How About Those School Secretaries

How about those school secretaries? Can I get a booyah!? The text below was printed in the Tuesday edition (4/21/2015) of the Superior Telegram. Here’s a link to the letter at their website, although it will probably disappear soon. This was written as an ode to my wife, who is a school secretary extraordinaire.  I’ll add more editorial comments at the bottom.


I'm the school secretary, what's your superpower?This week is Administrative Professional’s Week in the U.S. In the old days, it was known as National Secretaries Week. My particular interest lies with those who are administrative professionals at our schools, especially those within the School District of Superior.

What are some of the different jobs these people perform on a regular basis? Here’s a partial list:

• She (or it could be a he) is a public relations specialist when a parent has a complaint about a teacher or a policy or a school incident.

  • She performs triage when an ailing or injured student walks in the office and the school nurse is already occupied or otherwise unavailable.

• She is the security officer, deciding who is allowed past the locked front door and who isn’t.

  • She is the receptionist who first greets visitors after they enter the school.

• She’s the shrink who listens while students and colleagues pour out their troubles.

  • She assumes the role of the Public Information Officer when a journalist (or blogger) calls for information about an incident or for any other reason.

• She’s the social worker who keeps both eyes on the lookout for signs of a child in danger.

  • She’s the legal eagle who tries to protect students and staff by knowing who has which restraining order and who just got charged for drug possession or child neglect.

• She’s also the one who puts up with a multitude of crazy parents that think she’s not doing a good enough job raising their children for them.

  • She is the babysitter that parents take advantage of when they don’t pick their kids up from school in a timely manner. She often stays late because at least one kid is still sitting in her office waiting to be picked up, hours after school ended.

• She is the superhero who will be the human shield to protect your child from physical harm.

  • She’s the administrative support professional who doesn’t care if you call her a secretary; because if she had that kind of an ego, she never would have taken this job in the first place.

• You might have noticed that most of the items above are not typical duties of a secretary. You’d be right about, and yes, she does those normal support things as well.

She’s also the person who gets derided because she “gets the summers off, so how hard can that job be?” Then she bites her tongue rather than explaining that after going through 10 months of the activities on list above on a daily basis, that yes, a person needs some time to get her own head on straight and to fire up for the next 10 months of stress and lack of appreciation.

She’s also a mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and neighbor. Appreciation. Respect. Love. They deserve it, and then some.

End of letter to the editor


She’s also one of the school employees with the lowest compensation, both in salary and in total. I would never argue that the teachers and others at the school should be paid less, because they shouldn’t. I can argue strenuously that the administrative support personnel should be compensated more highly. Here are a few of my thoughts about their compensation:

  • My wife is a skilled restaurant manager and server. She could make as much money waiting tables three nights a week at a decent restaurant as she makes as a school secretary.
  • Her school district benefits have been stripped to the level where they no longer matter much, so again a server position with no benefits is pretty much at the same level.
  • Because she has time off in the summer, her cost of family health insurance benefits (which we can’t afford in the first place) would be higher than what her boss (the principal) would pay for family health insurance. Since she is not on the payroll at all during July, she (and other employees in similar positions) would have to pay the full cost of the health insurance premium for that month. For family coverage, that would be approximately $1,500 for that one month. So yes, the lowly-paid school secretary would pay $1,500 more annually for her health insurance than does the much more highly-paid school principal. Maybe this is moot since the cost of health insurance is so far out of bounds in the first place.
  • My wife has the skills to be employed in more highly compensated positions. That’s a good thing, because if I died or became unable to work, there is ZERO CHANCE that she could support herself and our kids on what she makes as a school secretary. She would have to quit the job that she loves in order to support her family. In other words, the only way that our family can afford for her to work as a school secretary is for my salary to subsidize the low pay offered by the school district. I wouldn’t care about that if they deserved her loyalty – but they don’t. Their actions about employee compensation speaks much more loudly than their words of faint praise.

