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Do you consider yourself a loyal person?

As a marketer, I’m fascinated by the concept of loyalty.

Where does it come from?

Why is it so elusive that companies have entire departments dedicated to its cultivation?

How do schools, organizations, and institutions nurture it?

How do they inhibit it?

A few months ago, I crossed the threshold from being just a passive fan of my child’s school (KI Preschool in Brookline, MA) to a loyal fan when our family moved to a new neighborhood. Keeping my daughter in her school meant we’d need a second car, more frequent trips to the gas station, and approximately 80 extra minutes of travel daily.

Being that there are as many fine nursery school options where I live as there are fire hydrants, switching schools seemed like the most logical, convenient, and cost efficient option. But changing schools wasn’t even a question for us.

“Wow,” I thought to myself. “We’ve reached the holy grail of parent loyalty.”  

I decided to use our situation as a case study to figure out how this came to be. After reflecting and talking to other parents in the school, I realized that there are five things about this school that are keeping us and so many others there until graduation. And these factors are things any school can replicate to strengthen their school community’s loyalty.

1. They offer a Ritz Carlton experience (and it doesn’t cost a thing)

I was once fortunate to stay at the Ritz Carlton and the one thing that stood out to me actually never occurred anywhere else except at my daughter’s school. No matter which employee I passed or what their station was on the totem pole, each and every one of them stopped what they were doing, made eye contact, and smiled at me. The first couple of times it happened, I thought maybe the hotel is just good at hiring nice people. Then I realized that this practice was intentionally built into their culture. All employees even carry a credo card everywhere they go as a constant reminder of the cultural values.

Similarly, at my daughter’s school – every teacher, every assistant, the administrators, the custodian, and even the Rabbi of the adjacent synagogue all offer a smile. Every. Single. Time. Such a brilliant move that costs absolutely nothing and yet the value of indiscriminate smiles cannot be understated.

Why does this matter?

The intentional and ever-present smiling communicates something so vital to patrons.  It says: We don’t take you for granted. We know you have other options. Thank you for being here and entrusting your most precious belonging to us.

While indifference (or worse) might work in other industries, schools stand to gain so much by making sure everyone in their building does something so little. It also shows that your child is surrounded by happy people. And though it sounds so basic, who wouldn’t want that? (more on that later)

2. They practice radical candor

Triumphs, disappointments, new friendships, frenemies, trips to the bathroom – I hear about it all. There are no bombshells at parent-teacher meetings. Everything I hear is constructive, non-judgmental, and in real-time. Candor is not sugar coated, but it is thoughtful. I view communications with the teachers and the administration as one ongoing conversation that began two years ago when we first stepped foot in the school and will continue for another two years until graduation.

Why does this matter?

Some parents like lots of details. Some parents don’t really have time for it (and truthfully, how many teachers have time for it?) But practicing regular candor with kindness is a great way for teachers to show that this isn’t just a job for them. This means not only committing to get to know each student, but also helping the parents get to know their kids as well.

Think about it, children have entirely separate lives that they are living in school that parents aren’t really privy to. When teachers make an effort to bridge that gap, they are helping us parents strengthen our relationships with our kids. And that is something that I’ll always be grateful for.

3. There isn’t a stranger in sight

Building on the idea of smiling, there are other norms evident when we walk through the halls that I believe are deliberately part of the cultural design. One of them is that there are no strangers. Parents waiting at pickup introduce themselves. It’s just what is done. All the teachers (regardless of whether my daughter has been in their class) know my daughter’s name and my name and my husband’s name and my infant’s name. I’ve even been introduced to prospective parents who are receiving a tour. Once you walk in through the door, you are no longer a stranger.

Why does this matter?

When you think of the paradigm for belonging, what do you think of?

I think of the show Cheers. Remember the theme song? “Sometimes you wanna go…where everybody knows your name…and they’re always glad you came.” Schools that have that special something all have this. That feeling that this place is not complete without you. It might be fun and worthwhile to try an experiment: treat every single person you encounter in the school as if the school is named after them. This is the super glue that keeps people committed.

4. The teachers seem happy to come to work every day.

We never really know what goes on in people’s minds, but I do know one thing… In the two years that we’ve been part of this school, I never witnessed what I used to think was a given in every school – whispering.

You know the scene. You pass by someone who is clearly upset and whispering to someone else and you have to quickly shuffle past so it doesn’t seem like you are eavesdropping on their private conversation that is being conducted in a public place. #Awkward. In my opinion, whispering is the smoke that signifies a conflagration of staff dissatisfaction.

Why does this matter?

I recently saw an ad for a restaurant that said: “Our secret ingredient? Happy chefs.” It then went on to talk about the fact that their food tastes so good because they treat their employees so well. I believe in this so much and I think the same goes for schools. Happy teachers equal happy students. Schools that go the extra mile to put their people first are the ones to hang on to because you know they’ll cherish your kids.

5. The teachers model an appreciation for lifelong learning

Just yesterday, my daughter grabbed one of my husband’s old pathology textbooks from medical school. For some reason, she got the idea in her head to bring it to school. She ran into the classroom where the teachers were sitting on the floor reading stories and proudly handed one of the teachers the textbook. “Could you read this to me?” she asked.

“Some light reading!” the teacher replied with a laugh. “I’ve been wanting to learn more about how the body works.”

I was so appreciative because I knew that in that moment, they validated my daughter’s curiosity and desire to learn. They could have easily shot down her request with something as gentle as “Why don’t you give that back to mommy and we’ll read something else?”  

But they didn’t.

They weren’t too precious about what is acceptable to read and they were able to roll with the punches because they are confident about their craft. I think that confidence comes from the numerous professional development workshops that take place throughout the year. The teachers are always learning and growing and it’s evident in the space they give my child to learn, explore, and grow.

Why does this matter?

One of the more terrifying things I find about parenting is that the most subtle responses can concretize a child’s disposition toward something for better or worse for the rest of their life. Teachers who nurture their own learning are able to advertently and inadvertently communicate to students the kind of outlook that promotes confidence, reflection, curiosity, and growth.

To conclude, I often hear from schools (including the one written about in this post!) how they wish they had more money for marketing. And that’s totally valid! It does cost money to get the word out about how awesome your school is (though it doesn’t have to cost a whole lot). However, as essential as marketing is to bring in new students and families, keeping the students and families already enrolled is a thousand times more important.

What I hope my post has conveyed is that loyalty does not germinate in grand, expensive gestures. It’s in the small day-to-day moments and consistently thoughtful encounters that turn ambivalence into ambassadorship.

Donna Von Samek is the Creative Director at Prizmah:Center for Jewish Day Schools. She can be reached at donnav@prizmah.org.