The Fix That Won’t: The Parable of the Cell Phone Store

This is the fourth in a four part series. I have a lot of thoughts about education. A lot. The system is broken and this junk ain’t fixing it. Part one here. Part two here. Part three here. There would be more parts, but writing this makes me want to quit, and I love my job.

Today I want to tell you a story, so get comfortable on the story rug, or maybe we will all go outside and sit under the trees. Story days are the best day in the English classroom.

There is a cell phone company responsible for serving all the customers in a city. So, the cell phone company hires you and hires me amongst other people, to open stores around the city. We do not get to choose where we are going to put our stores, after all these stores must service everyone in the city. We wait with bated breath as our placement arrived in the mail.

We open our envelopes and read our fates. I have been selected to work in a store in an affluent part of the city. There are street lights and sidewalks, ample parking. There is even a cupcake store down the street that I realize I better make a “Thursdays only” rule about or I will be in trouble. Before I can unlock the door for the first time all the neighboring shop owners come in to tell me they are excited I am there, how much I will like working in this neighborhood. When I tell people where my store is everyone is very impressed. They keep telling me they have heard good things about that shopping center.

In the same envelope, you are delivered a very different fate. You will be working in a rather notorious neighborhood. When you go and check out your store, it is in a shopping plaza with only a liquor store and a convenience store. All the other stores are abandoned. When you go to unlock your door the liquor store owner walks past you pretending you don’t exist. The convenience store owner comes over to welcome you and gently reminds you to keep your car locked at all times. When you tell people where you work their eyes get big. They ask you if you are scared. They tell you, you are brave just for showing up at your job.

Both of us open up our stores on the same day and have the same schedule. The cell phone company we work for had us lay out our stores the same way with the same stuff.  We serve about the same number of people. Everyone needs a cell phone, so they come.

I am selling a lot of our fanciest cell phones. I have very few customers who are late on their bills. I don’t have to spend a lot of time tracking the money down. Instead I spend that time thinking of cool new ways to serve my customers. Everyone is very impressed with my innovation. With no over-due bills and lots of the premiere cell phones being sold, the company is pleased and gives me a plaque that tells everyone how great my store is. This only makes more people want to come.

You are having a tougher year. You have been broken into twice. (This sounds terrible but the convenience store has been broken into four times, you are doing better than your neighbors.) You sell a lot of the basic cell phones. You spend most of your time tracking down people who are late on their bill. It isn’t really their fault. You get frustrated with your clients sometimes but they are doing the best they can. The mid-year report showed you were behind on the minimum level of bills paid, so you have started coming in before hours and staying after hours to make phone calls, and sometimes make the rounds in the neighborhood. You started offering incentives for paying bills on time. You bought these incentives with your own money.

At the end of the year, in a report that is published for public consumption, I am lauded as a really incredible cell phone store manager. I have a near perfect record on bill collecting and a very high percentage of my clients are using the most deluxe features on the fanciest phones.

You don’t fare so well. While the cell phone company will repeatedly tell you to your face that they applaud you efforts the only thing that is published is the bottom line, and your store doesn’t make the cut. Yours is a failing store. You are given your first strike. Two more and you are out.

The company gives us good news! We are getting money for store upgrades. You are grateful for the money and ask if you can use it on the incentives that have been working toward the common goal. They say no. This money is for store upgrades. You decide to use it to properly fix the things that were broken and install a security system. I use my money to install a free coffee bar. Some of your best clients want to know why they can’t have a coffee bar too. The company sees their point and lets your best customers, the ones who always pay their bills on time, become my customers.

The next year the company can’t understand why you are failing again. You have to become a succeeding cell phone store or you will be fired. Though you really like your job and believe in cell phone access to all customers, you start looking for a new job. It is unlikely things will change the next year and the extra hours you are putting in are taking a toll on your health, your marriage, your social life.


Meanwhile I will be staying at my job forever. I am good at it. The customers love me, the company loves me. People bring me Starbucks cards during the holidays to let me know they appreciate my service. I go to conferences and show everyone my innovative services. They love it. I write a book. I am the best cell phone store manager ever.

When you leave your job you find out that everyone thinks it is because you couldn’t handle your customers. This breaks your heart. You love your customers, you still run into them sometimes and you love those encounters. Your store is now being run by a 22-year-old fresh out of college, doing the best she can. She was placed there through a program that pays off her college loans for doing the same job you did and she is only planning on staying for two years.

The company continues to operate this way and every once in a while your old store has a passing year, but for the most part it is always the same. I, and my customers live happily ever after.


I think we can all agree this is a dumb way to run a company. It is also a dumb way to run schools, but it is currently how it works. Perhaps you think I am exaggerating. I have worked both cell phone stores. I’m not. No metaphor is perfect, and there is much I don’t know about economics. I am sure this story has its holes.

Everyone keeps talking about school reform in regards to effective business practices and the market. But schools aren’t supposed to work like businesses. Businesses just leave when a population gets too difficult to serve. This is why food deserts exist. I don’t have very many answers. I wish I had more. It took a year of teaching to start asking better questions.

What I do know is this, the current system is broken. It doesn’t make any sense. The collapse is coming and I hope not too many people are caught in the rubble. I also know these things could be changed, laws could be re-written. There is still hope. But it needs to be changed before more people get hurt.


11 thoughts on “The Fix That Won’t: The Parable of the Cell Phone Store

  1. YES. This is public education. I teach in a metro Atlanta public high school too. TKES is going to make all of this even worse for teachers and students alike as it is fully implemented. Preach, girl!

  2. I know. I spent all those years on the south side and a couple of years at Riverwood about 22 years ago. This was back when we still had M to M transfers and the white teachers who had been there a while would always talk about how much better the school had been before “they” came.

    And our Teacher Appreciation Week swag was awesome. Stay at home moms to do all the work and plenty of money to work with.

  3. I teach at the second cell phone store. Here’s the really bad part. Once my store closes shop (our state is currently dissolving districts that are in a deficit, even though that deficit is caused by their cuts in funding) no one at the first cell phone store will be willing to hire me. I’m automatically considered a bad teacher because my district got taken over by the state or was dissolved. Our governor’s solution…online education for all. Yeah, that will work 😦

  4. Pingback: What I’m Into (July 2013) | coffeesnob318

  5. Starbucks cards?? When I taught reading all those years out in the trailer, a mother sent me a big bag of Hershey’s kisses one time……
    And I appreciated it, too.

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