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YOU Know What You Mean, but Do They?

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JP Associates, Inc
The School Improvement Specialists
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YOU Know What You Mean, but Do They?

So often you hear people speak about the importance of communication in change management and school improvement.  How it is important to share information, share your vision, share your strategies.  What is also important is the language we use to accomplish these actions. Communication is only communication if we "speak the same language." We know what we mean when we say something, but do the people we are talking to, also know?

What do we mean by "speak the same language?"  

In most cases--granted not always--we work with people that speak the same language as us.  We, therefore, assume everyone has the same definition for terms and words.   There are words we use every day and their meaning is so ingrained in our minds, we often don't even consider someone else might have a different definition or understanding.

Think about it this way, two people can travel down the same route and see different things.  It can be the same with words and terms. People see concepts through their own "lens" and yes, there can be overlap, but there can also be differences. These differences can cause a hiccup when you are trying to lead people.

Choice of words and establishing a common understanding of those words is especially important when leaders are trying to get across their vision to others. Leaders need to excite people, enthuse them, get them to follow them, but most importantly,  to motivate them.

How You Can Do It

I was visiting with a principal during one of our regular coaching visits.  She was speaking about one of the priorities she had established for her school and for her teachers that year.  They were working on student engagement.  She, we will call her Ms. Smith, was making it the focus of her classroom visits--both formal and informal.  It all sounded very good.   Ms. Smith, a conscientious leader, had identified a focus area, informed her staff and had a strategy for reinforcing her message.  She was ready to implement.

I had three questions for Ms. Smith:

  • Have you defined student engagement for yourself and for your staff?
  • Can you tell me what does engagement mean to you and what does it mean to your teachers?
  • Had she shared with her staff why student engagement was important and how it would benefit them as teachers?

She paused, and you could see her going through a mental checklist, and she responded, “No.”

It sounds simple, but many projects fall apart because of something simple—in this case, defining a term.  In the classroom, we call that a common language of instruction.

The principal and I began dissecting the term engagement. If someone walked into one of her classrooms and looked for student engagement:

  • What would  it look like?
  • What would teachers be doing?
  • What would students be doing?

It is important when getting a concept across to keep it as concrete as possible.  Sharing with your staff what something looks like and what behaviors people would be exhibiting make it easier to grasp.  It also makes it clear to let people know your expectations.

Next up was WHY student engagement was something teachers should be interested in.  What was in it for them and their students? Ms. Smith came up with two points:

  • Engaged students demonstrate increased performance
  • Engaged students are less likely to be a disruption

Don't be Afraid to Ask for Input

Now armed with her vision for student engagement, Ms. Smith met with her staff and led them through the same process that was modeled during the coaching session.

When we ask people to accept a new idea or to change, we ask them to trust us. Trust comes a little easier when the are part of the process determining the change. The trick here is to provide a strong scaffold for them to build on-providing a clear explanation of your vision-while at the same time being open to hear their ideas.  More importantly than just hearing, being flexible enough to use their input to arrive at a common understanding. Such a process not only helps create common understanding, but builds relationships as well.

Share your Expectations 

The next step was to plan how to relay the  information to her staff BEFORE the next round of classroom visits take place.  In this case, there was a school-wide meeting with the staff .  Ms. Smith and some teacher leaders presented what was agreed upon during the discussion process.   The message came from both Ms. Smith, the principal, AND from peers.  It sent the message that there was a united front--it wasn't a top down decision.

Also, it let everyone know expectations when it came to classroom visits and student engagement. Strong leaders know the goal is not to catch someone doing something wrong, but to reinforce things they are doing right or to help them do something better; thus we want people to know what we are looking for and what they are responsible for—we want them to buy in.   (Quick note:  approaching the classroom visits as a form of supportive supervision rather than something punitive, helps create a positive climate where people are willing to change and take risks.)


At the end of our discussion, we had

  • Defined what Ms.Smith meant by student engagement (clarified her vision)
  • Created a plan of how to work alongside her staff to develop a  working definition (secure input and buy-in)
  • Determined why it was important (What is the benefit)
  • Created a strategy on how to provide everyone with what it would look like and what was going to be looked for during her classroom visits (Supportive Supervision resulting in securing the desired outcome-student engagement)

Everyone was on the same page and set for success!

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