USAC Applicant Training 2016: The One In Which We Can All Do A Little Better
I wasn’t at my best this week when I attended the fall applicant training session in Philadelphia. Let me explain.
Sunday was a beautiful (if not absurdly windy) fall day in Oklahoma, and so we took some time to go on a leisurely bike ride across the city. You wouldn’t think it, but Oklahoma City is a great city to tour by bicycle. Anyhow, around 20ish miles into our ride, a lady in a sedan stopped for a stop sign at an intersection we were crossing. We had the right-of-way and no stop sign, but you could tell it was one of those “do I have time to shoot across the intersection before those bicycles get here” sort of decisions on behalf of the motorist. She decided to wait and let us cross safely, which I appreciated – enough so that I thought I would give her a friendly wave and thanks as I passed. That turned out to be a bad move, because the next thing I know I’m airborne. Best I can tell, my right shoulder absorbed 95% of the impact. I’m hurting, but I have a full range of motion so I assume nothing is broken and finish the ride home. Pretty sore evening, but at least I am comfortable when lying in bed.
Monday I wake up in excruciating pain, which prevents me from lifting my right hand much higher than my waist. Feeling a little panicked, I start feeling around my shoulder and collarbone and something feels a little… off. I call my doctor (who I won’t name but who is an absolute rockstar) and explain what happened, and that oh-by-the-way I need to be on a plane to Philly at noon. He gets me right in, does an exam and x-rays, and thankfully nothing is broken! It’s essentially a “you’re all good, but it’s gonna hurt for a while” diagnosis (he was a bit more eloquent than that.) Good deal, but that ate up the morning – now it’s 11:00 and I have to get to the airport. So I navigate OKC-ATL-PHL one-armed, frazzled, and generally looking a fright. Right before we touch down in Philadelphia, I realize that I haven’t eaten anything all day. It’s nearly 7.
Now I’m sitting at the desk in my hotel room, trying to voraciously inhale a room service salad like I hadn’t seen food in a week, but not being terribly successful because it turns out that salads are pretty hard to eat with your non-dominant hand. Just then, *OW* sharp pain and a funny taste… I’ve bitten my tongue. No, I’m pretty sure I have bitten through my tongue. I can’t tell exactly because I can’t get the bleeding to stop. I’ll spare the gory details, but for about half an hour I hover over the hotel room sink, half cradling my bum arm and half wondering how I’m going to find an oral surgeon in a strange city at 8:00pm on a Sunday.
Finally, manage I get things under some modicum of control, call home, and go to bed. I woke up, wide awake and unable to go back to sleep, at 2 am.
So if you saw me at the training and didn’t recognize me, or if you did and (God help me) you did, you have to understand that it wasn’t exactly a banner day. But hey, I’m made it, and there’s coffee, so let’s do this!
I think it’s fair to say that USAC hasn’t had the best year. I don’t need to belabor the frustrations applicants and service providers have had with the EPC portal, delays in funding commitment processing, and the complexity of some of the new rules and processes brought about by recent program modernization.
And USAC is in a tricky spot. When applications are individually reviewed based on the details of each specific case, there are naturally going to be some grey areas and some cases where the correct answer for one school won’t be the correct answer for another. And as the administrator, USAC has to carefully thread a needle by trying to be as helpful as possible without providing guidance that may be accurate for one party but misinterpreted and detrimental to another. This inevitably leads to some vague answers, some frustration, and some awkwardness. It’s just the nature of the thing.
But you know what? They’re owning it. What I saw among USAC presenters at the event was a genuine interest in improvement, tempered with a good deal of humility and recognition that the past funding year hasn’t gone as well as we had hoped. It was a pleasure hear Craig Davis (the new USAC Schools and Libraries Vice-President) speak, and it seemed clear to me that he is keenly interested in improvement. I didn’t introduce myself – being sleep-deprived and cranky, dressed like I only had five minutes to stuff some clothes in a bag in between the hospital and the airport, proof that left-handed shaving is the only thing harder to do than left-handed salad eating, talking like I had a three-pint breakfast due to a swollen tongue, and not being able to lift my arm to shake hands just didn’t seem like an optimal way to win friends and influence people. (You seem nice, but, uh, just stay… over there and try not to bleed on anyone, okay?)
