Kill the Messenger

You have heard the phrase before. Someone brings you some bad news, and, as you begin to get upset, he says, “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger!” In my first teaching assignment years ago, our team leader said it often.  He went to all the meetings and came back with reports of all the new things we had to teach, new forms we had to fill out, new laws we had to be aware of, new programs we had to implement, and as we got agitated and began to complain, he always used the phrase on us.  It certainly seemed fair.  Why vent at him when it was the policy we hated?

Lately, I have come to think differently.  There are cases where we should kill the messenger.  (This is a metaphor—I am a non-violent person.)  I attended an SBAC webinar about their tests for Common Core Standards.  Most teachers are going to have to figure out what these new tests are about, and most teachers are going to be hesitant or resistant.  We can kid ourselves, but change is difficult and teachers are generally buried.  Class concerns, parent calls, after-school activities, grading, lesson plans, and meetings are all-consuming.  The district curriculum specialist has time to explore the Common Core, but the classroom teacher doesn’t.  So someone has to be the messenger to bring the Common Core to the teacher.  And that messenger had better be good.

Which brings me back to the webinar.  What was really needed there was a high-powered communicator with excellent oral communication skills.  First, the speaker had to make sure the presentation was designed for the audience: teachers at the end of the teaching day who are not really looking for something new to worry about.  I was stunned that the presenter seemed to have no idea what the audience was thinking.  The speaker should have well designed visual aids that engage the audience, but instead we saw slides like the one pictured below.  The speaker should have content that is understandable, but instead we were buried in jargon:  “Present overview of CCSS for C&I and WestEd partner.”  Before the speaker ever opened his mouth, the presentation was doomed.  It was poorly constructed.

SBAC slide

Of course, no matter what is constructed, it has to be delivered. In person, speakers command some attention; in a webinar, the absence of a physical speaker diminishes the attention level of the listener so the speaker has to be exceptional.  The speaker has to be lively, engaging, maybe humorous, animated, powerful—these are necessary to sell any new idea.  But the webinar speaker was none of those.  So the attendees now generally dislike the new tests without ever seeing them.  We should have killed the messenger.  He ruined the presentation and poisoned the Common Core.

The cost of ineffective oral communication is high.  I was recently at Curtis School in Los Angeles because they know that.  They realize that an effective school requires great verbal skills for all adults.  Teachers in class, in parent conferences, and at back to school nights; leaders presenting new initiatives to teachers and parents; support staff who are the first people parents see when they enter the school; staff members who present at workshops and conferences—education is a verbal business, but not all educators are comfortable or competent speakers.

We absolutely must teach students to become better oral communicators.  It is part of the Common Core Standards, and more importantly, a huge part of success in life.  But we must also teach adults to become better communicators.  We are the messengers. How many great ideas in your school died because they were presented poorly?  How many parents got upset because a teacher communicated poorly?  How many times have you looked around at a staff meeting and seen glazed eyes and clear disinterest?  If these have happened, kill the messenger.  Or better yet, get them some help.

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