Urging teachers to sharpen their communication skills

Urging teachers to sharpen their communication skills

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It’s time to raise the bar on communication skills for teachers. I realize there are sensational educators who inspire a cadre of young minds each year. There are also plenty of teachers who are weak communicators, whose work wouldn’t stand up to their own liberal use of the red pen and who have their own rules of grammar that defy any style book.

That seems especially problematic, particularly for language arts teachers who are, presumably, not only educating our sons and daughters about how to read and analyze text, but are also helping them develop their writing style and voice.

The do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do approach may, unwittingly, be preparing students for the unfair world where merit doesn’t count as much as other factors, like connections.

I’m not sure that’s really the lesson we want to teach or the subtext we want to share during these formative years.

I’d like to ask a favor of teachers: Please read your instructions before you give them to your students. You can shape the assignment the way you’d like: asking questions about identity, seeking to understand the perspective of the author, asking for an analysis of the tone of the piece. But please, please, please read over your directions before printing them out, sending them to students or sharing them with parents. It’s not OK for your writing to read like the assembly instructions for a child’s toy.

I know it will take a few more moments and I know that you’re not particularly well paid, but please remember your mission and the difficulty of a double standard. Children can sense hypocrisy quicker than a shark can smell blood in the water.

I realize these missives filled with misdirections may provide a lesson unto themselves. Students may learn that nobody is perfect. While that may be true, are the teachers — who provide confusing directions, who send out assignments rife with poor grammar and misspellings, or who casually make the kinds of mistakes for which they would take major deductions — comfortable enough with themselves and their position to provide students with the opportunity to correct them?

Ideally, learning isn’t just about hearing things, memorizing them, spitting them back out during a test and forgetting them within a week of an exam. As teachers say so often when they meet parents, they want their students to learn to think for themselves and to question the world around them.

If that’s the case, then let’s not pay lip service to those missions. Let’s add a corollary to that and suggest that how teachers communicate is as important as what they communicate.

Let’s also encourage students to ask teachers why their instructions include particular words or employ specific phrases. I recall, many years ago, the first time one of my more self-assured teachers silenced a room when he said, in his booming baritone, “I stand corrected.” The rest of us didn’t know whether to cheer for the boy who challenged him or to duck, worried that a temper tantrum with flying chalk — remember chalk? — might follow.

Maybe schools should hire an editor who can read the instructions to kids and emails to parents. Or, if the budget doesn’t allow a single extra employee, maybe they can engage in the same kind of peer review they utilize in their classrooms.

Ideally, students and teachers can seize the opportunity to learn and improve every year. Teachers create an assignment and then reuse it the next year. If the assignment is unclear, or the directions flawed, the teacher should do his or her homework and revise it.

All I ask is that teachers lead by example.

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