Education Opinion

The Right Words Help Shape Your Message

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 19, 2015 2 min read
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Words are important. They convey thoughts, ideas, concerns, feelings, and attitudes. They can be inviting and encouraging and they can be diminishing and limiting. We hope our use of words is intentional. We do know that in creating board policy and in reviewing and revising handbooks and Codes of Conduct words get a lot of attention, even little ones like ‘can’ and ‘may’. But emails and memos are often shot off without the same consideration and revision, so thinking about what words are communicating is often limited. Although much communication in schools can be done face-to-face, efficiency, equal access to the accurate information, and timeliness often call for these communications to be memorialized in writing.

Generally, written communication within a district falls into 3 categories. The first is congratulatory, announcing that someone in the school community has achieved something or has done something noteworthy. These can offer a model of someone who embodies the values of the district. Whether a teacher who has received an award, or a team that has won an event, or a community member who has been honored in some way, all serve as a celebration of individual accomplishment and of the district’s values. The second is informational, communicating things that have happened or are going to happen. These serve to keep everyone informed of what they may need to know. On these, timeliness is particularly important. The third is instructional. Although word choice is paramount in all communication, this is one area in which the words chosen can either carry a message of encouragement and inclusion or one of separation and disempowerment.

Encouraging Behavior
Professional behavior is not guaranteed by simply telling folks what is and is not acceptable. Professional behavior is encouraged through modeling, noticing and celebrating the values of the school and district.

Attention to the language of the memos and review before sending them makes a difference in how they are received. Even another set of eyes for feedback on touchy issues can be of value. Thinking about how the language in the memo will make people feel is important. If the memo’s purpose is to remind people to dress professionally, for example, think about how many people truly need to be reminded of that and how those who do dress professionally will feel receiving that memo. Modeling, recognizing those who do the things that reflect the schools’ values, speaking to those who do not and limiting the number of “Do Not” memos can and will make a difference in response to the reminders and morale along with it. Doing so will also help reinforce the changes that teachers may already be using in their work within their classrooms with their students. Everyone responds to recognition and encouragement so pass these intangible rewards around and surprise some folks as you reveal that you know what is happening in your school and community. Also remember, everything written is saved by someone, probably in a file with your name on it. When it is reread, what will you have taught by your messages?

Are you focusing on feedback and coaching with regard to grading students and evaluating teachers? It is the same concept. Is the purpose to lay down the law? Or is the purpose to move people toward a goal? In what environment would you rather work?

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.