But to Mr. Davis, I’d like to say thanks. For the training, for your willingness to admit missteps, and for your commitment to improvement. Someone needed to give you some encouragement, because…
So I said there was some frustration, and boy was it evident. The thing is, somewhere along the way the attendees apparently also stopped caring about being polite. I sent a sort of bewildered e-mail back to the office midway through the training session trying to decipher the negative vibe I was getting from the room. My colleagues said their trainings were similar. Here we’ve got USAC, who’s admitting they have had a rough go of it but are trying to get better, and yet a good 80% of the “questions” they are getting from the crowd are nothing more than thinly-veiled complaints at best, and downright bitter, nasty whining at worst. Squeaky wheels may indeed get some grease, but they’ll sure give you a migraine in the process.
Now, I did in fact meet some very nice people (who should frankly be considered for sainthood for initiating conversations with me in my… “state.”) There were some helpful suggestions, and I noticed that several attendees got some great guidance that will ultimately help them succeed; maybe even identifying some funding opportunities they didn’t know were possible before attending.
There are two truths about the E-rate: it is a government funding program and is therefore inherently bureaucratic; and, it is a technology infrastructure program. Neither of those things are exciting, folks. There are only a select few weirdos who really geek out on E-rate forms, processes, rules, regulations, and deadlines (and they all work at Funds For Learning), and infrastructure is really only ever front-page news when it fails. So we aren’t talking about a topic that’s ever going to be anyone’s source of soul enlightenment and personal fulfillment.
But you know what? It’s important. The technology initiatives in schools that do make the human interest section of the paper absolutely require the infrastructure that E-rate supports in order to be successful. And if that doesn’t do it for you, the reality is that every penny we bring in to our school districts has a direct and positive impact on the education of students and the workplaces of educators and administrators, which in turn affects families and entire communities. I know this because while I don’t have children of my own, two of my dearest friends – both educators – are considering moving out of state due to significant salary increases that are available just by being in the next state over. They don’t want to move. Their schools and students don’t want them to move. I don’t want them to move. But there are occasions when there are simply financial absolutes. Please don’t mistake this for a political statement, because it isn’t. But it drove home the point for me – flashy or not, we all have a moral obligation to shepherd every available dollar into our schools, because it affects more than what it may seem on the surface.
Up And To The Right
This reality and this imperative, however, doesn’t meant that we have to settle for inefficiency, mediocracy, and, perhaps most importantly, poor attitudes. We can all do better – it’s just a matter of evaluating your role.
I am going to try not to fall down between my table at the training session and the airplane. No promises. But I’m also making a personal commitment not to jump on the poor attitude bandwagon. Instead, I’m going to look for ways that I can help – whether that’s making positive suggestions to USAC or helping applicants and service providers navigate the process (no matter how optimal that process may or may not be.)
USAC can make good on their promise to improve the portal and the overall efficiency of the process. I’m seeing evidence of a genuine desire to do so, and can see early signs of their outreach and customer service efforts beginning to look up.
You can make your own commitment to positivity. I’m not saying you will never be frustrated by the program; in fact, it’s likely to happen at some point. But you do get to choose the level of civility with which you interact with your colleagues, business contacts, and USAC, which will hopefully be tempered by the noble imperative with which we’ve been charged.
This is probably the longest commentary I’ve written for FFL, so I’ll provide a convenient TL;DR for the time-challenged among us: I crashed my bike, bit my tongue, and scared some folks at USAC training. USAC is doing their best and deserves thanks and further support. We can all have better attitudes, work together to improve the program, and remember to be grateful for the opportunity.