Are you part of the solution or part of the problem? That was the question I asked in my previous blog post, along with a call for those who wanted to be a part of the solution to step forward. After my open letter to the Westminster School District a few of my friends did indeed step forward to tell me they did want to be part of the solution. I also received a call from the district superintendent, Dr. Marian Kim Phelps. Dr. Phelps wanted me, and also everyone else who read my message, to know that she was on board. She wants to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and hopes the steps she has been taking are the right ones to do that. She also explained that she did not want to be a part of that revolving door that has become our district administration in recent years. Her hope is to lead the district for many years, and to retire from this district. I found her candor and desire to be a long-term fixture to be refreshing and promising. Unfortunately, it will take a lot more to turn things around than the efforts of a few of my friends and possibly even more than Dr. Phelps’ concerted effort. It took many years and many people to drive us into the state where we now find ourselves, and it will take time and many people to improve things.
So, what is the secret? How can we turn things around? In my opinion there is one important key, communication. It may sound trite and simplistic, but in my experience many problems can be solved, and potential problems can be alleviated through full, open, continuing 2-way communication. Here are 7 ways that we can all be a part of the solution, instead of the problem, through communication.
#1- Administrators, please explain Yourself– Public education has had a theory for many years. It goes something like this, “We are the experts; we have had years of training and education and we use research to back up our methods so we know how to do this; we know what we are doing, and we know best how to educate the masses; you don’t know anything about how to best educate children, so we won’t bother you with the details; and, if you try to get in our way we will put up all kinds of roadblocks to keep you out of our business.”
I come to public education from a little bit different avenue than the average teacher. Before I was a teacher in the public system, I was a parent. And, I was a parent who was involved in different sorts of ways. I worked as a volunteer. I was involved with PTA. And, I had children with special needs who did not fit the mold of what a student in a public school “should look like.” The journey to help those children, as well as my other parental experiences, gave me many opportunities to interface with administrators, and often see the way they communicate with parents and the community. Through all of these involvements, as well as subsequent involvements as a teacher and a grandparent, I came across this attitude in multiple ways, at multiple times, at all levels of education and in multiple school districts.
Administrators, if you think you can just go about your business of doing your job and not communicate how and why you are doing it you are sorely mistaken. The day is far past when the public will just trust that you know what you are doing. The day is gone when parents put their full trust in your expertise. The day is gone when teachers just follow along and believe that all of the latest (method, curriculum, program, etc.), is always the greatest. We have seen the pendulum swing too many times, and too far to believe that this will be the time when the true way to fully educate children comes out. We need good and strong administrators, but we also need administrators who will let us know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing it.
Here is a piece of information about human nature that many people forget. If you do not communicate with others, they will use their imagination to fill in the gaps. And guess what, people have great imaginations, so when they fill in the gaps they usually do it in an overly dramatic manner. And, people will often tell their exaggerated or contrived form of the truth to others, and eventually it becomes the accepted “truth.” The best way to stop a rumor is to communicate the real truth before rumors have a chance to start in an honest, open and transparent manner. Most news, usually even bad news, is best conveyed straight from the source.
Let me give you an example: Common Core Standards. They are all over the news today, and being touted as too hard, too easy, a way for the government to get information on us, etc. Do you remember when the last standards come into being in the state of California? Me neither. I mean, I remember hearing about them, standardizing what we teach kids and all. But, it was not all over the news, it just happened. No one voted on them, no one questioned them. Well, educational administrators made an error this time. They thought it was business as usual, and that they could just bring in new standards and the public would say, “Oh we have new standards.” Not so. Public schools have been under more and more scrutiny of late, so people from all walks of life and with all types of agendas started their own educational campaigns about the new standards. Instead of educators telling the public, and in some cases teachers, what the standards were, what they contained, and why they were important, people were educated by the media. Who knows how differently this may have gone if educators themselves would have shared their views first rather than letting the media dictate what Common Core Standards are and are not?