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2012 – That’s a Wrap

Barry as a young brown manHere’s a look back at some of the things that immediately come to mind as I ponder about what was in 2012 and also take a look ahead at what might be in 2013.

2012 Flashback: As most of the people who would be reading this already know, I started a new job with Desire2Learn back in May, 2012. It’s been just over 7 months now, and I’m still very glad that I made the move to a corporate position after 27 years on the inside of higher ed.

2013 Flashforward: The company (D2L) is doing great. They treat employees exceptionally well, and the future is definitely very bright. I certainly hope that I continue to fit into their plans.  2013 Resolution: do my best to not screw up the great job that dropped into my lap. You can view some of my work at the Desire2Learn Community.

Gray wolf - not dead yet

Public Domain photo by Gary Kramer, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Sad memory of 2012: There are many to choose from, but I’ll go with this one: Minnesotans and Wisconsinites engaged in wolf hunts, with a majority of the wolf “trophies” being taken by leg traps. This previously endangered species was brought back from the edge of extinction so that they can be killed by humans, apparently. Next up? I think we’re seeing a few too many bald eagles around these days – better shoot ’em!

Happy memory of 2012: I developed a passion for growing vegetables, both indoors and out. Right now while it’s below zero (F) outside, I have tomatoes that are ripening in my little indoor greenhouse. I have both hydroponics and soil-based plants growing in what was formerly my tropical fish room. 2013 Resolution: Continue learning more about hydroponics gardening and successfully grow some of the exotic seeds that I am finding online.

2012 Flashback: As a result of taking the job at D2L, I am no longer pursuing any new business with Excellence in e-Education. In fact, the website is being deleted early in January, 2013, so I won’t even bother linking to it. I have saved all webinar recordings from 2011-12 here at barrydahl.com and will continue to make them available as long as possible. I enjoyed the time I spent being self-employed and we were getting by financially; but “getting by” and “putting three kids through college” are two very different things.

2013 Flashforward: I expect to have a slightly higher blogging profile at this site during 2013. Eliminating the Excellence site helps take one thing off my plate. 2013 Resolution: engage in more long posts and less 140-character posts when the long post is more appropriate.

2012 Flashback: A definite highlight of my year was a trip to Australia in September for the first annual Desire2Learn Asia-Pac Teaching and Learning Conference. This was my first trip to Australia and I was able to make the most of it by adding on a few personal days both before and after the conference in Melbourne. Spent two days driving the Great Ocean Road, went to a Footy game in Melbourne, spent two days in Hobart, Tasmania and visited the fine folks at UTAS, and then wrapped up with two days in Sidney.

Collage of photos from Australia trip in September 2012

2013 Flashforward: I’ll probably be travelling quite a bit in 2013 as well, but it’s unlikely that I’ll have the opportunity to go anywhere as exotic as Australia. Still, I generally enjoy travelling and plan to make the most of several trips by mixing in some personal days along with the work days. Currently looking forward to work-related travels to Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Illinois, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Colorado, California, South Carolina, and probably a few others that I don’t know about just yet.

What end-of-the-year list would be complete without those words/phrases that you would like to see banned? Here’s my list:

  1. Spot on (Ick. Incredibly pretentious. Just say “on the nosey!”)
  2. At the end of the day  (Can anyone sum up anything without using this phrase? What about the end of the week, the month, the season, or whatever?)
  3. No problem (this one’s for me – I’m going to try real hard to say “You’re welcome” after receiving thanks rather than this very stupid phrase.)
  4. Prolly (me again, gotta stop that.)
  5. All the rest of these were cute for about a day, but that was it:
    • chillaxin’
    • bromance
    • pwned
    • just sayin’
    • word
    • anything-izzle

This next one is more for me personally, since I’m more likely to accomplish something that I write down and/or declare to the world.

