My graduate students and I were talking about communication misunderstandings the other day----ones between administrators and teachers; between teachers and students; between teachers and parents; even between partners in a marriage; you get the idea. We talked about how easy it is to get into a communication vortex, but how hard it is to get out of it. We concluded (as did my research on trust between teachers and school leaders in my dissertation) that it comes down to how strong the relationship is between the two people, whether it is something that can be solved or will fester even further. I thought I would start an advice column for communication issues. Here is a sampling of some questions and answers that might go in the first edition.
Dear Communication Concierge:
My husband and I have been married for over 20 years. I love everything about him, but there is one thing that drives me crazy. He leaves dishes out on the counter after eating a bowl of cereal at night or drinking a glass of milk. What should I do?
Love My Husband Except...
Dear "Love My Husband Except",
Run for the hills! You've married a crazy person! If you insist on staying with him, you will need to be strongly medicated the rest of your life.
Just kidding. That isn't how I would respond. Instead, I would respond with something like:
How, exactly, is this dish impacting your life? Is it growing legs and following you around the house? Is it screaming out to you? If the answer to the last two questions is "no", then forget about it! Your husband whom you love "everything about, but" will put the dish away when it is time to start the dishwasher. Until then, please remember that the "but" really negates how much you care about him. Is such a little thing worth nagging your husband about? Does it go against your marriage vows? Very likely not. Keep the marriage strong and let go of the little things.
Dear Communication Concierge:
I am a 3rd grade teacher in an elementary school. There are five other people on my grade level. We plan together every week, which is great, right? I think so, too, but the problem is I've been teaching the longest time, so they should be listening to the wisdom I possess and plan the way I plan. They keep coming up with other ideas, though, and it makes me mad. What should I say to them?
More Experienced than Most
Dear "More Experienced than Most",
Quit your job now! Ask for a transfer! There is nothing worse than not being listened to, and you should likely not only be grade level chair; you should probably be Commissioner of Education in your state.
Once again, just kidding. That response is the antithesis of what this teacher needs to hear. Instead, I would respond with something along the lines of:
What a treasure trove of information and experience it sounds like you have. What a blessing, too, to have five other people with whom you can share ideas. You see, they may not have the years of experience that you possess. On the other hand, they have the benefit of coming out of college with fresh ideas, and everyone can use a fresh idea or two! You might begin by going to your next grade level meeting with a fresh new idea of your own---something you have found on the myriad of teacher websites that are at the tips of our fingers. You might share your idea, then allow them the space to share theirs without rebuttal or rebuke. You will likely find your excitement in planning and execution of lessons will increase rapidly.
Dear Communication Concierge:
I am a principal at a high school. I've been here for 10 years, and things have changed dramatically in education over the last few years. No matter what, though, I always have been very good at giving my teachers advice on how they can improve their lessons. I observe them teach, then I give them feedback on what they should do differently in their teaching. This is all meant to help them, of course, but they don't seem to appreciate it. I'm frustrated with their lack of gratitude for all I tell them.
Why Don't They Just Listen to Me?
Dear Why Don't They Just Listen to Me?,
Are you insane? Hasn't anyone ever told you that you have two ears and one mouth for a reason?? How about using those two ears to listen to your teachers talk about their teaching instead of spouting off about what YOU think they should do?? Better yet, why don't you turn in those retirement papers your Superintendent likely keeps sending you?
For the last time, that may be what I want to say to them. Instead, maybe I can try this on for size:
Your years in education have very likely seen you through teachers who come and go through your building. What we know about communication between teachers and administrators is this: if we want to encourage teachers the room to grow in their practice, they must be allowed to think through their own thoughts about the patterns they are seeing in their teaching. The evidence of teaching practices you observe when watching them teach allows them to make some comparisons (i.e. How did these lesson outcomes compare to what you originally had planned?), notice some repeated patterns (i.e. What are your noticings about the transitions between activities?), and so much more. The main thing to remember is that the learner (in this case, the teacher) needs to be the one doing the thinking and bulk of the talking in order to construct meaning in the conversation and, therefore, come up with some new ideas or validate some previously held ideas about their own teaching. Talking at people seems to not be as effective as allowing them to draw some of their own conclusions when presented with data from an observation.
While not perfect, perhaps, these situations might allow us to see situations through a different lens. In lieu of a Magic 8 Ball answer such as "Cannot predict now", we are very likely to find that heeding the advice of Communication Concierge might just change the trajectory of many of our relationships with others and eliminate misunderstandings and verbal roadblocks.
I'd love to hear your own example of a misunderstanding you've had with another person and how you resolved it. Who knows? Maybe Communication Concierge can assist if you are still struggling.