And one more piece of advice to administrators. Remember, I said real communication is two way so you need to listen also. While it really helps us to know what is going through your mind, and why you do what you do, if you don’t really listen to our input, you may miss some of the important things you need to know. Because, while all of those degrees you hold give you a lot of book learning, there is a whole lot of learning going on out there that is not taught in a university. As the old adage goes, we were all given 2 ears and only 1 mouth, so we should try listening twice as much as we speak.
#2- Teachers, don’t keep it to Yourself– Just as administrators need to communicate what they are doing and why, we teachers also need to explain what we are doing and why. Part of my job as a Resource Specialist requires me to meet with many parents, and often these parents are unhappy because their children are struggling educationally or behaviorally. It is not uncommon for me to go into a meeting with a parent who is very unhappy, even angry, and to come out with a parent who is satisfied. This does not always occur because sometimes people’s views are so far apart that they cannot be reconciled or, just face it, some people are just difficult to please. However, I have found that, more often than not, when I fully communicate, and I mean listen, not just speak, we can come to a consensus. You see, some of us have forgotten the goal. The goal of public education is to educate children. And, when I communicate that this is my desire to parents, and when I listen to their concerns, I can share my expertise in a way to help us come up with strategies to bring us all closer to the goal. In turn the parents, as the expert on their own child, often can give me insights I could not have gained without the parents’ input.
However, teachers are in a sticky situation. Not only must they communicate with parents, they are also the middle men and must communicate with administration. Teachers need to let administrators know what is going on in the trenches. They need to pass on their difficulties, as well as their successes. Of course all of this is easier when districts have administrators who have instilled a policy of open communication. However, teachers need to continue to share upwards, even if it seems futile, difficult or even scary. Sometimes it can feel as if sharing things can put your job at risk or make it more difficult. However, when we only share and complain with our colleagues and friends, we become part of the problem and not part of the solution.
#3- The School Board should be the Ultimate Listener- I would like to speak for a moment to our school board members, our elected officials who represent our community. Yes, that is what we elected you for, to represent us. The school board member should be the voice of the community. As much as the community would love to be involved in what makes our school system tick, face it, we just don’t have time. Life is busy, and we have a lot going on. What the community really wants is to elect people they trust to be a watchdog over the district, and then trust that you do a good job. Are you doing that? Are you really doing things based on the best interest of the community’s children? If you think you are, how do you know this?
I submit that if you don’t really listen then you don’t know. The temptation for school board members is to gravitate toward communication with administrators in the district. It is good for school boards and administrators to have good working relationships with each other, but I submit that if you spend the majority of your time interfacing with administration you don’t really know what is going on. If you don’t talk to teachers, parents and community members you have a very narrow view. If you don’t really listen, and make sure you fully understand, you are just a rubber stamp.
In addition, I think it is important to let the public know what you really believe, what your goals are and what you stand for. In preparation for the upcoming elections I did some research to find out what the candidates for the school board stood for, believed and wanted to work for. Information was greatly lacking, and some candidates had no information at all listed. How can the voters make an informed decision without information out there?
#4- Parents, know your Audience– Parents, here is some advice. Your local public school really does employ teachers and administrators who are highly trained and often very experienced. Before you throw out your opinion you may want to listen first. I know your kid is the best and brightest in your world, but schools have hundreds of students who look a lot like your kid and while it is true no two are exactly alike, there are some typical developmental stages that they all go through. There is not a lot that educators have not heard before, and they may even be able to share some insights with you. That being said, everyone needs to realize that all of that expertise can only go so far. It is not that uncommon for educators to be a bit off the mark, and many times they are just plain wrong. But, here is the thing, if you treat those educators with respect and really listen to their point of view they are not normally unreasonable. There are exceptions, and I have seen examples of that myself, but if you go in with an idea of facilitating open communication, more times than not the outcome can be positive.
The other important thing that parents must remember is that really, they wield all of the power. It is not uncommon in our society today for public schools and teachers to be depicted as the ones totally responsible for educating children. But really, this is not true at all. Parents are children’s first teachers. In addition, much goes on in the home and family that has so much effect on student learning. In addition, while school attendance is compulsory in our society for children, it is up to parents to choose the local public school or an alternate place to educate their child. Ultimately, parents not only have the most power in their child’s education, they also have the most responsibility. Be careful how you wield that power, and how you take on that responsibility.