2012 Flashback: After returning from Australia, I took a chance on chiropractic care for the first time in my life. I was having periodic (and worsening) issues with my lower back and finally agreed to have it looked at. The x-rays showed that I have a deteriorating disc at the bottom of my spine, between L5 and S1, in particular. I have a couple of family members who are chiropractors, but still wasn’t sure that this would be the path to improvement. Turns out that it was exactly what I needed. It’s not as if the disc is miraculously growing back (it won’t), but I certainly am living with less pain these days.

2013 Flashforward: Between periodic adjustments, regular stretching, and use of my new inversion table; I plan to stand straighter and be less whiny. 2013 Resolution: I plan to visit the Y at least 100 times in 2013 for stretching and exercise, and to use the inversion table at least 100 times on other days. I’m a numbers person and highly competitive, so having a goal and a calendar taped to my mirror just might be the ticket. In case you haven’t heard this next little tidbit, let me assure you that getting old is indeed a pain in the backside.

Here’s my favorite video from 2012:

My top five (most viewed) posts on this site during 2012:

  1. Invite a Monkey to your Picnik (early review of photo editing site PicMonkey)
  2. ITC09 Grand Debate – a Real Con Job (3 year old post still gets lots of hits)
  3. Public Speaking as an Online Class
  4. Brainstorming a Learner Flexibility Rubric
  5. Fun Facts about the UAE

My personal favorite post from 2012: Replacement Teachers Coming Soon to Wisconsin

Hoping 2013 turns out to be lucky, not yucky, for all of us. As Gomer Pyle would say, “Best of luck to you and yours!”

Replacement Teachers Coming Soon to Wisconsin

Green Bay Packers fan and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker doesn’t hate all unions and union workers …

just when it comes to educating your kids and people working in most of the other public-sector jobs. Even he felt compelled to respond to all the guffaws on the Interwebz about his love for the union of football referees.

The Governor didn’t want Replacement Refs hurting his prospects for growing the number of jobs for people hawking Packers gear around the Cheese State.  Well Governor, if you think the Replacement Refs were bad for the state, just wait a few years and we’ll all start to see the impact of the Replacement Teachers in Wisconsin.

Replacement refs and the Green Bay Packers

We do need to be fair to the man. He isn’t against all public employee unions. He graciously spared the police and fire unions, as well as the State Patrol Troopers and Inspectors from his mighty sword.

But teachers and other education workers (low-life, scum, bottom of the public employee barrel) lost most of their collective bargaining power. In particular, his Budget Repair Bill limited “collective bargaining to the base pay rate.” There will be no bargaining over pensions, health insurance, or any other issues besides base pay.

On the bright side, Walker’s plan will save the state even more money than he envisioned. This is what is happening and will continue to happen:

  • Teachers and other people employed at educational institutions will leave their jobs for greener pastures.
    • I can hear many of you chanting in unison: “good riddance.”
    • You also say that you don’t believe this, that it’s made up of idle threats. Please read to the bottom.
  • Those who remain in their jobs will no longer use the employer-provided health insurance options – BECAUSE THEY CAN’T AFFORD TO.

There’s lots of people out there who say that public employees don’t need unions because they don’t need to be “protected” from their employers, which is the government in one form or another. Think again.

And I don’t give a damn about what FDR said back in 1937 about public service unions. This is 2012, and times are different. More to the point, politicians are different. There’s not an FDR in sight.

I’m sure that many are rolling their eyes and thinking that I’ve bought into the liberal talking points – hook, line, and sinker. Let me tell you why I believe this. To illustrate the point, let’s look at the health insurance “benefits” for the School District of Superior, Wisconsin, where I happen to live.

Before Walker’s axe fell, school district employees had annual health insurance deductibles set at $1,500 for a family. Drug co-pays were included whether you had hit the deductible max or not. Once the deductible was met, other health costs were shared on an 80 percent-20 percent co-insurance split, with a family paying up to maximum of $4,000 out-of-pocket in a given year. Those were the terms for the last contract that was collectively bargained, which ended June 30, 2012.

