Teaching Every Student—Even the ‘Bad Berries’

Why Running a School Like a Business Doesn’t Work

In the 80’s, Jamie Vollmer, a businessman and attorney, became famous when People magazine named his company’s blueberry ice cream the “Best Ice Cream in America.” He wasn’t just a successful businessman, he was also an education advocate.

Mr. Vollmer contended that schools were stuck in the past and needed to change. And he heaped much of the problem on teachers, who he claimed were resistant to the needed changes.

His solution? Look to the business world! They knew how to produce quality.

So certain was he that this was the answer to schools’ problems, Vollmer served as a representative for a group of like-minded business people and took his message on the road, speaking to large crowds of teachers.

It was after one of these speeches extolling the virtues of school-as-business that Vollmer had a revelation—and realized he was wrong!

Vollmer himself describes this particular speech as “equal parts ignorance and arrogance.” As he finished, a teacher in the outraged audience—a veteran teacher—raised her hand with a seemingly innocent series of questions.

She asked about his ice cream. Is it rich and smooth? Does it use premium ingredients?

Vollmer’s proud replies: “16% butterfat.” And of course, “super-premium ingredients, nothing but triple A.”

He didn’t realize he’d stepped into a trap until the teacher’s next question. She wanted to know what the protocol was for when Vollmer received an inferior shipment of blueberries. What did he do with this less-than-premium ingredient?

Vollmer was forced to admit that he sends them back. The teacher’s response to that deserves to be immortalized:

“That’s right! 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 a school!”

Wow. This teacher was a rock star! She spoke up for her profession—and she made Vollmer see the light.

I really love this story. More than 30 years later, teachers are still facing many of the same criticisms from those who think they know better. The education profession continues to take a beating—and provides few accolades for the talents and devotion of good teachers.

Teachers who are doing the best possible job, even with less-than-premium “ingredients.”

Me? I’m super-proud that in this country, we are committed to educating ALL children. We take them, no matter their background or challenges, and we TEACH them. And all the while, teachers are working to reinvent education to even better serve and meet the needs of every student.

Schools are not businesses selling packaged goods. Schools and their teachers INFLUENCE, IMPACT, and MODEL the knowledge and behaviors that our kids will need as they enter the real world and work to make it a better place.

And though it makes for a compelling analogy, students are not “bad blueberries.” Sure, some have their issues, their deficiencies, their troubled backgrounds. But that’s where you come in, where you can make a difference.

These kids walk into the classroom looking for hope and help, for a chance to thrive, to prove that they are not a “subpar ingredient.” In return, teachers need to show tenacity, perseverance, and just a little of the spunk the teacher who faced off with Vollmer did.

Because that? Is a recipe for success.

Question: Teachers receive a lot of well-meaning advice from non-educators about how schools can improve their performance. What’s the best you’ve ever heard? The worst?

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