#5- Share, and listen, Open Mindedly– Many of us love to share. We share our thoughts with our friends, we share out status with our Facebook friends, and we share our opinions with whoever will listen. One thing many of us are not as good at is listening. According to Stephan Covey, most of us spend most of conversational time preparing our answer, not really listening to our counterpart. What a different world this would be if we all learned, and actually practiced, communication as a 2 way process: listening with real intent, and sharing your views only after you fully understand. Covey calls this process, Seek first to understand, then to be understood. If educators at all levels, parents and the public really took the time to do this I think all would be better edified and many typical problems could be alleviated.
In recent years I tried an experiment and started to really listen to others point of view. Of course today’s social media makes that a little easier, as so many want to tell everyone exactly what they think. Often we want to gravitate to those who share our opinions, but I made an effort to really read and try to understand the opinion of those who did not agree with me. While I still enjoy hearing the opinions of those who agree with me, I have found the process of really studying the views of those who disagreed to be highly informative and interesting. I have come to feel more respect for the opinions of those with whom I disagree, and having a better understanding of where those points of view come from. At the same time, I have strengthened my own opinions and developed good arguments as to why I believe the way I do on many issues.
I submit that this process of really listening, studying and trying to understand could lead all of us to better understanding and more collaborative efforts at all levels.
#6- Understand Bias- When I talk about bias I don’t mean prejudice against certain groups of people, and I am not talking about the fact that you think your kid is the best kid in the world. I am talking about the bias that we all have due to certain life experiences we have had.
Let me give you an example. Because I have 2 children of my own with special needs and because I work with many students who struggle academically I have a real bias for the underdog, the underperforming and the under achieving. Put me in a group of kids and I tend to be unimpressed by the best and the brightest, I look for the poor little guy hanging out in the corner. I gravitate toward the awkward, the misunderstood and the struggling.
So what does this have to do with communication in a public school setting? We all have biases. We all have our own little piece of the world where we believe more is needed. We all have our own friends, family members and co-workers who we are more willing to give attention to. The problem is not bias, as much as not paying attention to bias. First, we need to know and understand our own bias. What motivates me to do the things I do? I am only willing to help those I am drawn to, or do I take steps to give equal attention to all? Second, we need to be aware of, and pay attention to other’s biases. People involved in public education at all levels should be watching for unchecked biases. Unchecked biases, I believe, are one of the biggest downfalls to all sorts of organizations, and especially to public education. We all need to be vigilant to keep the focus on educating all students, not personal biases based on a personal agenda, furthering someone’s career or someone’s pet project.
And here is one interesting thing about bias and communication; it colors not only our actions but our perception. When we listen, we listen with our biases fully intact and operating. That means when someone speaks, what they say is filtered through our understanding, our experiences, our own ideas on how the world is and should be. Do you take the time to really understand what others are saying? Sometimes that means extra questioning, and takes way longer than most conversations. However, if we don’t take the time to do this, especially when people don’t agree, when stakes are high, or when tempers are really charged, miscommunication will ensue.
#7- Be a good Citizen– Elections are coming up. Will you be voting? I know will be. But just voting isn’t enough. Do your homework. Read all you can about the candidates. Here is a website that lists information about the candidates running for the Westminster School Board. http://ballotpedia.org/Westminster_Elementary_School_District_elections_(2014)
While it can be hard to get valid and detailed information about candidates, especially local ones, voting based just on what you glean from ads and hearsay does not constitute really being a part of the solution. Do your homework, talk to people who know and have worked with the candidates, look for those with promising backgrounds and good values. Then, use your best judgment to make your best choice.
What I am recommending is not easy. It takes a lot of work to fully communicate with others, to really listen, to monitor the biases of yourself and others and to do your research and vote responsibly. However, those who sit by and do nothing are part of the problem. As the old adage goes, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Step up and be part of the solution.