On July 1, the new “Employee Handbook” went into effect and changed the family deductible to $6,000 per year; and eliminated the drug co-pay provisions until that deductible of $6,000 has been incurred. Let me make sure that you understand what I’m saying. There is absolutely no payment by the insurance company on your behalf until you have paid the first $6,000 in health care costs incurred during the year out of your own pocket.

When you have a $6,000 deductible, all that you basically have is catastrophic care insurance. A reasonably healthy family of four that has normal health care needs during a year will likely end up somewhere in the $4,000 – 6,000 range (Note 1) for the total cost of health services consumed. Your health insurance won’t pay a dime for any of that. Almost makes you want to get really, really sick. (Note 2)

The school district announced that the changes in health insurance would save the district $1.5M each year. That savings is based on the assumption that all employees would continue to use the new health insurance if they were using the old. That assumption is very faulty. Many employees can no longer afford the insurance, thereby reducing the employer’s cost of premiums (fewer insured, fewer premiums paid to ins co.) and saving them even more money. So, sing hallelujah! The school district budget crisis has been solved, and then some! No pity needed for the employees who have seen their compensation package severely reduced – no pity since they are the scum of the earth. They deserved it, right?

Let’s also take a look at the societal cost of this “benefit” (quotes marks intentional). The cost of the family insurance premiums comes to a total of approximately $15,000 per year, paid jointly by the employer and employee  If you have $6,000 in health costs, then you have paid (and your employer, on your behalf) a total of $21,000 for $6,000 in health care.

No wonder the insurance companies love the Governor.

I wonder how many Tea Party supporters there are in the ranks of school employees?  I’ve met a few, so I know they’re out there. How do you like your Governor now? How terrible do you think collective bargaining is now? How much do you love your health insurance coverage?

(Note 1) I took the $3,470 average out-of-pocket health care costs for a family of four and inflated it to the estimated $4K-6K range based on the fact that they would have to pay more for drugs since co-pays wouldn’t kick in until after the deductible is met. How much more depends completely on the type of drugs needed, and on whether they would continue to purchase the drugs they NEED given that they are so expensive. One migraine sufferer told me directly that she would just have to go without her migraine-fighting medicine.

(Note 2) There is a second option for school district employees. Known as the “low-deductible” plan, you can get a more reasonable deductible and drug co-pays IF you have over $6,500 (teachers) or $7,500 (secretaries, for example) deducted from your salary. This “low-deductible” plan is even less affordable than the one mentioned above.

One last thought to chew on. Maybe you think that teachers are overpaid and under worked. You’re entitled to your opinion. This change also affects school secretaries, custodians, food service workers, and many other employees who make as little as $20K per year, before taxes and “benefits” deductions. If your take home pay is $14,000 a year, how easily can you afford $6,000 in out-of-pocket health care costs? I know, I know, it’s not your problem.

So, you’re right. Public employees do NOT need collective bargaining, because nothing bad could ever happen to them. Right?

Another Online Personal Calling Card

I recently took a look at Vizify – another of the many ways to have your profile available online.

Vizify personal page for Barry Dahl

It’s pretty interesting, although I can’t quite do everything with it that I would like to. Still, it has some promise. Click the graphic to view my page.

Desire2Work @ Desire2Learn

Let’s say you’ve been dating someone for 8 or 9 years. After all that time, you still get along really well. Maybe it’s time to tie the knot and make your relationship more permanent – or at least as “permanent” as those things can be.

Figuratively speaking, that’s what’s happening with my career in education. I recently signed a job offer sheet and all the other necessary paperwork to tie the knot with a company where I hope to spend the rest of my working years.

I’ve known some of the people in this company for nine years now. They are talented and driven and inspired. There are many other newer employees that I’ve haven’t yet met. I’m looking forward to meeting many of the newer folks during the next couple of months.

