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Let's Be Clear: The Power of Precise Language at Work

"Everyone's unhappy! Morale is terrible."

"All my kids are failing!"

"The AP's aren't doing anything about discipline!"

"No one understood the assignment!" 

Sound familiar?  These exasperated proclamations about how bad everything seems to be are commonly heard on campuses around the country this time of year.  Teachers are tired and worn out from a year of going hard in the classroom so it's tough to put things into perspective and to think clearly about people and situations.  It's a lot easier to horribilize.  I know; I've done it.

This was what was happening when I sat down with a group of teachers last week from one of the instructional leadership teams I guide.  This blend of new and veteran teachers were agitated and ready to confront their principal over a laundry list of leadership crimes.  The administrators, according to the group, were terrible communicators, were refusing to confront kids and parents over bad behavior, had terrible leadership skills, and had created a general malaise among the staff that he was about to get 100% of the blame for.  They were preparing a list of demands they were going to march in and hand him the next day.  In my gut, I knew this was a terrible idea that would not end in the success they'd hoped for. I also recognized the feelings and frustrations they were verbalizing. 

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Earlier this year, I attended a mentoring training and learned about the power of using precise language when working on school issues.  New teachers, in post-observation conferences with mentors, tend to exaggerate their performance and outcomes because the process of teaching is so cognitively immersive and demanding, it's hard to know exact numbers and outcomes from a day's lesson. Instead, they rely on their emotional memory to discuss how it went.  Most times, teachers will say things like "that went terribly!", or "no one understood what I was asking them to do."  Less frequently, new teachers will express great excitement and say things like "everyone was engaged!" or "that was amazing...everyone did so well."  Both situations are problematic, because without any facts or numbers to back it up, there's a really good chance both of those realities are false. 

The training encouraged us to walk those statements back with our newbies and ask them to define how many kids seemed not to get it or what specific part of the longer lesson felt "terrible" to them?  On the positive side, we ask which kids specifically seemed engaged and how did you know? Or, what specific student products are showing you how well your kids did?  Where did they do well?

When we get down into the nitty gritty of real names, faces, and numbers, a much clearer picture emerges.  That's the one you want to go to work with because that one is the truest.  It's so simple, this idea of using the proper terms to discuss an issue, that most of us blow right past it in an attempt to save the person in front of us who's struggling or to light our pitchforks and join the group ready to storm the castles of administration. By pausing to find more precise language to assess their situation and address their concerns, I wondered if we might uncover a different truth. 

First, I asked the team to make a list of every teacher at their school and to put them in morale order.  The happiest teachers went up top, the somewhat happy went in the middle, and those who were suffering from low morale went on the bottom.  There were 40 teachers in the list.  32 were in the happy to somewhat happy stacks.  8 were in the low morale corral. 

I gently probed, "earlier you said that everyone is unhappy and that morale is the lowest you've seen, yet these numbers don't seem to support that statement.  Should we change the list or rethink the statement?"  They agreed it was a small group whose unhappiness was toxifying the rest of the staff.  We talked about steps the team might take to encourage more unity and create opportunities to celebrate together with the teachers who were happy.  Additionally, we recognized the need to reach out to the teachers who were unhappy and to find ways to bring them back into the fold, if possible.

Next, I asked them to circle the teachers who were having ongoing challenges with administration over discipline issues that they had said were plaguing the school.  The team circled six names.  Six of 40 teachers were not receiving the support they felt they needed from their administrators.  34 teachers were not reporting any issues at all that were out of the ordinary.  And yet, this team was about to accuse their boss of not having a solid handle on discipline issues on their campus.  We talked instead about getting those six teachers some more support, more face time with the boss to discuss the issues calmly, and  more tools and resources for how to deal with the challenging kids in their classrooms. 

These two questions, simple enough to start with, were powerful. They helped the team see that they did not, in fact, have the kind of campus-wide crisis they felt they had. Instead, what I did see was relief on their faces...excitement almost...that the problem was entirely different, the work in front of them was manageable, and they had an important role in helping make small changes that would bring people together.

There are so many moving parts to teaching and to running a school well.  It is a complex endeavor like no other.  It's so easy to make sweeping generalizations based on emotion about kids, about our lessons, our colleagues, or our leaders.  Though they may feel oddly satisfying to say, these statements are not ultimately helpful.  Instead, what if we all tried­ using more precise language when we describe the challenges we face.  Better words alone won't solve our issues, but they will reveal the exact contours of the problems before us and give us real information upon which to tackle them.

Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National and California Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY).  A middle school English teacher typically, Rebecca is currently a teacher on special assignment working on teacher development for Burbank Unified School District.  She leads instructional leadership teams and an innovative teacher incubator where educators are empowered to teach with clarity, purpose, passion, and creativity.


Photo courtesy of KKate8 and Creative Commons.

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