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. 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.
NT: Or for publicity!
Baracy: Yeah. But I did this five years ago in Tempe and there wasn't a single newspaper article about it. We didn't seek a single article. But this is Scottsdale.
NT: What's the response been from parents?
Baracy: Those who have questioned this are those furthest away from our district. Those who've called to tell me I'm an idiot, I've called them back to explain the history and why we did it, and they seem to understand. The first thing they want to know is how many thousands of dollars did we spend on that?
NT: I'd like to know, myself. Because letterhead and business cards and those nice name plaques must have cost the district a pile of money.
Baracy: We actually saved $100,000 in administrative costs, and redirected those dollars to support teaching positions. We had high-paid administrative positions open that we decided not to fill, and we redirected the money to the classroom, which is why we did this -- to support the teachers and create a new culture that isn't a top-down bureaucracy.
NT: I wonder if the different subsets of children -- I mean "learners" -- won't start adopting new names. I see a future filled with prepubescent cheerleaders who want us to call them "life coaches," and stoners who want to be called "differently adjusted students of higher learning."
Baracy: No. Our purpose is to create a culture among our staff that creates a more nurturing, supportive environment for teachers, students and parents, one that provides better experiences for them. I'm not hung up on titles.
NT: Here's my favorite new title: "Transporter of Learners."
Baracy: Well, they aren't just bus drivers. Okay? When you were in school, they were the first person you saw in the morning when you went to school. They're transporting our most precious resource. There's nothing more precious than our children.
NT: Does this mean that the principal is no longer our pal?
Baracy: No. He is still your pal. We haven't gotten to renaming at the school level.
NT: So what's your new title?
Baracy: I'm still superintendent. Unless you've got a better suggestion for me.
NT: I wouldn't dare say. But I would sort of like a new title myself.
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Baracy: Yeah, okay. All right.
NT: I was thinking Omniscient and Sovereign Emperor of the Universe would be a good title to have. And according to your theory, it would lead to everyone eventually doing whatever the hell I want them to. Right?
Baracy: Well, my theory is this: When we place children in the center of our universe and allow people to take risks, it creates a culture where everyone is pulling in the same direction. People tell me that they see a difference. And people aren't afraid to tell me anything. I get e-mails and phone messages that tell me to take a flying leap, that I'm an idiot or all the other things they like to say. I hear a lot of that.