Teacher: “That’s not what I wanted!”
Student: “But it’s what you asked for – see?! Right here!”
Teacher: “Oh. But what I meant was…”
As we support educators around the country, we hear them share variations of this conversation they have had with students. As we reflect with those teachers, they often recognize a need for clearer language in their verbal and written directions, adding additional dimensions to a rubric, providing additional examples/non-examples, or some combination of the above. In each case, the teacher’s expectations are made clearer to students as they refine their products and processes for giving directions. They learn the hard way that students will give them exactly what they ask for – and so, they look to clarify the ask and raise the level of student work.
In reflecting with educators, similar challenges are faced in the relationship between instructional leaders and teaching staff. Oftentimes, ambiguity in directives or initiatives can go unchallenged when introduced during a faculty meeting, leading to the dreaded “parking lot meeting” that further feeds confusion. Leaders can take steps - just as teachers do - to ensure their message is clear and succinct the first time it is broadcast.
Consider to what degree you follow these four pieces of advice from teachers and leaders across the country:
Whenever you make a new and substantial request of teachers, it’s helpful to put the request in writing. Firstly, this step requires you to “think first” about what it is that you’re trying to communicate, allowing you to craft a just-right message. This written “think first” can later serve as a draft of talking points you use when introducing and discussing with your teachers. Secondly, when teachers are able to review a clearly written statement such as “Please contact the families of each student in your homeroom during this week,” there is much less room for confusion and/or misinterpretation.
Building leaders often hold advanced degrees in education and are well-steeped in research and professional literature. This provides them great insight, direction, and motivation in helping them chart a course forward for their building. However, in their excitement to share what they know, they often adopt some of the more jargon-y language used within the journal articles and periodicals they consult. We instead encourage you to make your language straight-forward, helping the conversation be clear and accessible to all. Not everyone has read the same articles and unless you plan to facilitate an in-depth text-based discussion, you should determine how best to distill the research and rationale into its most fundamental form. . Rather than focusing on terminology, this approach can help you lead a deeper discussion with faculty about the initiative/strategy itself — and help create common language and understanding.
New and substantial requests deserve a space “above the fold” in any meeting agenda or have a space all of their own. This allows space for conversation and questions to help ensure that everyone walks away with a clear and common understanding. When requests are saved for the waning minutes of a meeting, it’s much like shouting out a homework assignment as the bell rings; some might hear it and attempt it, but anyone who might have a clarifying question is just plain out of luck.
New initiatives, strategies, or programs require more than one conversation and professional learning session. Plan up front what follow-up supports will be provided to your teachers, such as additional professional learning sessions, discussions in team meetings, and coaching. This helps lay out a roadmap that not only gives teachers a heads-up of what to expect, but a clear message that this request comes with necessary supports to be successful. Plan a dialogue with faculty to discuss how progress with be monitored and shared along the way, so adjustments can be made as needed. Lastly, be clear about the team effort – about how you will be part of the supports as well as how peers will support each other during the learning, implementation, and evaluation process.
In some of the most important ways, leading a classroom and leading a school building are very much alike. In both cases, it’s incumbent upon those who steer those communities to do everything they can to ensure their messages are correctly interpreted by their audience.