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“What We’re Trying to Say Here...” Media Training Tips for Teachers

By Roxanna Elden — January 12, 2011 5 min read
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Note: Roxanna Elden, author of See Me After Class, is guest posting this week. Roxanna is a National Board Certified high school teacher and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

When my book came out last year, I started reading up on media training (had to get ready for all those TV interviews, right?). I soon realized that speaking in front of a class doesn’t prepare you for speaking in front of a TV camera. This doesn’t matter until teachers are invited to participate in “community forums” or “listening tours” on the subject of education, which tend to be televised--often to our disadvantage. Of course, teachers are quick to note that some panelists at education “community forums” wouldn’t last a day in front of our students. They do know how to speak in front of cameras, though, and we would do well to take some notes. Sometimes good teaching translates to bad TV.

Here are 5 basic media-training principles for teachers, plus an example of how classroom communication styles can work against us in the spotlight.

Principle #1: Be “on” as soon as you enter the room.
Teachers encourage students to bring their own experiences to classroom discussions. At a panel discussion on “how to turn around failing schools,” we assume we will be asked about our experiences in these schools. Unfortunately, expecting a genuine dialogue--or even a fair debate--at a televised event is often a mistake. Teachers are often invited to “participate” in pre-biased forums that start with a celebration of the opposing point of view, such as a speech on “failing schools” by a charter school principal whose school actually kicks out failing students and sends them back to our schools. If the opening of the meeting sets off alarms for you, don’t ignore it. Avoid nodding along or participating in professional development style role-playing activities. Going with the flow when asked to “think-pair-share with your neighbors” like elementary students helps the other set the stage for the discussion: Teachers are not here to “be heard,” as the flyer for the event suggested. We are here to be taught.

Principle #2: Know your three main points in advance.
As educators, we want people to get it. We want panelists and the public to understand what we do every day. Thus the impulse to make speeches about how proud we are of our profession, how much we care about our students, how hard we work every day... or maybe this two-page poem we printed from our email says it best: here, let us read it into the microphone. Teachers, please. We’re better than this. Not only that, but we have some valid, important points to make about how school reforms affect life in the classroom. Next time, rather than showing up at a public forum unprepared and ready to get angry, gather a few colleagues for a brainstorming session. Make a list of the concrete points to make at the meeting. Then edit and refine the list to three main statements that appeal to undecided people who will attend or learn about the meeting.

Principle #3: Find your “quotable quote.”
Teachers prepare students for academic discussions, but television’s short attention span for each issue doesn’t give us time to build logical points based on evidence. Politicians, on the other hand, know they have to boil down points to manageable sound bites that are easy to quote and hard to take out of context. (And hard to argue against without sounding like a jerk.) They will often lead with statements like, “Teachers are the most important factors in our children’s education,” then pause for applause. Meanwhile, we’re waiting for the conversation to turn toward issues like over-emphasis on questionable test scores. What we don’t realize is a savvy politician is unlikely to say the word “test” at any point during an event full of teachers. He or she is more likely to employ a series of practiced sound bites about how “children, especially in this vibrant community that I am so happy to be visiting today, deserve only the best education,” followed by some generic comment about the importance of identifying outstanding educators. If teachers want our points to get equal airtime, we need to take our own main points and condense them into equally media-friendly phrases. Come up with three different succinct ways to express each of the three main points on your list. Also remember your audience is not the people you see every day who already agree with you, but fair-minded people who may not know basic facts that insiders take for granted.

Principle #4: Stay on message.
When students ask questions in class, teachers give the most direct answer we can. We’d never get away with repeating slight variations on the same three points for forty minutes. Not so with the folks talking for the cameras. This explains why during the “question and comment section,” politicians are more likely to repeat their earlier statements in a soothing voice than actually address our comments and questions. It is also explains the tendency of charter school principals to begin nearly every statement with, “At (insert name of charter school), we are committed to (restatement of charter school mission statement).” This guarantees that reporters looking for a quote from the meeting will have to quote a talking point. Rather than be frustrated by the disingenuous show, teachers would do well to concentrate on our own message, and give the media a chance to quote our side of the story.

Principle #5: Avoid restating the opposing viewpoint.
Teachers tell students to address the opposing viewpoints in essays and debates. On TV, however, a restatement of the other side’s position can be taken out of context or used to make you sound defensive. We won’t hear the charter school principal preface his response by saying, “It’s true that we don’t accept the lowest ten percent of students, but...” although he would gain more of our respect if he did. Teachers, on the other hand, are more likely to acknowledge the complexity of the issue by leading with, “It’s not that we’re against accountability, but... (the proposed measures discourage teachers from taking on the neediest students).” Maybe we’re trying to lead by example--after all, good teachers know we have to model the behavior we’d like to see in class--but when the sequel to Waiting for Superman comes out, guess what part of our nuanced response they’re most likely to use.

--Roxanna Elden

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.