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The Great Conversation
No generation of educators in the history of the world has been asked to do what Americans now demand of their public schools. Our teachers and administrators must teach all children to high levels while, at the same time, they struggle to remedy the stunning array of social, psychological, and physical problems that retard the progress of so many of their students. Each year the burden grows, and each day millions of public school employees give everything they’ve got to meet the challenge.
Their record of achievement is remarkable. But no matter how hard they work, they cannot produce the results our nation needs. Not because they are lazy, stupid, arrogant, or unionized as so many politicians and pundits would have us believe. They cannot teach all children to high levels because they are working in a system designed to do something else: Select and sort children for an industrial society that no longer exists.
We must change this system. We must break the mental, emotional, and cultural grip of the status quo and create schools that unfold the full potential of every child. But we cannot. America’s educators and their allies cannot change the system and dramatically increase student success until we secure the four Prerequisites of Progress: community understanding, trust, permission, and support.
The Great Conversation is designed to secure the Prerequisites of Progress. It is a positive, ongoing discussion between educators and the public. The action steps are practical and powerful. They can be successfully executed in any district, not just those favored by history, geography, or economics. They produce an ongoing flow of positive communication that leads to the development of a community-wide culture committed to increasing student success.
The Great Conversation is easy to understand and undertake. No new money or personnel are required. The process is built to run on two separate but synergistic tracks. One formal. One informal. Each can run in isolation, but when pursued together, they quickly produce a wealth of benefits. In addition to community understanding, trust, permission to change, and support, districts can expect increased public participation at school events, better quality candidates for the school board, winning majorities of “Yes” votes during bond and levy elections, and, most importantly, a pronounced rise in the community’s store of social capital.
Participation in either track must be completely voluntary, but the broad participation of the staff—classified and certified—ensures maximum results. The rewards are substantial, and the process informs, inspires, and invigorates all who choose to participate.
(The full description of The Great Conversation’s action steps can be found in Schools Cannot Do It Alone on the page numbers referenced below.)
The Formal Track
The formal track is a deliberate, organized, group action. It is designed to engage educators and the public in an ongoing discussion that leads to increased student success. The centerpiece of the formal track is a scripted message that evolves over time in a series of distinct phases. This track is usually initiated and maintained at the district level, but it can be launched by an individual school or a cluster of neighboring schools.
The most important feature of the formal track is that it takes place on the community’s turf at the community’s convenience. This must be understood: We are going to them. This stands in sharp contrast to the traditional approach to public engagement, which too often revolves around inviting the public to attend meetings held in the evening at the school. The response to this approach is, almost always, an audience comprised of the same twelve parents and the one weirdo who comes to all the meetings. The challenges facing our schools today demand that we engage the entire community.
The structure of the formal track is simple. It has seven components.
1 Map the Community
(See pages 133-145.)
In order to identify the community’s turf and the community’s convenience, we must create a map. Mapping the community’s turf has little to do with defining physical boundaries. We are interested in mapping people. And we are generally more interested in groups than individuals. The mapping process is easiest and most enjoyable when done in a workshop format that includes the entire staff and a representative cross-section of community members. A functional “conversation map” of the community’s turf can be created in less than two hours.
2 Decide on the Message
(See pages 146-160.)
One of the primary objectives of The Great Conversation is the building and strengthening of cooperative school/community relationships based upon shared interests and mutual respect. To that end, an effective initial message features four basic themes:
- Promoting the district’s success in all its forms
- Explaining the reasons that schools and communities must work together to increase student success
- Making it clear that everyone in the community will benefit from this work, even those people who have no children in school, and
- Demonstrating our steadfast desire for feedback.
Presenting such a message will foster a constructive dialogue, turn critics into allies, and move the people of our community along the crucial continuum:
From Ignorance and Suspicion to Understanding and Trust
From Obstruction and Indifference to Permission and Support.
3 Develop a Script
(See pages 161-164.)
Scripts are powerful management tools. They provide presenters with structure. They inspire confidence, and help everyone stay on message. Using scripts ensures that every audience will be exposed to the same message at approximately the same time. They also provide a written record of the message as the process evolves.
There is no perfect script. They can be elaborate or lean, with or without visuals; more than talking points, less than essays. The most effective scripts have four features: they are flexible enough to accommodate meetings of varying lengths; they never assume that the audience has prior knowledge of the topic; they are scrupulously stripped of jargon; they encourage audience feedback.
Once a script is written, copies of the script must be distributed to everyone on the staff whether or not they have chosen to participate. Thorough distribution lets everyone know in advance what is being presented to their friends and neighbors in the community. It also encourages buy-in, and engages the collective wisdom of the staff.
4 Build Teams
(See pages 165-168.)
The formal track is a group action. Teams, therefore, not individual presenters, should carry the message to the community. Almost any group of two to four reasonable people can form an effective team, but teams composed primarily of willing teachers and interested members of the classified staff are ideal. Supportive community members are welcome, and students can be included in special circumstances, but administrators and board members should play little or no role as presenters. They can, and should, actively participate in development, implementation, and management of each phase, but, in the context of The Great Conversation, their appearance before the public should be limited.
5 Conduct a Communications Audit
(See pages 169-172.)
Create an inventory of all the ways that the district (or school) “talks” to the public, directly and indirectly. Think broadly. Most channels are obvious, e.g., websites, newsletters, e-mails, newspaper columns, public access cable. Others are not, e.g., the physical appearance of district grounds and facilities, student work displayed throughout the community, invitations to community members to shadow a teacher or an administrator for a day. All these options send powerful signals to the community.
