Undercover Boss


Trees on Pelham Parkway that greet our new students and families.

One of my favorite TV shows is “Undercover Boss.”  In the show, the CEO or president of a large company is given a disguise and goes undercover as an entry-level employee in their own company for several days.  From that vantage point, the CEOs are able to see the inner-workings of their company from the ground-up: the good, the bad, the perplexing.

I often create what I call “undercover boss” moments in my work.  Of course, I don’t wear a disguise, but when opportunities appear where I can quickly do a task that I normally wouldn’t do, or briefly fill in for an employee, I take it.  I gain invaluable insights into my school and a deeper appreciation of the work my staff does on a daily basis.

I had an “undercover boss” month this summer.  My office has had an ongoing construction project making it off-limits.  I have relocated myself to our main office with my Parent Coordinator and school aides.  Every student, parent, and teacher who needs something comes into the office, so I get to experience each request, each classroom issue, each wandering student, each parent meeting.

However, nothing has impacted me more than sitting next to the main office printer and fax machine.  Why?  As a school for newcomer immigrants, we receive dozens of new student admissions over the summer.  Every time the Bronx Office of Enrollment assigns a new student to our school, an information sheet about the student automatically prints out of our main office printer.  Normally, this information sheet is received by my guidance counselor or secretary and is mentioned to me in passing: “Julie, we have a new 10th grader from Eduador.”

However, I am now the first person receiving the sheets.  Each time I hear the hum of the printer, I swivel my chair around and pick up the paper: a 9th grade girl from Dominican Republic; two 11th grade boys from Venezuela;  a 10th grade boy from Senegal; a 9th grade girl from Yemen who came here in 2012, then went back to Yemen, then returned to New York City this month; a 9th grade boy from a brief time in Kansas, originally by way of Ivory Coast.

Reading each student’s information sheet is a discovery: before this year, we had never had a student from Venezuela, and my mind flashed to the recent economic collapse in that country.  Is that why we now have Venezuelans?  Also, over the past two years we had a flood of students from Yemen, yet this year, there is only a trickle: does it have to do with recent immigration policies?

Of course, student information has always been available to me on lists and spreadsheets.  But there is something very immediate about seeing each paper print out, and taking the time to read about each child individually.  I gain insights: “Four new 11th graders in one week and we’ll get more.  We’ll need another English class for 11th graders who need basic English.”

I once worked with a principal who had a quiet, stately office, yet she preferred to sit in the bustling main office.  I wondered how she could get her work done, but over time, I saw that she managed to complete her work while observing everything that was going on in the office.   It was one of the ways she managed her school.

By sitting next to the printer and taking the time to read about each incoming student, I have a richer appreciation of how much school supports the immigrant community in the Bronx.  When the students and families come to register in our main office, I love greeting them, remembering their information sheet: “I know you!  You’re the new 10th grader from Senegal!”  I’ve enjoyed my summer in the main office.  More than ever, I understand how much my school is needed, and how it is not just a school, but a welcome center, and a home.

Photo credit: Julie Nariman

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