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Editorial: Out of the Office; How One Educator Keeps in Touch

There has been a national movement in recent years to bring to bear the insights and practices of the business world on reforming public education. The result has been mostly a disaster, as op-ed columnist Steve Nelson has pointed out a number of times, most recently in the Oct. 6 Sunday Valley News. However, a recent story by staff writer Alex Hanson got us to thinking about at least one innovation that could be profitably exported in the opposite direction — from school to office.

We refer to an Oct. 15 profile of Michael Lepene, associate principal of the Richmond Middle School in Hanover for the past six years, who makes it a point to keep in touch with students in a variety of ways, including by rolling his desk-on-wheels out into the hallways for a few hours each week.

While reading and answering emails on his laptop, Lepene chats with passing students about the normal stuff of everyday school life. On the day Hanson visited, the subject was what was on offer for lunch in the cafeteria.

In fact, the topic of conversation probably doesn’t matter as much as the fact that Lepene is in the thick of things, visible and available to both students and staff members. That kind of quotidian contact is invaluable: It gives students a chance to casually interact with an authority figure in a less formal and forbidding venue than the principal’s office; it keeps the administrator in contact with students, which is the reason most people go into education in the first place; and the hallways are probably the best place to keep a finger on a school’s pulse. As guidance counselor Liz McBain told Hanson, “It’s really a positive thing for him to be so visible within our school.”

For his part, Lepene points out that he didn’t “become an administrator because I wanted to get out of the classroom,” so staying in touch with kids is important to him personally.

Although education is fundamentally different from business in so many respects, it seems to us that there are valuable lessons here for anyone who is managing others. Getting out from behind the closed door of the corner office sometimes and working directly amid the people you supervise is a sure-fire way of demonstrating first, that you feel both their pain and their pride in their work; second, that you will not ask employees to do things you won’t do yourself; and third, that you are interested in knowing firsthand what’s going on in the workplace. Moreover, routine interaction is a great way to get to know those who work with you in their full human dimensions, knowledge that wise supervisors can put to good use in making all sorts of decisions.

Isolation is among the biggest risks managers and administrators of all sorts run and among the most damaging. Le-pene’s insight is to create routine conditions that make it easier to avoid.