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Four Steps to Informally Promoting Your School

vollmer

In the informal track of what author Jamie Vollmer calls The Great Conversation in his book Schools Can’t Do It Alone, school officials are encouraged to consider how their day-to-day encounters might improve or diminish a school’s image. He breaks the process down into four steps:

Step 1. Shift your attention to the positive

Participation in the first step of the informal track requires us to do nothing. Well, almost nothing. We need to shift our attention from the negative to the positive.

This step is based on one of the few things that I have learned about the mystical workings of the universe: what we focus our attention on grows stronger in our life. If we constantly choose to focus on the negative things that occur in our classrooms, our schools, and our district, then we become more negative. Our psychology degrades. Optimism fades. Impatience and irritability grow. Our relationships suffer. We have less energy. Our health declines. By the end of the school year, we find ourselves questioning our purpose and doubting our value. Those who dwell on the negative are 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. We feel energized. We feel better about ourselves as professionals and as human beings. Our relationships improve. We become more cheerful and productive, more awake, more actualized. Our health improves.

Making this subtle, internal shift—a small exercise in behavior modification—delivers all this and adds nothing to the existing workload. I know the step is easy to trivialize in a society where immediate, concrete results are considered the true indicators of success. But, over time, the consequences of this step are real and quantifiable. If everyone on staff participates, the payoff is huge.

I would say that Ol' Bing was right when he sang, "You gotta accentuate the positive," but I've got a sinking feeling that many who read this will have no idea who Ol' Bing was.

Step Two. Stop bad-mouthing one another in public.

The second step of the informal track is not something we have to do, but something we have to stop doing. It is an act of omission. Teachers, paraprofessionals, support staff, administrators, and hoard members—everyone—must stop bad-mouthing one another and their schools in public. This is critical.

Bellyaching in public is not universal, but it is pervasive and highly destructive. It's the epitome of lose-lose behavior; it undermines the reputation of the speaker while simultaneously grinding down public opinion of local schools and public education as a whole. The teacher who stands in the grocery checkout line and criticizes her peers or the district spreads her negativity like a virus, and everyone within earshot is infected. She confirms their worst fears. She erodes their confidence in their schools. And although she does not intend it, she gives everyone who hears her negative rant permission to repeat it.

I'm not a bliss ninny. I know that many educators are shell-shocked and angry. They are appalled by their working conditions and bitter about the lack of respect they receive from students, parents, and the public. Millions resent being forced to raise America's kids, and they hate the hypercritical environment that surrounds them and the cynics who stoke the flames. They have reasons to complain. But venting in public is a nasty, destructive habit that hurts everyone and solves nothing. It must stop.

I'm not asking everyone to become saints or martyrs. There will be times when the fury and frustration become too much to bear. The pressure has to be released.

Fine. Go ahead. Gripe. But gripe to your spouse. That's why we have them. Steps One and Two are potent, revolutionizing moves in and of themselves, and they add nothing to the existing burden. If everyone in the district did just these two things, the relationship between our schools and our communities would improve and everyone would benefit. But we can capitalize on our shift in attention, and exponentially increase our benefits, by taking the next step.

Step Three. Share something positive within your ego networks.

Everyone has an ego network. It's a personal social network comprised of family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Each of us sits in the center of our network as the "focal node," and we connect to the others in our networks through a web of "links" or "ties" in relationships ranging from close familial bonds to casual acquaintances. The size of our networks may vary, the connections we share may be weak or strong, but in every case our networks have real value. They provide social support, emotional and material aid, and companionship. In a world drowning in hype, we look to one another for honest information to discern the truth and make sense of the world. Networkees are predis-posed to respect and trust one another.

This heightened level of mutual trust is a source of great power, and, from the perspective of the informal track, the most valuable feature of our networks. With just a little effort, we can harness this spirit of trust to expedite the movement of our message across our networks. And because each of our personal networks overlaps with hundreds of others, our individual efforts can accelerate the growth of understanding and trust throughout the entire community.

Even a casual reference to something positive—an allusion to some small breakthrough at school, the recounting of a hopeful moment with a student—added to our routine is enough to make an impression. The interpersonal dynamics are exactly the same as those set in motion by the bad-mouthing teacher in the checkout line, but the content of our remarks produces exactly the opposite effect: each positive impulse sets in motion a tiny wave of appreciation and goodwill. In isolation, these informal gestures may seem inconsequential, but as more and more of the people on staff share their positive experiences, thousands upon thousands of these coherent waves slide across hundreds of overlapping networks like ripples on a pond. As the waves interfere, they amplify. Soon, our positive comments and stories begin to permeate the public's awareness. The entire community is enlivened with good news about their schools, and everyone is energized in the process.

Step Three requires nothing more than sharing our personal stories, but we can do more. If we are so inclined, we can lace our informal discussions with references to the scripted message that is simultaneously being broadcast in the formal track. (See Crafting the Message.) There is no need to memorize the scripts or parrot the party line, but every teacher knows that repetition is fundamental to effective learning. With that in mind, we can accelerate the growth of understanding if we become familiar with the main points of the formal message and share them with our friends.

