a district that places teachers and children in the center of our efforts.

NT: I don't know that changing the title of the receptionist translates as putting kids' needs first.

Baracy: [The new titles] make a statement about what we value internally in our culture, and helps build that culture in our district. Simple things, like the title Executive Director of Facilities for Learners, which sends a message to grounds persons that says, "You know what? Don't cut the grass at 12:30 in the afternoon when kids are studying. Cut it before or after school."

NT: What? How does that title send that message?

Baracy: Well, it changes the nature of the district office to one that's supportive to schools, as opposed to one that's directive. Now, the Director of First Impressions? She's not a director, but the title is symbolic for her. It makes her want to do more than just answer the phone or say hello.

NT: What if the employee doesn't like her new title?

Baracy: I'm told the Director of First Impressions has really embraced [her new title]. People tell us they see a new tone in how they're served. That's a good thing. The board approved [the name changes] unanimously. People think we made these changes for hyperbole or just to be cute.

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