It will probably not come as a surprise to many people in the e-learning world that I’ve taken a job with Desire2Learn. I’ve told many people over the years that there was only one company that I’d dealt with while CIO of a college in Minnesota that I would be willing, even anxious, to work for. That company is D2L. Even after a nine year relationship, nothing has happened to change that point of view for me.

Almost every interaction with them has been pleasant, engaging, and positive. I consider many of the D2Lers to be friends of mine. The company is doing great and I look forward to being part of the team that continues to execute on their mission and vision.

John Baker and Barry Dahl at FUSION 2007

My connection with D2L started in the spring of 2003 when I was the chair of the the MnSCU IMS of the Future task force. Desire2Learn submitted a response to our RFP and was selected to be one of the four finalists for the process. In May 2003, I met John Baker and Jeremy Auger for the first time at St. Cloud State University for the day-long demonstration of the D2L platform. Their presentation that day, along with a superior written response to the RFP, elevated D2L to the top of the list of the platforms being considered. Other milestones:

  • My former college started using D2L in place of WebCT in 2004.logo for 2007 FUSION conference in Duluth, Minnesota
  • In 2006, I started Desire2Blog (which I shuttered last month – no new posts).
  • In 2007, we hosted the D2L FUSION Conference in Duluth.
  • In 2011, my job was eliminated at the college. John Baker told me “If you ever need a job …”
  • In April 2012, I signed an offer sheet to become a D2L employee.
  • May 9, 2012 will be my first day on the job as Senior Community Manager for D2L, Ltd.

Just a few quickies.

  • I am able to work as a remote employee so my family will not need to relocate. Major kudos to D2L for making these opportunities available. Most of my time will be spent in “the hole” (my basement (dungeon) office) and traveling. I will spend a few weeks each year at D2L headquarters in Kitchener.
  • Although I don’t start until 5/9, I’m already working on some ideas to create a whole new User Community experience for D2L clients and employees.
  • I will no longer be conducting business as Excellence in e-Education. I loved it, but I’m going to love this even more.

    Dinner with D2L friends in Denver for FUSION 2011

    CC-By photo: Terri-Lynn Brown

  • I’ve made so many friends over the years who are in the D2L user community, like those in the photo on the right from FUSION 2011. I’m thrilled that I’ll still have the opportunity to interact with all those friends and with the new friends that I’ll get to meet along the way. Yay!!

The Next Chapter – Sneak Preview

Fake magazine cover for Entrepreneur MagazineAfter leaving a job at a college in Minnesota, I’ve spent the past 16 months working as an independent contractor doing consulting, speaking engagements, webinars, and the like. It has been exhilarating, as long as that term equally applies to the highs and the lows that life sends our way.

Yep, lots of good things have happened. My network of educators around the country (and beyond) has really paid off as far as getting contracts from friends and from friends of friends. I’ve been able to do some really fun and fascinating work for a variety of clients. Much to my delight, I never was faced with the same project or task twice. Always something new, always more to learn, always the next challenge.

At the same time, it’s been a real roller coaster ride from a financial perspective. Overall, it was a definite reduction of the income with which we had grown accustomed. However, less income wasn’t the problem. Uncertainty about future income was a significant problem. I often talked about how I had a long list of “maybes” and how I needed a fair number of those maybes to turn into “yeses.” Sometimes a maybe turned into an actual contract for work to be done, but often times they didn’t. With three kids to put through college, the maybes really start to take a toll on you. “Maybe I’ll get that contract with XYZ College” quickly turns into “maybe I’ll be able to pay for my kids to go to college.”

When I told people about my adventure as a self-employed person working on the fringes of higher education, my standard line was something like this: “Being self-employed is a whole lot like being unemployed – just different paperwork.”