Some districts are fortunate enough to employ an experienced public relations director who can help guide—not shoulder alone—the process. These districts have a huge advantage in pursuing the formal track. For those districts that lack an in-house communications professional, the experts at the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) are willing and able to provide effective counsel.
6 Create a Presentation Schedule
(See pages (173-175.)
We define the community’s turf when we create our map. We conform to the community’s convenience when we schedule our teams to make their presentations when and where the people of the community normally congregate. Engaging the community on their turf at their convenience may seem unwieldy. But the control we surrender is vastly outweighed by the control we gain over the behavior of the audience, the flow of our message, and the tone and quality of the feedback.
7 Launch Phase One
(See pages 176-178.)
Once the first six steps have been completed, all that remains is to launch Phase One and have the teams make their first presentations. From this point, we dive deep into the community’s cultural matrix. This is where we confront the disease of nostesia and archaic notions of “real school.” This is where we contrast public perceptions with professional reality. We help the people of the community see that their schools cannot meet the challenges of the knowledge age alone. We connect the dots between their quality of life and the quality of their schools. And as this message spreads to all the disparate groups throughout the community, people begin to act as partners in the most important enterprise of our time: moving our schools and our students from where they are to where they need to be.
The Informal Track
The people working in America’s public schools are often the largest and, potentially, most powerful force in the community. The informal track taps the power each of them has to influence his or her environment. It channels their ability to amplify and accelerate the movement of a positive message across the entire community.
Like the formal track, the core activity is talking. Unlike the formal track, which is built around the scripted presentations of teams, the informal track is conducted by individual staff members talking casually with the people who populate their social networks—family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. This track has no formal script, but the benefits accrue more quickly when these private conversations echo, at least in part, the message that is being presented in the formal track.
The action steps of the informal track are simple to understand and easy to execute. They were specifically designed to add nothing to the existing workload. In other words, participation causes no pain. To the contrary, it produces joy. By choosing to participate, even a little, everyone plays a powerful role in increasing support for their students and their schools.
1 Shift your attention from
the negative to the positive
(See page 184.)
There is a fundamental truth of the universe: What we focus our attention on grows stronger in our life. If we choose to focus on the negative things that occur in our classrooms, our schools, and our district, then we become more negative. Optimism fades. Irritability grows. Our relationships suffer. We have less energy. Our health declines. We become prime candidates for burnout.
Conversely, when we choose to put our attention on the hopeful, encouraging, positive developments that occur within our schools, we become more positive. Optimism grows. Our health improves. We feel better about ourselves as professionals and as human beings. We become more cheerful and productive, more awake, more actualized. We gain these benefits simply by making this subtle, internal shift. And when this behavior modification is practiced by the entire staff, positivity is enlivened throughout the district, and spills out into the community.
2 Stop bad-mouthing
one another in public
(See page 185.)
Teachers, paraprofessionals, support staff, administrators, and board members must stop bad-mouthing one another and their schools in public. This destructive behavior is pervasive, and it is the epitome of lose-lose behavior: it undermines the reputation of the speaker while simultaneously grinding down the public’s opinion of their local schools.
There is no doubt that many educators have reasons to complain. They struggle with an ever-increasing list of academic, social, and medical responsibilities. They resent being forced to raise America’s kids without adequate support, and they are bitter about the growing disrespect displayed by students, parents, and the public. There are times when the fury and frustration become too much to bear. But venting in public is a nasty habit that solves nothing. If silence and restraint become impossible to maintain, there is an acceptable release: Gripe to your spouse. That’s why we have them.
3 Share something positive
within our social networks
(See page 186.)
This is where we capitalize on the shift of attention.
Everyone has a personal network populated by family, friends, and neighbors. We interact with these people every day. Even a casual reference regarding some small breakthrough at school made during a routine conversation is enough to make a positive impression. The recounting of a hopeful moment with a student carries an uplifting message of hope. As the process unfolds, and more staff members choose to add their stories, hundreds, if not thousands, of positive impulses begin to move across a web of overlapping social networks like ripples on a pond. Soon, with almost no effort, the entire community is enlivened with good news about their schools, and everyone is energized in the process.
4 Monitoring our progress
(See page 188.)
This step requires five minutes, once a week. In a quiet moment, each individual asks, “How many times did I share something positive about my job, my class, or my school?” Write the answer down, and pledge to add to the total in the coming week. Next week, ask the question again, and record the answer with the intention to do better. That’s all it takes to gain a clearer picture of our progress and a new appreciation of the power each of us has to change our community.
Every district, rich or poor, regardless of location, already has the personnel, expertise, and resources it needs to execute all aspects of The Great Conversation and reap the rewards. The benefits that accrue are very much worth having. Obstacles that retard student achievement will be removed. Staff and public resistance to change will be replaced by an environment conducive to innovation and progress. The people of the community will begin to act as owners of their schools. Teachers and administrators will gradually find themselves accorded their proper status as the community’s most important professionals. In Great Conversation Communities, families, neighborhoods, and businesses will thrive and prosper.
As with so many other life-altering endeavors, the most important thing we can do is take the first step. We already have everything we need to participate. We have a tremendous story to tell and an army of educated people to tell it. Each of us is already immersed in our own vibrant social networks that can act as conduits for our message. By adding this simple but essential ingredient, and without breaking the budget, every district is perfectly positioned to set the stage to unfold the full potential of every child.
The Great Conversation is an essential building block of any strategy to increase student success. And the times demand that we do it now.