MARTHA CHENEY: School system: It's all about communication and respect

By Martha Cheney

Because Church Street Elementary is located in downtown Tupelo there are many opportunities for meaningful walking field trips. As a teacher I enjoyed these opportunities. The walks usually included two classes and two adults – one teacher at the front of the line and one at the end.
I quickly learned that being the teacher in the “leadership” position was much easier than being the teacher at the back of the line. The teacher at the front of the line did have many responsibilities – she must watch for crossings, know the route, set the pace, and understand where we were going. Being at the end of the line was, however, much more challenging. You saw all the students who were getting into people’s yards, pushing each other, stopping to tie shoe strings and dropping behind. You also quickly knew when the leader was taking the wrong path or didn’t notice a car backing from a driveway. The leader at the back of the line simply had a “messier” task.
I learned many valuable lessons from those experiences.
The major one was that teachers in the front of the line and teachers at the back of the line must communicate with each other if the students are to be safe and engaged in learning. Each teacher needed a whistle and the responsibility for blowing it when something was wrong. The teachers needed to trust and respond to each other. There are innumerable books on leadership that discuss the roles of communication and trust in creating synergistic organizations. None have been more meaningful to me than my experiences with fourth grade field trips.
Astonishing new ways of communicating have become available since my days as a teacher. We have lots of “whistles” and unless we establish authentic communication avenues within our schools the “whistles” will not be silent; they will simply be blown outside the organization.
Schools are unusual organizations with varied stakeholders and professionals at all levels. Leaders may be students, parents, community members, administrators and teachers. To allow leadership to emerge we must actively listen to each other and this must involve face-to-face communication. Body language, which is a major part of communication, is not reflected in an e-mail or telephone conversation. Talking “to” rather than “with” each other does not promote open dialogue. Scheduling time and creating a structure for communication is vital at this time for Tupelo Public Schools. Our schools need bottom-up communication that focuses on supporting effective engagement of students. Trust and respect are essential for this communication to be meaningful. No matter how many changes are made to discipline policies, if they must be enforced by frustrated, depressed teachers they will fail.
A closing thought given to the superintendent by Nat Stone at each administrative meeting I attended: “If you let us help you load the wagon, we will help you pull it.” This wagon belongs to us all and we must all load and pull it together.
Martha Cheney is a retired teacher, administrator and professional consultant who lives in the Tupelo area. Contact her at mcheney1@bellsouth.net.