In the same vein, we should feel free to provide the people in our networks with examples of student work, including recent tests. (If a picture is worth a thousand words, an algebra exam is worth a million.) Assuming proper administrative approval, teachers might also consider exercising the "nuclear option," and ask friends and neighbors to become a teacher's aide for a day. It is true that this experience may forever scar the relationship, but nothing is more enlightening.

By choosing to take Step Three and share the message, each of us can leverage the power inherent in our networks. We can push hack against the misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies that plague our schools. We can inoculate our friends against the viral negativity. On our turf, at our convenience, adding nothing to the existing workload, we can increase public support for our schools.

Step Four. Monitoring your progress.

Five minutes a week. That's all that is required to complete Step Four. In a quiet moment, perhaps in the relative calm of Sunday night before the race starts again, we need only ask ourselves, "How many times this week did I share something positive about my job, my class, or my school?" If you don't know the answer, guess. Precision is not required. Maybe the first time, the answer is six. Fine. Write it down or make a mental note, and pledge to do a little more in the coming week. Come next Sunday, ask the question again and record the answer with the intention to do better. That's all it takes to get a sense of where we have been with our message, and where we can go.

There is an "enhancement" to this step that, while not required, makes it easier to track our progress: we can create maps of our network. The process is similar to the mapping exercise performed in the formal track, but we map our turf instead of the community's. (There is a meticulous process called Social Network Analysis that yields elaborate webs of interlocking nodes and ties. but this isn't it.) Start by listing all the people with whom you interact in both your real and virtual worlds, then place each individual in one of three concentric circles. Close family and dear friends usually populate the center. Extended family and more casual friends, coworkers, and acquaintances occupy the second ring. Everyone else is in the third.

There is no need to labor over these lists. I have watched thousands of people in hundreds of workshops create their maps in less than thirty minutes, and just about everyone finds the experience to be rewarding, which is not a surprise. Few of us have taken the time to consider the breadth and depth of our social connections. The scope of our territory of influence can be an affirming revelation.

Once we have our network maps, using them is easy. In that moment of quiet reflection, we simply review our lists and place a check mark next to everyone with whom we shared some good news.

There are some people who take the monitoring step a bit further. They assign weights to each interaction based on the length and depth of the discussion. Of course, I'm pretty sure that the only people who go to this length were raised by mothers like mine. I doubt Mom was aware of B.F. Skinner and his experiments in operant conditioning, but she sure understood the power of extrinsic rewards. To this day I salivate when I see a star or a sticker made of shiny gold foil.

Monitoring with this level of precision is laudable, but not required. As stated above, taking five minutes to ask the basic question is sufficient. Our goals in Step Four are to gain a clearer picture of our progress and a new appreciation of the power each of us has to change our community. How aggressively we pursue these goals is a personal choice.

The steps of the informal track outlined above are not exclusive. I'm sure many who read this will discover creative ways to improve the process. What's most important is that everyone finds a way to contribute. To do nothing while the Terrible Twenty Trends extinguish public trust is tragic. To go to school each day and grapple with the challenges heaped upon our schools and not push back even in some small way as Huns storm the gate is dangerous. It may reflect humility for educators to understate their victories, to keep to themselves the details of a week in which so much good was accomplished, but, in this environment, it is irrational.

Be advised that there may be those within our networks who resist our efforts. Certain family members will rush to argue. Some of our friends may spout maddening, mindless, mean- spirited rhetoric. That's okay. The informal track, like The Great Conversation as a whole, is not a test of wills. We're not trying to convince everyone that we are right and they are wrong. Our ultimate goal is to increase our community's support for student success. To that end, we are successful if all we do is take Step One and shift our attention from the negative to the positive. We are successful if all we do is stop bad-mouthing our coworkers, our students, and our schools in public. We are successful if we increase—even slightly—the amount of positive information flowing through our personal networks. We make a tremendous contribution to the welfare of our students and our community each time we stand up, tell our stories, and share some of what's right about our schools.

A final word about the informal track. I purposely developed the four steps to enliven, strengthen, and energize all who participate and counter the forces that cause frustration, burnout, and despair. In that vein, I have a final word of advice for everyone who chooses to play a role. Relax.

Educators, especially teachers, have a tendency to try to do too much. Resist that inclination! If, at any point, taking any of the four steps becomes a strain, it's time to ease up. No one need struggle. It is true the stakes are high. We are trying to change America. To a considerable degree the future of public education depends on our success. It's a huge task, but no one should feel as though he or she must do it all. The people who work in America's public schools comprise one of the most powerful forces in the country, and in most places they are the largest employee group in the community. We will achieve our goals and everyone will benefit when we all comfortably do our part.

Reprinted with permission of the author from Schools Cannot Do It Alone by Jamie Vollmer. For more information, visit www.jamievollmer.com.

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