Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Communication Doesn’t Have to Mean Reinventing the Wheel

By Peter DeWitt — February 28, 2012 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Communication is one of the most important things we do everyday. It’s done formally through great teaching practices, emails and one on one conversations we have with parents and professional conversations with colleagues. Formal communication is a part of our careers, and it is something we learned how to do at a young age and we have an obligation to do the same thing for our students.

We, adults and children, have informal conversations about what we do in our private lives, which are just as important as the formal conversations we have in our careers. When having informal conversations we share our personal views, biases and the things we desire. We have partners and friends that we can say anything to and very often they are the ones who help us find ways to communicate more effectively. Our informal and formal communication can intersect that way.

In social situations or with those who are our superiors we decide not to enter conversations because we know they may lead to a bad place. This typically happens when politics is the topic. Adults with republican or democratic beliefs do not always want to communicate because it ends up in an argument of who is wrong and who is right. As we begin our days we face hundreds of conversations that can make or break us.

Communicating with Students
“The best part about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest part about being a teacher is that it matters everyday.” Todd Whitaker

Teachers are under a great deal of pressure when they enter the classroom because their conversations can make or break a student. Their words and body language when talking with students can help a student gain confidence in their own learning or cause them to withdraw and be disengaged with school.

Teachers and administrators need to make sure that they are communicating properly with their students. It sounds like common sense doesn’t it? I mean, if you choose to be in a profession with kids, you should have the desire to communicate with them. The truth is there are adults who love subjects, others who love kids and many who love both. Those who love subjects do not always want to take the time to have discussions with students.

The tone of voice, facial expression and the words expressed can be an indicator to a student whether a teacher really wants to be spending time talking with them or not. As young adults we knew which teachers did not like us. We can name them now. We need to remember how that made us feel because our words matter to students. Those words may be the only positive words a student hears depending on their home environment.

Conversations, Communication and Being Understood
Covey says, “Seek first to understand then to be understood.” Too often when engaging in a conversation each person wants to be heard more than they want to listen. Anyone who has spent time with kindergartners or first graders knows that at a young age children just want to talk about themselves. For example, teachers may ask students who the main character is in a book and the class is filled with hands raised to answer. Unfortunately that answer is that they got a new puppy over the weekend.

We need to teach students how to engage in conversations properly. Sure it’s hard given modern day technology, which is their way of communicating properly. It’s important to respect their means of communication while teaching them that other forms exist. Working and listening to others is an important part of what they will need in the workforce. After all, it’s a 21st century skill.

If adults talk down to students, those students feel disrespected and learn how to talk down to others. Children come to school every day with the goal to learn but part of that learning requires teachers and administrators to help students find their voice. Unfortunately, too often students are not taught to stand up and have a voice within the classroom.

Sometimes teaching students how to have a voice requires the teacher to realize that not all students may agree with them. There have been times that my elementary students questioned a rule that I made and ask their teachers if they can talk with me about it, which I welcome. Others times I have had students approach me with a petition, and I take time to meet with them. My only request is that they do it respectfully.

For full disclosure, I am not an expert at communication. Often I feel as though I communicate well only to find out I didn’t do a good job at all. Communication takes a great deal of effort and patience. It’s a never ending goal and is often a case of one step forward two steps back.

One complaint made by teachers about their administrators is that administrators don’t allow dissenting voices. This usually is the case at faculty meetings. Faculty meetings are a place where teachers need to sit and listen and not talk. Too often faculty meetings mirror what happens in classrooms. It’s important that teachers are allowed to speak up when they have a question.

When teachers are not allowed to speak up it builds resentment within a faculty which then can create a school climate that is not at all nurturing. Debate and confrontation can lead to a more healthy place whether it is in the faculty or the classroom.

Communication seems as though it has changed drastically over the years given technology, however, if you ever spent time in history classes or visiting museums you understand that communication has been around since humans have been. Having good communication doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel but it does take work on the part of everyone involved. We all know that communication is a two ways street, regardless of whether you are a teacher, parent, administrator or student.

  • Allow students to express their opinion. This will let students know that they are allowed to have an opinion
  • Teach students that they can express themselves through the spoken or written word.
  • Everyone needs to know that there are three sides to a story...his, hers and the truth. The truth is often a combination of both stories.
  • Keep open communication with parents. If an email correspondence takes on an angry tone, pick up the telephone. Sometimes teachers don’t like talking on the phone so they choose to send an email. Unfortunately, a bad email can take up more time than a quick phone call.
  • Teach students about the dark side of email and how it can be misunderstood. Students lack the experience and maturity to look at the other side of a conversation.
  • Principals need to have a forum that allows teachers to share their thoughts on building and district issues. They may be more likely to allow students the same courtesy.

Follow Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.