No retreat from good communication


Email Sandra Nichols

  "A frequent problem with communication is the illusion that it has been achieved. Many communication breakdowns occur due to one of the communicative partners being in an 'output-only' mode"

traveled through six states and hundreds of different school districts on my vacation this year. I went to the desert, the river, the canyons, the buttes, and the big reservation - the Navajo Nation. Schools were everywhere. Some were shut down for vacation. Some were in full swing. A particular district stimulated some thoughts on School Boards and the popular concept of the School Board Retreat.

In Holbrook, Arizona, famous for the ``WigWam Motel'' on old Route 66, I read in the Tribune-News an article about the local school board's 15 hour retreat. The reporter quotes the superintendent and his assistant at length, in a 2300 word report. That's a long article covering a long retreat! And no School Board Trustee is quoted at all. The question is what were those Trustees up to? Were they truly silent at their retreat? None made quotable remarks?

Your local School Board Trustees have had a couple of retreats this year, and believe me, they were far from quiet!

Now I've been thinking about how strange it is to call these events ``retreats'', so I looked the word up in the dictionary. A retreat is a ``safe, quiet, or secluded place; a hiding place.'' The dictionary goes on to say that retreats are sometimes associated with religious contemplation, which must not be the applicable definition due to separation of Church and State. Of course, one definition is ``going backwards, or giving up,'' which hopefully is also not applicable. Furthermore, retreats can mean ``an asylum or sanitarium for the mentally ill, for alcoholics, etc.'' I kid you not!

The concept of a retreat seems shrouded in secrecy and serenity. You might picture a waterfall, with ferns, a deer drinking from the pond and in the foreground, seven Trustees sitting cross-legged on the forest carpet retreating. Well, your mental picture would be rather far from reality.

In fact, school board retreats have absolutely nothing to do with secrecy or serenity. In fact the Brown Act prohibits secret meetings. (I guess serenity is permitted!) Of course, seven school board members do not gather and chat without the public being invited as an audience, so you can forget that. Also, forget about the waterfall and the deer. Our retreats are in Conference Room C at the District Offices.

This year there have been two retreats and one more is expected. These are participatory events. Your Trustees are not sitting there silently. By the way, the retreats have been renamed. The updated term is ``Effective Governance Workshop.'' This renaming is probably unrelated to above mentioned definitions.

Because I was intrigued about the situation in Holbrook, and why those Trustees were so apparently quiet, I looked for opportunities to learn more about their schools. As luck would have it, there at dinner I overheard education advocate chatter. I can recognize a table of teachers! So I stopped to chat with them about the article and the School Board. They were excited and eager for the new school year to begin. Although they hadn't had a chance to read the article, they had heard about some new programs and projects that were to be incorporated into their plans this year. And they weren't complaining. They were enthusiastic.

Every teacher is to make contact every week with at least one parent to share something good that his or her child had done. Presumably, the teacher would rotate through his class until all parents had received such a call at least once. This struck the group of teachers as a good idea. And I like their attitude of willingness to not only try something new, but to generate some positive energy around it. Communicating with parents in a positive way is bound to contribute to the group effort of raising educated young people.

Now I wonder, have you ever received such a phone call? Have you gotten a call from your child's teacher stimulated by pleasure and satisfaction with your child's behavior or performance in class? I would imagine that some of you have. Please let me know.

I admit to being especially enamored with communication as a two way street. I report this to you, having been involved recently with several communication breakdowns between our schools and our community. My rule of thumb as a teacher is that I am committed to respond immediately to all communiques from parents. Why? If they have taken the time to call me, they must have important information or concerns. I wish to know that information and I wish to respond to those concerns.

This commitment to communication relates to problem solving. Through communication we can learn about a problem before it grows into a catastrophe. Surely we want to prevent catastrophes!

Effective communication is a basic theme of School Board Retreats. The California School Board Association training materials state, ``A frequent problem with communication is the illusion that it has been achieved'' Yes, this seems a truism. I would say many communication breakdowns occur due to one of the communicative partners being in an output-only mode.

Let us hone our communication skills such that all messages receive a response. Let us dust off our active listening techniques which verify and clarify effective communication. Let us perform a check-up on our output and input modes to see whether these are in balance. Let us put better, real communication skills into our goals.

Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools in Santa Cruz, California and sits on the Governing Board of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. This essay was first published in the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, Aug. 18, 2001. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 2001