The Blueberry Story: The teacher gives the businessman a lesson

Happy Teacher’s Day to teachers and support staff in all educational institutions in India!
On this occasion, I am reproducing this story with the author’s permission. (I have omitted the last paragraph in the original story since it is a comment on public schools in America.)

“If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!”

I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of inservice. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle1980s when People Magazine chose our blueberry as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society.” Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure, and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement!

In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced – equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant – she was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran, high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.

She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”

I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, Ma’am.”

“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”

“Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.

“Premium ingredients?” she inquired.

“Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap…. I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.

“I send them back.”

She jumped to her feet. “That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that,
Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”

In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!”

And so began my long transformation.

Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.

Jamie Robert Vollmer © 2011
Jamie Vollmer is a former business executive and attorney who now works to increase public support for  America’s public schools. His new book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone is available at www.jamievollmer.com

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9 thoughts on “The Blueberry Story: The teacher gives the businessman a lesson

  1. Nice, you have extracted probably the most powerful part of the speech and put it up as a post here. Nice Teachers’ Day tribute post 😀

  2. Having been on the other side from profession now moved over to activism, I can perfectly empathize with both the former ice cream maker and the sprightly “Yes, teacher.”
    Though one simply can’t perform the others’ functions, they certainly can complement each other in more than one way and this can work miracles too!

  3. Happy teachers day to you…:) great post…going to share it. So beautifully said…we dont send back our blueberries 🙂

  4. Thank you for this post.

    I agree with the teachers that we can’t and shouldn’t send back the students, but we still need an overhaul of our educational systems, and more importantly the teachers.

  5. Awed by that raised eyebrow, and the question that came with it! Right, he was dead meat, the moment she spoke in fact!

    What a beautiful message it shared too! Blueberries… all kinds, bring ’em on! 🙂
    Thank you too, for the kind wishes, this comes with 🙂 I love my blueberries too!

  6. Happy Teachers’ Day. Nice post. Loved reading. Why did you omit the last paragraph that commented about public schools in America. Since this was a “published comment” elsewhere, I think there is nothing wrong in publishing here – good or bad or indifference. (I live in USA and would like to read that comment.)

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