I’ve know for about the past year that I really wasn’t interested in trying to get another job at a college or university. I pretty much have a been-there, done-that feeling along those lines. 27 years working inside higher ed seems like enough, especially considering the uncertainty of those jobs going forward (I’m living proof of that). I was pretty sure that I wanted to always work in some way connected to higher ed, just not necessarily in the middle of it. That’s why the consulting gig was a good thing, but not perfect. That’s also why I think my next adventure will be totally awesome. I get to continue working in the education sector, I get to have a regular paycheck and other benefits, and I get to engage in totally new and exciting work with people that I genuinely like and admire.

Next week I’ll be ready to spill the beans about where this next chapter will be written and with whom. Until then, just know that this feels 100% right.

Thanks very much to my clients over the past 16 months; including Roane State CC, Minnesota State College – Southeast Technical, Broward College, MnSCU System Office, MnSCU 360 Program, Rowan-Cabarrus CC, TBR-ROCC, MCCVLC, all my webinar subscribers, and the many speaking engagements such as ELCC, Montana XLi, MODLA, WITC, SHOT, SC4, Gogebic CC, UW-Eau Claire, Davenport U, UW-Oshkosh, and many others.

Thanks very much to my mentors and references along the way: John, Kathy, Gary, Jowell, Myk, James, Lisa, and many more.

Thanks to my special colleagues, too numerous to mention, and too easy to leave some out. You know who you are (I hope!!).

This is starting to sound like an obit, which it most definitely is not. Just turning the page and moving on to the next chapter. Over the next month I’ll be wrapping up work on a couple of consulting projects  and a few speaking engagements, and then I’ll be starting a new adventure. Next week I’ll be ready to tell you about that adventure.

Say What You Mean

Seems like I’ve been allowing myself to get lathered up lately by people using words that don’t really mean what they’re supposed to mean. Our language is screwed up enough without us intentionally making it more so.

For example, I made a full post recently about how “Best Practices” is a terrible use of the word “best.” Even gotSign asks "what's in a name?" some feedback that said that it’s obvious that we don’t really mean “best,” but that it’s still the best way to get the point across. No, it isn’t! Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Then, the most recent post prior to this was about how ROI (return on investment) is used in all kinds of ways that don’t really match with what that term technically means. Sure, there’s no great harm in using the term incorrectly, as long as you think the dumbing down of society is no great harm.

Another inexact (actually, just plain wrong) use of our words comes in the form of “open source.” If I had a nickle for every time in the past couple of years that I saw a presentation where the presenter talked about all these great open source tools they were using, such as Evernote, and Google Docs, and PBworks, and Prezi!! No, no, no; a thousands time no. Do they feel the need to use the term “open source” because they think that makes them cool? A free web-based tool is not necessarily (in fact, not usually) an open source tool. Please learn what the term really means.

Maybe you’re saying that it matters not what we call something; it mainly matters what that something is and what we do with it. “A rose by any other name…”? Yes, I suppose that sounds pretty good – but it probably isn’t going to work for me. We’ve been told that Abe Lincoln was a man of sizable intellect. One of my favorite Lincolnisms provides good evidence of that intellect, I think. One of his stories is something that I have brought up in conversation dozens of times over the years. The tale (tail?) goes something like ‘How many legs does a dog have if you call his tail a leg?’ Many people jump to the answer of five. Lincoln’s comeback would be that there are only four legs, for calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg.

Calling a calf's tail a leg, does not make it a leg.

Just because you say your practices are best, doesn’t make them the best. Just because you say that you invested in your education doesn’t make it an actual investment. Just because you say I’m an idiot, doesn’t make … oh, never mind on that one.

And now about the Lincoln story. Saying that it was about a dog doesn’t make it about a dog.

This very cool article seems to set the record straight about Lincoln’s quote. And from that blog post you can find the original book from the 1800’s that includes this story on pages 241-242.

Sign photo (at top) By jack dorsey (CC-BY)

Original “Calf in Autumn” photo (CC-BY) By Glen Bowman