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Does Ms. Kleinhopper Really Run the School?

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April 27 is national Secretaries' Day, so I know it's boorish of me to sound a discordant note when everyone else will be sending floral tributes to the clerical staff or buying them lunches at tony restaurants. But I'm sick of all the phony self-deprecation about how none of us could ever be such a successful principal, director, or superintendent if not for some secretary's legendary typing ability, telephone skills, and flair for collating.

I've been guilty of this, some years even writing cutesy newspaper articles about how secretaries really run the world while we inept bosses mostly bide our time composing obtuse memorandums, unjamming mechanical staplers, and blinking with awed stupidity at our facsimile machines; all of us benignly awaiting the day that we might draw our annuities and retire to our decrepitudes somewhere in Florida.

Such hyperbole seemed funny and harmless to me, until I began to notice that many of the clerical personnel who circumscribe my professional life are beginning to actually believe their own press, resplendent in the attitude that what they do--and by what means and schedule they might accomplish it--is best determined by them without any nettlesome interference from us whose needs they're purportedly hired to serve.

Thus and lately, at various school districts where I work or consult, when asking for a report to be typed, a transcript copied, or a parent telephoned, I too often find myself groveling before the desk of some choleric Hazel, Betty, or Mabel, feigning deference as if I were an 8-year-old boy asking my mommy for a second piece of chocolate cake when I knew full well that I hadn't eaten all my peas-and-carrots.

How has this happened?

I think I know.

During the 1980's, various corruptions of the Deming Model were becoming popular with American managers at the very same time that the workforce was being fed a healthy dose of blue-collar romanticism, the latter best typified by that musical and cinematic anomaly, "Take This Job and Shove It.'' Amidst the confluence of these two happenstances, both employers and employees began confusing egalitarianism with insubordination.

As a result, the laudable idea of mutual respect and consideration between subordinates and superordinates has somehow become transmogrified into the perverse notion that secretaries can properly challenge the boss's prerogatives at their own pleasure and determination, thereby endowing themselves with an inalienable right to make ad hoc judgments about which of their duties they will or won't discharge.

This didn't happen over night. At first, the office Rubicon was whether or not a secretary had to brew the morning potable. A little thing, really, so that most of us gladly did battle with Mr. Coffee rather than Ms. Kleinhopper down at the reception desk. But the premise we ceded by such acquiescence isn't that making coffee for one's boss is somehow beneath human dignity. Instead, we granted credence to the egregious notion that Ms. Kleinhopper's time and contribution to the school district is just as valuable as our own.

It's not.

Ms. Kleinhopper might be able to type professional reports, but she certainly cannot compose them. She might be able to operate the machine with great facility, but there is a difference between developing policies and copying them. And while she might have great telephone presence, she still has no reason to call anyone except within the workaday parameters set forth by her superiors.

In effect, we've estranged Ms. Kleinhopper from the stark reality that she is there to assist us, not the other way around. She now sees her duties as a smorgasbord of tasks from which she can pick and choose with self-righteous impunity. She forgets that it's only personal industry and workplace congeniality that usually separate an expendable secretary from an ostensibly essential one. In short, Ms. Kleinhopper believes that she's indispensable.

I beg to differ.

Clerical skills are terminal abilities that tend to reach their asymptotic levels sometime during 11th-grade vocational classes. There are literally millions of reasonably intelligent people who can learn to operate word processors, run office machinery, and speak pleasantly into telephones. Ergo, even if one has 99th-percentile skills in the austere matters of office-keeping, he or she is still part of an elite of which there is nevertheless an abundance. If you don't believe me, just list Ms. Kleinhopper's position in the local newspaper and see what happens.

Undoubtedly, many secretaries labor for tyrannical men or women who relish subordinating their fellow human beings. And I'm as predisposed to gushing over a particularly dexterous, energetic, or clever secretary as might be the next person who regularly needs things typed, facsimiles made, or people called. But perpetuating the notion that Ms. Kleinhopper is really running the place is not so innocuous a myth as it might be cute.

Ideas have consequences, and one that is rife among our public is that somehow we managers are superfluous to the educational enterprise. People can walk into the school on any particular day and find that Ms. Kleinhopper has "everything'' firmly under control. Sick children are having their mommies called; teachers are getting their telephone messages; the Band-Aids are being doled. Our staff jokes about how she really runs the place. We gush with feigned agreement. Later, when the electorate are presented with school board candidates who promise to decimate our ranks, who will explain to them that it was all just a joke?

Not Ms. Kleinhopper.

Stephen G. Barone is an administrator and school psychologist for the School District of Platteville in southwestern Wisconsin. A freelance writer by avocation, he typed this manuscript without the help of his secretary who, he assures us, is not named Kleinhopper.

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